March 19, 2021

A watershed moment


Perhaps the winds are beginning to shift. Or, perhaps it’s just the ongoing pandemic restrictions that have begun to affect Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is often described as intent on projecting a calm, controlled yet commanding demeanor. But clearly something has riled the normally staid former KGB intelligence officer.

Most recently, Mr. Putin and Moscow seemed truly shocked when, asked by George Stephanopoulos of ABC News on March 16 whether he believed the Russian president was a killer, President Joe Biden said “Uh-huh. I do,” adding that he once told Mr. Putin “I don’t think you have a soul.”

Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov called Mr. Biden’s comment “unprecedented” in the history of U.S.-Russia relations. “These statements from the president of the United States are very bad,” Mr. Peskov said. Only hours after Mr. Biden’s comment, Russia summoned its ambassador to the United States to return to Moscow, and the deputy chairman of the Russian parliament’s upper house had also reacted with a statement posted on Facebook on March 18.

“This is a watershed moment,” said Konstantin Kosachyov, the deputy chairman of Russia’s Federation Council. “This gross statement sends any expectations from the U.S. administration’s new policy toward Russia down the drain.”

Mr. Biden’s comment wasn’t the only development that likely has angered the Kremlin recently. The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a report on March 15 saying that Mr. Putin had authorized, and a range of Russian government organizations conducted, influence operations aimed at, among other things, “undermining public confidence in the [U.S.] electoral process, and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the United States.” The Kremlin called the report’s findings “absolutely unfounded.”

Mr. Putin is most certainly also aware of the G-7 statement issued on March 18 in which the foreign affairs ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States of America and the High Representative of the European Union, stated that they “are united in our condemnation of Russia’s continued actions to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.” The statement “unequivocally” denounced “Russia’s temporary occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol.” The statement concluded by saying “Crimea is Ukraine.”

That same day, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a statement saying that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline “is a Russian geopolitical project intended to divide Europe and weaken European energy security.” Mr. Blinken added that the state department “reiterates its warning that any entity involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline risks U.S. sanctions and should immediately abandon work on the pipeline.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate reintroduced the Ukraine Security Partnership Act, “a long-term security assistance package that demonstrates our bipartisan commitment to a secure Ukraine,” said Sen. Bob Menendez. Among other provisions, the act authorizes up to $300 million per year of foreign military financing to Ukraine, including for lethal military assistance.

Taken together, all of these developments and others not mentioned here are unlikely to do more than unnerve Mr. Putin. But they may just be an initial sign that the political winds have begun to shift in Ukraine’s favor.