Ukraine and its allies try to gauge Putin’s appetite for war
Moscow’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric adds to speculation about possible Russian intervention
April 13, 2021 4:00 am by Ben Hall , Europe editor
Ukraine and its western allies are once again trying to work out whether Vladimir Putin means war. In 2014 and 2015, following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula and seizure of parts of eastern Ukraine, the Russian president threatened a wider conflict before backing off following western sanctions and a putative peace accord, which contained the conflict in the Donbas region but whose terms have still not been implemented.
At least 28 Ukrainian troops have been killed in Donbas since a ceasefire broke down this year. Tens of thousands of Russian troops have been put on Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea, while Russian landing and artillery ships have been sent to the Black Sea.
The rhetoric from Moscow is increasingly bellicose. Nationalist ideologues on Russian state television are calling for a full Russian annexation of the Donbas region or even a wider invasion. Putin told German chancellor Angela Merkel last week that Russia could intervene to save Donbas’s pro-Russian population from a Srebrenica-like massacre, even though there is no evidence its residents are facing such a danger. Dimitry Kozak, the Kremlin’s point man on Ukraine said any escalation by Kyiv would be “the beginning of the end” for the country. Russia’s response would be “not a shot in the leg, but in the face”.https://eac2710477cbb4d74238198220661eee.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?n=0
Analysts are speculating about possible Russian interventions. These range from heavier fighting along the line of control that separates Ukrainian troops from Russian-backed separatists and Russian troops in Donbas, to seizure of the entire Donbas region and territory contiguous with Crimea, to a full-scale invasion. Stirring up trouble in the Russian-speaking populations of Odessa and Kharkiv could also provide a pretext for sending in Russian “peacekeepers”.
Putin’s motivation is also a guessing game. Is it frustration that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, who seemed open to a compromise with Moscow after taking office in 2019, refuses to accept the Kremlin’s interpretation of the so-called Minsk II peace accord? Is it revenge for Zelensky’s recent swoop against Viktor Medvedchuk, a powerful oligarch and Ukraine’s leading pro-Russian politician? Or a patriotic diversion from sagging domestic popularity before elections in September? The Russian leader is in all likelihood testing US president Joe Biden, who deems Putin a killer, and the resolve of the west.
For all the uncertainty, it seems clear that the Minsk process is deadlocked. Kyiv will not hold local elections or draw up a new autonomy statute for the Donbas region until Russia and its separatist proxies hand back control of the border and of internal security, which Moscow refuses.
“The peace process is finished,” said the British-Ukrainian academic Taras Kuzio at a German Marshall Fund event last week. “It was never really going anywhere. Any Ukrainian leader will fail. Putin doesn’t do compromises.”
It also seems the so-called Normandy format for talks, comprising Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine has reached its limits. While it gives Kyiv the chance to talk on a par with Moscow, it also allows Russia to pose as a mediating power in someone’s else civil war, rather than as the aggressor. The ability of Paris and Berlin, meanwhile, to put pressure on Moscow is compromised. While Merkel has held the line on EU sanctions, she is pressing ahead with the Nordstream 2 pipeline bringing Russian gas to Germany. French president Emmanuel Macron thinks the pipeline is a bad idea but wants a broader reset of relations with the Kremlin.
The Ukrainian leader needs the Americans more involved, says Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the New Europe Centre think-tank in Kyiv. Biden has offered Ukraine “unwavering” US support. But what that means is also unclear. Further economic sanctions seem likely, military aid less so.
Getmanchuk says the Russian military threat must be taken seriously, but not so much that the west “plays Putin’s game” and forces Ukraine to make concessions that undermine its territorial sovereignty. Instead, the US and EU should “elaborate and synchronise two strategies: support Ukraine; punish Putin”. For the moment, the US seems more inclined to do that than the EU. But it will be difficult for Merkel and Macron to hold out if the Russian president further escalates the crisis.
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