Manoeuvres with Long-range Aim

Ukraine has once again found itself in the spotlight of the world media and diplomatic circles. The reason is known – the increased concentration of the Russian troops near the border of Ukraine, to which no one is likely to react calmly after 2014.  Such a continent-wide problem is worth dismantling into its components.

Chronology. In early November, the Western media (Washington Post, Politico and Bloomberg) reported about concentration of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border. Kyiv initially called this material disinformation, but since the third decade of November, the tone has changed: Ukrainian officials have stated that they do not fundamentally disagree with the Americans in their assessment of the threat from Russia. It is unlikely that the updated Charter on Strategic Partnership signed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmitro Kuleba and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on 10 November had any impact. Rather, it is a different matter: both Dmitro Kuleba, the Head of the Presidential Office Andriy Yermak and Minister of Defence Oleksiy Reznikov were informed in the US, where they visited in November, about the reality of the Russian threat.

The numbers of the aggressor’s forces. For obvious reasons, it is rather difficult to determine it, as Russia conducts large-scale movements of forces (even Vladimir Putin was mentioned by West-2021), and the size of its military budget allows to move manpower and equipment even from beyond the Urals to the European part of Russia. However, it is worth noting that the level of concentration of Russian troops near borders of Ukraine in spring of this year was higher than at the end of 2021, when their number did not exceed 100 thousand. This is an impressive grouping, highly visible to intelligence, but insufficient for an effective invasion to Ukraine. Moreover, the situation is different from 2014, when occupation of Crimea and fomenting of war in Donbas were driven by the effect of a surprise.

Reaction of the West. The US media began to write about concentration of the Russian troops near the Ukrainian border in early November, and towards the end of the month the baton was picked up by European broadcasters and newspapers. A potential war unfolding almost live on air is a topic that attracts the attention of ordinary people. However, reactions are also heard at the official level. For example, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted that although security guarantees of the Alliance do not apply to Ukraine, NATO will help it exercise its right to defend itself. For obvious reasons, omitting the details. Concerns of Washington about what is happening has been expressed by ensuring a permanent naval presence in the Black Sea, which visibly irritates the Kremlin. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pointed out that in the event of Russian aggression, the U.S. would use economic tools it had not used before. Germany is now more preoccupied with the launch of the Traffic Light coalition and the fate of NordStream2, while France is gradually getting involved in the presidential campaign to be held in spring of 2022. Poland, the borders of which are turbulent because of a migrant influx, has expressed its support for Ukraine.  Overall, the West is reacting without being over-emotional, but leaves no doubt that it will intervene if Russia invades. This is obvious, as is the fact that NATO troops will not directly land to defend Ukraine in the event of a military conflict.

Behaviour of Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelenski, in whose hands the full power is concentrated, claims the Ukrainian army is ready to repel possible aggression. Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba stresses the need to deter Russia in three ways – political statements, economic sanctions and weapon deliveries to Ukraine. Official diplomatic contacts of Kiev are active, but there have been no public reports of weapons deliveries since October (then the U.S. delivered a shipment of arms and ammunition worth EUR 60 million). Dmytro Kuleba recently stressed: “Weapons love silence.” Kirill Budanov, Head of the Central Intelligence Directorate under the Ministry of Defence, said that invasion of Russia would be probable in January-February 2022 and could take place in several directions.

However, it should be understood that Russia cannot establish full control over Ukraine regardless of the reaction of the international community, and the Ukrainian Armed Forces are already in their eighth year of combat and have considerable experience. The use of the Bayraktar UAV and Javelin APCs, the best known weapons the Ukrainian Army can use today, was recently demonstrated at one of the training ranges.

Domestic political factors. At the end of November, Volodymyr Zelenski announced preparations for a coup d’état allegedly involving the wealthiest citizen of Ukraine Rinat Akhmetov. It should be noted that Rinat Akhmetov traditionally builds relations with any Ukrainian government, but the adoption of the law on oligarchs made the information policy of the TV channels owned by him (and quite popular) unfriendly towards Volodymyr Zelensky. The SBU is investigating a possible coup, but so far without much result, except for the replacement of the head of the counterintelligence service. Popularity of Volodymyr  Zelensky at the equator of his presidential term evokes contradictory feelings: he is still the most popular politician in the country, but three-quarters of fellow citizens have more suitable candidates.

Additional factors. The Kremlin practised its actions to dehumanise Ukrainians back in 2014 in Donbas with the ‘crucified boy’. Therefore, the promotion of the topic of the ‘child killed by a Ukrainian drone’ in the information space, as well as the appearance of ‘war-mongers’ on the territory of the ORDLO looked like harbingers of a possible invasion. A phone conversation between Joseph Biden and Vladimir Putin then wound down the issue.

Another fact is that the NordStream2 pipeline, which was built at Gazprom expense, has been put on hold in Germany. The Russian energy monopoly has spent more than 10 billion Euros laying the second line of the pipeline, which can largely meet energy needs of Germany without regard to the transit countries. The new ruling coalition in Germany has withdrawn NordStream2 from the coalition agreement, but is unlikely to agree to commission it in the event of a large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The migrant crisis on the Lithuanian-Polish border is far from the initiative of Alexander Lukashenko himself, actively giving interviews and promises. The Kremlin is behind the pressure with the help of thousands of people in the European Union, and the refusal to see it is a serious failure of EU policy towards Russia. Although the immediacy of the problem has decreased, it is too early to talk about a complete resolution of the crisis.

Interest of the Kremlin. The logic of the Kremlin is becoming increasingly clear. In the last few months there have been several information signals coming out of Russia. Vladimir Putin’s article that Russians and Ukrainians are one nation. Opinion of Dmitry Medvedev (after all, the former president of Russia) that there can be nothing in common with the Ukrainian governance. Several public statements by the Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, in a hawkish tone towards the West and Ukraine. The promise made by ‘sovereign democracy’ ideologue Vladislav Surkov that Russia would expand.

Just on 1 December Vladimir Putin stated that Russia wants guarantees that NATO will not expand eastwards, as verbal promises do not work in this matter.  The myth of similar promises allegedly made to Mikhail Gorbachev during the German reunification process is being exploited by the Kremlin today. Vladimir Putin is in fact setting the agenda for talks with Joseph Biden, which could take place in early 2022. The possibility to turn the ‘Ukrainian issue’ in its own interests, to subdue Ukraine, is extremely important for Russia, because if the US and NATO show weakness, the Kremlin will gain access to the Baltic-Black Sea area. The conditions put forward by Russia could jeopardise a number of other states, and annexation of Belarus in such a scenario could be called an accomplished fact. It is as if Vladimir Putin is playing a new version of Munich-1938, playing the role of Adolf Hitler himself. It is strange that the West does not see this analogy.

Yevgen MAGDA

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