As Ukraine prepares to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its renewed independence on August 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is making no secret of its open hostility toward and frustration with Ukraine. And at the same time, recent collusion between Berlin and Washington have added to Kyiv’s sense of discomfort and unease.
The question at the back of many minds is what response will come from Russia’s strongman, Mr. Putin. The bets range from new, outright military actions against Ukraine in the weeks to come, to more camouflaged, but no less sinister, forms of hybrid warfare.
Ukraine has held firm, both on the eastern front and on the diplomatic one. It has not given way in either sphere, and this inevitably exasperates the Kremlin. Under President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, despite what some expected and others were misled to believe, Ukraine has given no indication that it will capitulate, that is to say that it will not accept peace on Moscow’s terms.
In recent weeks Mr. Zelenskyy has not refrained from voicing bluntly Kyiv’s concerns and clarifying its goals to his U.S. and European partners, most notably Washington, and especially Berlin.
On the other hand, the signals from Ukraine’s Western supporters have been somewhat mixed. Many of the eastern and central European states have emphasized their solidarity with Ukraine, as, in different ways, have Britain, Ireland and Sweden.
In mid-July, some 5,000 soldiers, 30 ships and 40 aircraft from 32 countries took part in Sea Breeze 2021, a nearly two-week multinational naval exercise in the Black Sea. The Bulgarian-led maritime exercise involved forces from NATO allies and partners.
Yet in recent weeks Kyiv has been reminded that NATO members are still not united on accepting it as a member, and there is no definite timeframe for Ukraine’s integration into both NATO and the European Union.
More worrying was that on July 21 Germany and the U.S. concluded a deal without Ukraine, giving the green light to the completion and exploitation of the controversial Russo-German gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2. The latest indications, as reported by Bloomberg, are that Berlin has essentially duped Washington into accepting at face value its pledges not to allow Moscow to use Nord Stream 2 as a weapon against Ukraine.
Yes, Mr. Zelenskyy has been invited by U.S. President Joe Biden to Washington on August 30, and perhaps some of the damage can be undone. But this will depend on the strategy that Mr. Biden and his team will adopt in light of the new China factor and pressing domestic priorities.
In the meantime, preparations for independence celebrations are well advanced, which only irks the Kremlin. Numerous foreign states are sending their representatives to Kyiv for the festivities, though perhaps somewhat disappointingly not all will send their highest-level officials.
On the eve of the celebrations, Kyiv will host the Crimean Platform, an initiative designed to focus attention on the illegality of Russia’s occupation of Crimea, and on what strategies should be developed to return the peninsula to Ukraine.
Amid all of the news, Ukraine has demonstrated resilience, strength and pride, which is not what Mr. Putin wants the world and his own public to see. Only last month, he published a typically chauvinistic and scurrilous prescriptive article prepared for him by his ideological scribes. In it, he denied that Ukrainians make up a nation distinct from Russia, with their own right to self-determination and independence. He blamed Ukraine’s existence and the self-identification of Ukrainians as such on Western “anti-Russian” scheming.
Few have noticed that Mr. Putin has regressed to tsarist imperial precepts. He has in effect discarded the “internationalist” camouflage used for most of the Soviet era to justify Russian domination over the non-Russian peoples of the Soviet empire and much of Eastern Europe.
Mr. Putin’s hero is in fact not even Stalin, but the White Army (anti-Bolshevik) commander loyal to the old Russian tsarist imperial order – Anton Denikin, who in 1918-1920 fought under the slogan of “Russia, one and indivisible.” He was as much an anti-Ukrainian as he was an anti-Semite.
Today, Russia’s would-be latter-day Denikin is telling Ukraine once again that for Russian imperialists it has no right to exist other than as a quaint region of Russia, docile and subordinate – culturally, economically and politically.
Of course, at this stage, three decades on, Mr. Putin realizes that Ukraine is lost for Russia, though he seemingly lacks the guts to acknowledge that his crude aggression against it only finalized the process.
His main aim is to block Ukraine’s integration into Euro-Atlantic structures and exploit its internal vulnerabilities in order to keep it suspended between East and West. The pathetic “historical opus” was therefore probably aimed at a gullible Western audience, to try yet again to convince them that Ukraine is Russia’s internal backyard and that they should “stay out.”
This is why Mr. Putin has preferred to ensure that the war in eastern Ukraine remains a “frozen conflict,” leaving it to the mediators from Berlin and Paris to promote “Steinmeier” and other formulas that propose peace on Moscow’s terms, for they have bought his line that Russia is not a party to the conflict but a mere peace-broker.
Nevertheless, the Russian strongman has signaled quite clearly in his diatribe against Ukrainians that, given Kyiv’s resoluteness, his patience is also limited. Having already given over 600,000 Russian passports to the remaining population in the ethnically cleansed Russian occupied areas of eastern Ukraine, Mr. Putin is now declaring that Kyiv is not interested in retrieving these territories and arguing that their inhabitants will never accept a pro-Western orientation.
The implication, therefore, is that his local proxies will finally be successful in appealing to Moscow to incorporate them into Russia as soon as he considers it to be the right time.
Given the size of Russia’s military forces deployed on Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders, new armed aggression is also a possible option for Mr. Putin. Moreover, with the beleaguered Belarusian dictator, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, desperate to ingratiate himself with his Kremlin benefactor, there is also the possibility of reinforcing the military squeeze on Ukraine from the north.
The joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise Zapad 2021 is scheduled for the week before the September elections in Russia and it provides a pretext for bringing in more Russian soldier to Belarus.
But how realistic is this given the risks and costs involved? Mr. Putin and his entourage know that the Ukrainians will fight back and that any new aggression on Moscow’s part will generate even stricter penalties from the west. Moreover, Belarus is not as secure as it seems on the surface because of the harsh repressive measures being employed there.
However, this is not 2014 when Mr. Putin managed to fool some that he was intervening in Ukraine to protect Russian language speakers. Mr. Zelenskyy, a Jewish Ukrainian from a Russian-speaking, eastern Ukrainian background, represents an inclusive and plural Ukrainian democratic nation.
Attention has recently focused more on the growing tension in the Black Sea. The issue here is not only Crimea, but Russia’s control of the Kerch Strait and de-facto blockade of Ukraine’s southern ports on the Sea of Azov. Ukraine has been preparing for possible Russian incursions aimed at Mariupol, which, if successful, would give Mr. Putin a land corridor to Crimea. This corridor could be extended toward the breakaway Russian-supported “Transnistria Republic” to the west of Odesa, between Ukraine and Moldova.
Ukraine’s preparations to resist Mr. Putin, coupled with a degree of Western support and a recently elected pro-Western president in Moldova, have probably dampened any enthusiasm the Kremlin might have had for this option. And it has been reminded by the NATO exercise in the region that the Black Sea is also of vital concern to Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria and others.
There is one potential vulnerable strategic Ukrainian asset in the Black Sea named Serpent Island, located off of the Danube Delta. The island was once contested by Bucharest and Kyiv. But even if seizing it might not be a big challenge for Russian forces, the likely political fallout from such a move should be a deterrent from it actually happening.
So, while not ruling out any of the previously mentioned moves, there are other, more likely moves that will come from Moscow during August when Ukrainians are focused on feeling pride and celebrating their independence. Mr. Putin’s proxies could stage bomb hoaxes designed to disrupt the celebrations, terrorist acts to sow insecurity or staged provocations designed to besmirch Ukraine and its leadership. But the country’s security services are aware of these possibilities and are on their guard.
Moscow knows that, with Nord Stream 2 about to come online and the U.S.-German compromise still delicate, it is probably not prudent to exacerbate a situation which might be working in its favor. Kyiv, on the other hand, hopes that the dignified celebration of three decades of its independence during difficult circumstances will remind its allies and partners that it deserves to be accepted as a full-fledged member of the democratic community of nations.