What Makes Putin Fear Ukraine?

In recent weeks, Russia has been building up its military forces on the Ukrainian border, raising fears that Vladimir Putin’s regime will launch a full-scale invasion. Eight years ago, Russia annexed Crimea after protests throughout Ukraine led to the fall of its Russia-backed President. Since then, Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine have engaged in protracted fighting that has killed some fourteen thousand people, while Ukrainian public opinion more broadly has moved closer to the West, despite Ukraine’s not being a member of the European Union or NATO. This week, American diplomats presented proposals to Putin’s government seeking negotiation, while rejecting Russian demands that NATO foreclose the possibility of Ukraine’s joining the alliance.

To help explain how things appear from the perspective of Ukrainians, I recently spoke by phone with Nataliya Gumenyuk, a Ukrainian journalist in Kyiv. She is the author of the book “The Lost Island: Dispatches from the Occupied Crimea.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how Ukrainians are preparing for a possible invasion, why Ukrainian democracy threatens Putin, and Russia’s reasons for potentially escalating the conflict.

What is the mood right now in Kyiv and in Ukraine more broadly?

I would say that largely Ukrainians are calm, but worried. They have passed the point where they were about to panic, because it was such an immense threat, but now they kind of understand and feel like, “O.K., we are in control of some things. There are some things we need to do. It depends on us, for instance, to figure out what we need to do to defend ourselves. And other things do not depend on us.” So I would say “keep calm and carry on” is everyone’s motto. They do not exclude the possibility of a bigger war. However, they are hoping there won’t be a major invasion or something like that.

So, when you say that people are preparing for what they can do, what is that? Because it seems like part of what makes this situation so disturbing and so upsetting is that it’s not clear what Ukraine can do if Russia launches a full-scale invasion.

People know that they cannot influence the process of Russia launching a war. I should also say that there is very little the Ukrainian state can do to deëscalate, because it’s not really escalating in the first place. The Ukrainian state is not in the mood for war. But defending Ukraine is a different story. So Ukrainians think like, yes, it’s up to us to defend ourselves. First of all, we must insure that the army is prepared. The second thing involves readiness around understanding what to do in the case of an invasion: What are the objects of critical infrastructure? Can we survive without them? What is the algorithm, for instance, for media to work and operate in case there is no Internet and things like that? So people are really discussing those things. But, for the general population, I should say, indeed, the call to them by the government is just largely to stay calm, and more or less to do nothing. And especially: don’t panic, because this threat is so broad and so unclear that there isn’t a clear algorithm for the general population to prepare themselves. An invasion could take many different forms.

You said keep calm and carry on, and there’s been some reporting, including a long piece in the Times recently, saying that Ukraine’s leaders have been very calm and trying not to overreact to this. Do you think that they have handled it correctly? And do you think that that’s a conscious strategic choice?

I would rather agree. Ukraine is democratic country, so there is an opposition that maybe thinks the government could be more upfront with the people, and give them guidelines, do it kind of like in Israel, where there is a strong civil-defense system and a clear plan for how people could go to the bunkers. Yet, in this regard, I think in a country that is already at war with Russia, in a country where it’s possible to get emotional, the idea that we’d better be restrained, especially when Russia tries to portray Ukraine for its own purposes as kind of warlike—like we are hotheads—I think that the strategy rather works.

There was the annexation of Crimea eight years ago, and since then there has been a bubbling conflict, but, from reading the Western press, things really became much hotter several months ago. And I’m curious whether that’s the way it looks from Ukraine—that something really changed in the last several months. Or, instead, that there has been a constant increase in pressure on Ukraine from Russia that is only being noticed by the outside world now?

The paradox of the situation is that on the ground—if by “on the ground” we mean not the Russian side of the border but in Ukraine—politically, regarding the conflict, there hasn’t been a major change. There was a buildup of Russian troops in the spring, clearly aimed at influencing Putin’s meeting with Biden last June. Those troops remained there, and so did the military equipment in particular, after the spring. The equipment hasn’t been removed.

In 2019, when President [Volodymyr] Zelensky came to power, there was a kind of hope that there could be agreement between the new President and Vladimir Putin, so there was some movement. But, for the last year and a half, it’s just stalemate. Nothing is moving. The discussions on a prisoner exchange and things like that are not moving. In terms of the conflict, though, the last year and a half or two years were relatively calmer than the early years of the war. There hasn’t been as much shelling, for instance.

Without obviously blaming Ukraine for the situation it’s in now, do you think that there are some things that Ukraine’s leaders, especially the current President, could have done differently in negotiations with Putin? Or do you think that Putin wanted this outcome and so that’s why we are where we are?

I think it’s a very good question and particularly why people are puzzled, because President Zelensky came to power with the idea of a peaceful resolution and he was ready—not really for too many compromises but to soften the tone, which he did. There were some changes in the humanitarian policy. So, for instance, during war, human-rights organizations often want the government to change some policies, be more open, be more humane. And he did. And it wasn’t even good for him politically.

But I have personally posed this question to a couple of the foreign diplomats who are dealing with the issue, saying, like, “Is there anything Ukraine could do more in negotiations with Russia?” And they said, “Not really, because the concessions were already from the Ukrainian side.” Of course, Ukraine wouldn’t make the major concessions of giving up Crimea or accepting the occupation of its eastern territories. But the rhetoric, the tone, and the policies that Ukraine adopted were aimed partially at building peace and understanding.

Most of the explanations you see in America for Putin’s behavior center on his need for more domestic popularity, or to keep the West off balance, or his feelings about a supposed encirclement by NATO. Many of these explanations are not really Ukraine-specific, but I’m curious how you see what Putin is doing.

I just read an interview with Dmitri Trenin, who is the head of the Moscow Carnegie Center. He says that, for a while, Russia’s foreign policy stood on the shoulders of what [Mikhail] Gorbachev built, and held that, after the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia and other former Soviet countries would, little by little, become part of the West. For that, there were some requirements: democracy, human rights, rule of law, less corruption, and so on. But, at this moment, Russia feels that it doesn’t want that anymore. Putin doesn’t want any conditions. He actually doesn’t want to join this club. He wants to have a world where Russia is strong, and decisions globally are not taken without Russia, including important decisions in the Middle East and in Latin America. So Russia wants to be, again, a global power, not just a nice member of the international liberal order.

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