April 30, 2021

Russia’s bluffing, huffing and puffing: where do things stand?


While the tensions created by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s massing of military forces on Ukraine’s eastern border have temporarily abated, the uncertainty and apprehension continue.  Where do things stand at present?

Behind the intensive diplomatic activity of recent weeks, posturing and probing by all the actors involved have continued. On the surface no visible changes in the status quo have occurred, but in fact there are signs that new nuances and dynamics have been introduced with potentially significant implications.

Mr. Putin, confronted by a resolute Ukraine and expressions of strong “concern” from its closest friends and the West generally, may have blinked. Though, in the meantime, he is in effect getting away with closing off the Sea of Azov to international and probably Ukrainian shipping, and thereby extending his aggression still further.

Perhaps, as numerous commentators suspect, after reminding his neighbor and the West of his menacing might, he has merely decided to step back, bide his time and see if concessions of any sort will be forthcoming – if not from Kyiv, then perhaps from Western states anxious to placate him as a nuisance factor by soothing his swollen ego and appetite.

But, for the moment, the Russian strongman clearly believes that he can still apply Lenin’s favorite dictum: one step back, two steps forward.

On the other hand, confronted with a very real military threat and the extent and nature of Western backing in a worse-case scenario uncertain, the Ukrainian leadership has calmy held its ground and has not been bullied into any rash responses.

Kyiv has not only refused to be blackmailed into making concessions, but has sought to persuade its Western partners not to be soft with Moscow either, and to refrain from any hint of appeasement.

Kyiv has used the crisis not only to re-emphasize the danger that Russia poses to it, Eastern Europe and the international order as a whole, but to seize the initiative and come off the defensive diplomatically. It has begun to speak more openly and clearly about what is needed to deter Russia and bring home the consequences of its aggressive behavior and reluctance to play by the rules.

Mr. Zelenskyy has been calling Mr. Putin’s bluff by inviting him to meet and talk instead of threatening an intensification of the war.  And the responses from the Kremlin have been crude and typically unconstructive, indicating that the Ukrainian leader’s unexpected tactics are unsettling it.

The Ukrainian leader and his team know very well that what is at stake is not just about Ukraine and its relationship with its rapacious Russian neighbor, but has broader geopolitical implications.  Moscow may no longer be the Soviet stronghold, but nevertheless it is the capital of a Russia retaining its traditional imperialistic, authoritarian and anti-Western traits.

The Ukrainian leader and his team know very well that, despite the direct impact on his country and its population, what is at stake is not just about Ukraine and its relationship with its rapacious Russian neighbor.  What is also at stake is the renewed struggle between Kyiv and Moscow, now no longer the Soviet stronghold, but nevertheless the capital of a Russia with its traditional imperialistic and authoritarian traits.

Mr. Zelenskyy’s impressive legal advisor and the official dealing directly with the Russian aggressors, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine Oleksiy Reznikov, told Ukrainska Pravda the following on April 22: “For Russia it was important to get attention, that they be taken into account and spoken to as equals…We understand that we are at war with Russia.  But Russians in their mind are not fighting Ukrainians; they are fighting with the U.S. and NATO…Because they believe they are fighting for their influence over us; they’re still stuck in that Soviet paradigm.”

In Mr. Reznikov’s view, Mr. Putin has for the moment achieved what he wanted – a call from U.S. President Joe Biden, and the prospect of a meeting with him.  This has allowed him to appear as important as he would like to be seen, and therefore to step back a little.

But Mr. Reznikov also stressed that should Mr. Putin decide to attack Ukraine, the consequences would be dire.  Not only because of the Western reaction and the imposition of potentially crippling sanctions, but because Ukraine is well equipped to resist, and its army and its population will fight back.

Mr. Reznikov, like Mr. Zelenskyy, has made it clear that Ukraine will not be coerced into making concessions, whether on restoring water from the mainland to Russian-occupied Crimea, or yielding on the issues of recognizing Mr. Putin’s puppets in occupied areas of eastern Ukraine, or making the sort of constitutional amendments that would undermine Ukraine as a sovereign state.

“There is a persistent threat,” Mr. Zelenskyy told the Financial Times on April 26.  “Russia was intensifying psychological pressure, but Ukraine is ready for unpleasant surprises and its military is strong enough to deter any kind of threat of aggression.”

What has resonated most with Moscow and probably with some Western capitals was Mr. Zelenskyy stating very bluntly that after seven years of going around unproductively in circles locked in the Normandy Group format it is time to think outside this stifling diplomatic box.

According to the Financial Times, “The president called for the Normandy Group to be ‘extended and expanded,’ saying it was not just up to the U.S. to reboot the grouping but that the U.K. and Canada should also participate.”

While the response from Washington, London and Ottawa, not to mention Berlin and Paris, is awaited, Moscow has not hesitated to show its anger.  Mr. Putin’s spokesperson Dmitrii Peskov responded that same day, claiming that Mr. Zelenskyy’s position sent “an alarming signal.”

On April 28 the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov elaborated on this theme.  Not sparing the vitriolic rhetoric, he accused Mr. Zelenskyy of being a virtual anti-Russian fascist.  “His main goal is to stay in power. He is ready to pay any price, such as pandering to neo-Nazis and ultra-radicals who continue to brand the Donbass self-defense fighters as terrorists.”

Like Mr. Putin in recent days, Mr. Lavrov placed all the blame on what has occurred in Russian-Ukrainian relations on Kyiv and emphasized that Moscow is not willing to budge at all and he insisted that any peace settlement be made on the Kremlin’s terms.

In the meantime, Moscow has been playing up the Belarusian factor, because the Belarusian dictator, clinging for his political life through the use of harsh repression at home and reliant on the Kremlin’s support, is demonstrating that he is willing to allow Russia to absorb his country through negotiated “integration.”  Russian troops deployed in Belarus would not be good news for Ukraine, or for that matter Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

The Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, was in Moscow again on April 23 groveling before Mr. Putin and joining him in a public Ukraine-bashing exercise.  He now reiterates Moscow’s position that Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians are one people, and that the U.S. is behind the Ukrainians breaking ranks, and that the democratic revolution in Belarus, like Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, has been instigated by Western enemies.

This then is the unresolved situation. A crisis has been averted, or depending on what ensues, deferred. Kyiv is holding firm and asking its allies to join it in changing their tune toward an intransigent and belligerent Moscow.  It has also begun pressing for the rules of the diplomatic “game” and the participants to be changed.

The underlying question, and challenge for Kyiv, remain – what will it take to get across the message that Ukraine is a victim of Russia’s aggression and remains at war with it, and that the outcome of this conflict will determine the future not only of Eastern Europe, but it will also determine the line between Europe and Eurasia, and, more broadly still, between democracy and autocracy, as U.S. President Joe Biden put it.

Ukraine must also secure the unambivalent support of Europe’s strongest players – Berlin and France.  Just this week the German minister of foreign affairs came out against strengthening the sanctions against Russia.  And Berlin, despite everything, continues to stick to its notorious Nord Stream 2 pipeline project with Russia.

Small wonder that Kyiv is looking to Washington, London and Ottawa, not to mention its east European partners, to help find an effective and principled way forward.  On May 3, Mr. Zelenskyy will be in Poland and have a timely opportunity to continue this task.