The standoff between the West and Russia in Ukraine shows a change of track by the West- but unfortunately none by Russia.
“You can say things which cannot be done. This is elementary. The trick is to keep attention focused on what is said and not on what can be done.” (Frank Herbert, from “Whipping Star”, 1969)
Welcome back to Unpredictable Past, you can access my last piece here.
Some time has passed since my last writing, but, as natural that it is, and as I often repeat, some events need the right time to be looked at and analyzed. This is what I intend to do in this writing, whose processing time went into looking at things as they stand, minimising guesswork and finding as many facts as possible to support my hypothesis.
Here, I would like to start from the latest episodes that took place on the eastern border of Ukraine and then get to analyze the new course that the global geopolitical situation seems to have taken since the beginning of 2021. The event I am talking about has been defined as the “Mariupol Crisis”, from the city in the Donetsk Oblast on the shores of the Black Sea, close to the borders of the Occupied Territories (or Separatists, depending on the point of view)- generally referred to by the acronym ORDLO (Okremi Raioni Donetchkoi ta Lughanskoi Oblastei). This area has recently been the subject of clashes between separatists forces (ie the Russian army) and loyalists of the Ukrainian army, sparking fears of a new escalation in violence in the region.
The “frozen” conflict between Russia and Ukraine has been going on for eight years, and the last escalation of this intensity dates back to 2015. As the world remembers, the Ukrainian Revolution had taken place the previous year and there was a beginning of the internal conflict with the separatists in the southeast of the country (in the regions of Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk and Donbass). The Russian armed forces “disguised” as civilian personnel carrying humanitarian aid invaded the country, occupying, in whole or in part, the aforementioned territories. On March 26 of this year, tensions begins to rise again: four soldiers of the Ukrainian Army were killed in Shumy, a village in the Mariupol area, very close to the border of the Occupied Territories where, as pointed out by Kirill Budanov, head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, the troops of the Russian Federation have massed for a total of about 110,000 effectives. Budanov asserted that these movements of the armed forces have a specific purpose:
“[Its] goal is to keep Ukraine in the sphere of [Russia’s] geopolitical influence, force it to abandon Euro-Atlantic aspirations, and resolve the issue of the occupied territories [in the Donbass] on Moscow’s terms“.
On April 12, the Russian government went further, and the spokesman of President Vladimir Putin, Dmitri Peskov declared that: “[Moscow] will not remain indifferent to the fate of Russian speakers who live in the southeastern regions of Ukraine“. A clear reference (typical of the rhetoric of recent years, which used the term “Russophone” instead of “Russian” to pursue territorial claims without bringing up ethnic issues which could sound like the “reasons” adducted by Adolf Hitler during the Anschluss of the territories with a population of German origin into the Third Reich), to the policy started two years ago by the Russian Federation regarding the granting of a “facilitated” passport to residents of the Occupied Territories who had requested it (to date there are about 400,000, out of 3 million of residents) for “humanitarian reasons”, behind which obviously lies the veiled threat of being able to have an easy casus belli should an armed intervention needed to be justified.
In response to this veiled threat, the following day April 13 at a meeting in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba confirmed the importance of the strategic partnership between the two countries. Both Ukrainian and American diplomats agreed that they needed to take action in order to “demotivate Moscow from further escalation“; the same day, US President Biden called his counterpart Putin to propose a meeting in which to discuss the issue in its entirety. When Moscow seemed to have achieved a “normalization” of the situation, a riposte followed- expulsions of diplomats and the implementation of new economic sanctions on the Sovereign Funds of the Russian Federation began in the US (officially relating to the case of Alexey Navaly and his treatment in detention), but which in my opinion had more the flavor of “you-are-not-the-only-ones-able-to-use-humanitarian-pretexts-for-other-purposes“.
This was a declaration of intent absolutely not misunderstood, which has aroused a series of diplomatic reactions on both sides, as well as, obviously, within the European Union. The question arose spontaneously: “is it really a new line or is it just a way of pointing out a heavy question of internal politics?“. As we know, the four years of the Trump Presidency were characterized by suspicion of interference by Moscow into the internal politics of the United States, a suspicion fueled by the “benevolent” attitude held by the former President regarding the relations between the two countries. I have often said it, but it is good to reiterate it: Russian elites, out of conviction or opportunism, continue to feed the mythology of the Cold War, in the hope of being able to return to the table of the Great Powers while simultaneously preserve their position of power, showing themselves to the eyes of the public opinion as the only messianic way to avoid falling prey to alleged “Western conspiracies”.
But let’s start from the beginning, since this situation is one of the results of other events which have occurred in recent months. The first and foremost is certainly the change of administration in the United States, with the beginning of Joe Biden’s mandate at the White House: shortly after taking office, the President, and his entourage, overturned the line of laxity which had been extended towards the Russia. In February, at the Munich Security Conference, the American President peremptorily stated: “America is back“, making it clear that Russian interference (from propaganda to cyberwarfare) in the West would no longer be tolerated, reiterating then the concept in an interview with ABC, calling his counterpart Vladimir Putin “a killer”. Following that, the combined efforts of the Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Secretary of the National Security Council Oleksiy Danilov, leads to Ukraine’s “new approach” towards Russia, and managed to “give a shake” to the President Volodimir Zelensky, who, due to inexperience and lack of external support, left Russians to do essentially what they wanted, using the Minsk Agreements as a lever to move Ukraine’s internal politics at will.
Here, in the West, if the global pandemic hadn’t made us deaf and blind, we’d be talking about this front page stuff. Despite those facts, fortunately, a military escalation seems unlikely at present, for several reasons.
At first glance, disparity of forces in Russia’s favour is evident, and this fact alone could immediately make one prophesise the worst. But, as several military analysts have rightly pointed out, this deployment of forces does not necessarily have to be the prelude to a large-scale offensive. It could be configured, for example, as a “response” by the Russian Federation (together with Belarus) to the large military exercise carried out by NATO since the beginning of March, under the evocative name of "Defender-Europe 2021", in which 27 Countries took part, including Ukraine, representing the largest coordination maneuver in 25 years, with a similar maneuver named “Zapad-2021” scheduled for September. Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Defence Minister, stated the following:
“a sudden check of the combat readiness of the troops of the Western and Southern military districts was carried out as part of [Russia’s] control measures and exercises during the winter period of training.“
Second, an attempt at normalization has been carried out both in Europe, which began on April 16th, with France, Germany and Ukraine on the one hand and Russia (not represented at the summit, but nevertheless present) on the other, and, of course, by the United States, with Biden’s proposal to Putin of a meeting aimed at discussing the Ukrainian situation “on a broad spectrum". Although these negotiations are currently at a standstill, the very fact that they exist implies that the military option is considered, even in the Kremlin, as something to be used as a threat but to be avoided at all costs. Further proof of this attitude, especially on the Russian side, is an apparently banal but interesting episode: in an interview with Rossiya24, a “government” broadcaster, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that Russia was ready to “break relations with the European Union “on the Ukraine question”. These statements were immediately followed by a quick denial by Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, who denied the Minister and backtracked very quickly, citing justifications of circumstance. Taking into account that Lavrov is certainly not a minor character or just any politician, the fact that he was so abruptly denied from above is indicative.
Is it all a matter of “flexing muscles” then? Not exactly, in my opinion.
Indeed, there is a goal that a possible offensive could aim at: the Northern Crimean Canal, recently closed by the Ukrainian government and source of supply of 80% of the country’s drinking water, which has caused many problems for the regions under control. Russian. The question is whether the Kremlin is ready to take this risk: if on the one hand the superiority of means could make a “blitzkrieg” conceivable, on the other hand this could turn out to be a move with decidedly catastrophic consequences, compared to a possible “gain” in territorial and resource terms. In fact, it would be necessary to fight on Ukrainian territory, where now there are about 300,000 veterans of the Donbass, motivated, benefited by the knowledge of the territory but who above all would be immediately supported by the West. Making the decision to attack to “send a signal” could prove to be the most counterproductive the Russian government has done in recent years.
Two problems face the Kremlin. First of all, as I have explained several times, the image is everything for the elite of the Russian Federation: how would the regime be able to explain the enormous cost in human lives, or a possible military failure (the army is still one of the few institutions in which the population trusts) in the context of that confrontation / clash that propaganda has been carrying out for years? The second problem concerns the economic repercussions that the decision to force the hand would have on the country: if on the one hand Europe must limit itself to warnings, the United States is planning a series of very heavy economic sanctions, for now stopped in Congress because the result of a bipartisan agreement between Republicans and Democrats whose internal tensions have not yet subsided after the electoral defeat of Donald Trump, but which in the eventuality of armed aggression would immediately come into being (who would risk, after the scandals of the previous four years, to support the soft line with Russia?), and that would be a very hard blow for the whole country. Also in this case, maintaining the image of “prosperity” would be very complex, and probably it will not be enough to “pull out nationalism when you run out of money” to get out of this quagmire, also because this would seriously risk triggering a further chain reaction. from which it would be impossible for the central power to escape unscathed.
At that point, the possible scenarios would be two: withdrawing and losing face, trying not to arouse excessive media hype and finding a way to justify the “setback” with public opinion (changing the game and reporting external problems within the country , downloading them, for example, on the non-organic political opposition to the system, such as that of Navalny for example), or to go straight and decide to tighten even more clearly the relations with the only other ally of weight on which Russia can count: the People’s Republic of China. This last hypothesis, in spite of those who have spoken for years of a common front between the two countries with an anti-Western function, is actually the result of a reasoning that was firm at the time of the Cold War, which seeks to replicate patterns known, making up for the inability to explain reality.
In fact, as I happened to underline on other occasions, the most concrete (but never manifested) danger that the Russian elites absolutely want to avoid running into is precisely an increasingly close relationship with China. The reason is obvious: if it is true that the export of raw materials to Chinese factories is among the most important components of the Russian economy, on the other hand, those in charge are clear that the more the country moves to the East, the more it risks becoming an appendage of Chinese power. With the exception of the military sector (of reduced size only by Beijing’s choice) all the cards are in favor of the Asian giant, which in recent years has extended its influence even on those countries that Russia normally considers “its own” (yes think of Central Asia, or, lately, some Balkan countries that have opened up to the Chinese vaccine market, but that’s another story), without anyone in Moscow being able to do anything about it or daring to risk criticism of any kind.
This time the situation seems to be decidedly more serious, even if some other events, apparently distant, can offer the explanation of the escalation.
And it is at this point that it is necessary to take a step back, and take a closer look at the foreign policy undertaken by the new American administration: as mentioned, if on the one hand it has all the appearance of a provocation against Russia, a retaliation for the precedents years of interference in American politics, it is not necessary to forget that the objective of the United States has long been another one. In fact, further east, precisely in the Pacific, a game is being played that the United States considers much more important than any confrontation with Russia, namely to contain the influence of the People’s Republic of China on the region. For years, the overwhelming US military supremacy has kept the Asian giant’s ambitions in what it considers “rightfully” its own zone of influence at bay, but lately things have changed and Chinese naval forces have begun to accompany the economic expansion of the country in the Indo-Pacific area. It is no coincidence that one of Joe Biden’s first acts as president was to preside over the first meeting of QUAD, an alliance of the four democratic countries that have interests in the Pacific Ocean (India, Australia, Japan and United States) and who do not look favorably on China’s expansion to their detriment, that, as already reported on this site, could sign the beginning of significant changes in the area.
All those facts leads me to ask: what if these maneuvers, apparently aimed at striking Russia, were instead a way to put the country’s leadership in front of a choice between West and East? That Joe Biden’s “provocative” statements serve this purpose? And that the “outstretched hand” of Europe, specifically of French President Emmanuel Macron, is not a simple sign of surrender, but rather a counterweight in a “carrot and stick” strategy, intended to go and see the bluff carried out for decades now from the upper echelons of the Kremlin?
In this situation, two key points of the ideology of the façade of the Russian Federation seem to begin to fail, namely that of its “peculiar identity”, neither Western nor Eastern, together with that of the Cold War which sees the country as the main pole of an anti-Atlantist constellation, an idea losing credibility in the eyes of the Russians themselves with each passing year. That somewhere in Washington they have understood that the program of responding to Russian propaganda with other propaganda, the one centered on embezzlement by members of Putin’s “inner circle” is a fallacious and useless strategy, as demonstrated by the Navalny affair , and that perhaps the real breaking point will be to confront Russian public opinion with something far more significant? Such as “what shall we do with our lives?”
In a possible future confrontation (whose lines have already been “drawn”) to balance the relationship between West and East, there is no doubt that the side on which Russia will take sides will be fundamental, not only for geopolitical issues, but also for the future of Russian citizens themselves: to let autocratic power preserve itself, becoming more and more enveloped in a decadent spiral that will inevitably lead to a sort of vassalage condition with respect to China, or to deny itself, its image and all the propaganda rhetoric put in place to hold together the “pieces” of the country and gradually groped a rapprochement with the much-maligned West?
As Andrei Piontkovsky stated in an interview with Olga Khvostunovna on the Institute for Modern Russia website: “To ensure that Russia changes its foreign policy, the battle for the minds of Russian citizens has to be won“. And perhaps, I think as a European, it is not the only battle that must be fought and won, if we really want the future of all of us to be different, but that’s another story.
(Gianmarco Bertocci is an independent historian and researcher who deals in particular with the development of post-Soviet countries and the world after the collapse of the USSR. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and connect with him at https://www.linkedin.com/in/gianmarco-bertocci-1ba6ab177 . Read his blog at www.unpredictablepast.com )