Russians don’t know what will happen in Ukraine – but most agree that’s Putin’s call to make
When Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to reporters in Moscow on Tuesday, he raised a hypothetical situation where Russia could be dragged into battle against NATO if Ukraine were admitted to membership in the security alliance. .
While he seemed open to further negotiations, Putin said Russia was not responsible for escalating tensions in Eastern Europe, even as it continues to muster troops near Ukraine’s borders .
European officials and the US administration have warned for weeks that Russia is about to invade Ukraine.
Back in Russia, citizens and analysts disagree on Putin’s true intentions, but most believe it’s up to him to decide how the next stage of this conflict unfolds.
“Everything is in the hands of one man,” said Moscow-based journalist and political scientist Yevgenia Albats. “It’s clear that people outside of Putin’s inner circle have no idea…they don’t understand what ‘Dad’ is going to tell them.”
US and Ukrainian officials estimate that Russia has more than 100,000 troops, as well as military hardware, communications equipment and field hospitals, stationed near the Ukrainian border.
Some analysts see the buildup as a strategic bluff designed to threaten the United States and European countries, which are now engaged in diplomatic talks with Russia over NATO expansion. But Albats insists that Ukraine is the intended target and that Putin is on a mission to bring it under Russian control.
“Putin refuses to acknowledge that it’s been 30 years since the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine gained sovereignty,” Albats said. “His people have the right to decide whether they want to side with Russia or side with the West.”
While Russia denies plans to invade Ukraine, it seized Crimea in 2014, sparking a war in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists are still fighting against the Ukrainian military.
In his remarks on Tuesday, Putin, who called Ukraine “an instrument” of the West, wondered what would happen if Ukraine tried to regain control of Crimea.
“Let’s imagine that Ukraine is a member of NATO and starts these military operations. Are we supposed to go to war with the NATO bloc? Has anyone thought about it? Apparently not,” he said. he declared.
WATCH | Ukraine’s allies are preparing for a possible invasion:
Putin’s comments to reporters were the first time in nearly six weeks that he spoke about Russia’s security demands on the West.
He wants a guarantee that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO, as well as a withdrawal of NATO troops and military infrastructure from countries that joined the alliance after 1997.
Putin argues that Russia was betrayed by the West because it ignored an agreement not to expand NATO after the Cold War, an interpretation disputed by Western officials.
The United States has said it will never promise a veto on NATO membership.
The role of the Ukrainian president
Although Ukraine is not close to joining the security alliance, Albats thinks there are several reasons why Putin is now drawing those red lines.
Albats says Putin has spent the past two years in isolation, and she believes he listened to the concerns and advice of some of his senior security officials, whom she called “hawks”.
She also says that when Ukrainians handed Volodymyr Zelensky a landslide victory in the 2019 presidential election, it signaled that the country was taking a very independent path.
Zelensky called for the Minsk Accords, the process designed to end the ongoing war in Ukraine’s Donbass, to be more “soft.”
Since 2014, Russian-backed separatists in the self-declared regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have been fighting the Ukrainian military, leading Ukraine to lose control of its southeastern border with Russia.
The unimplemented Minsk 2 agreement was signed by Russia and Ukraine as well as representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2015. It stipulated that border control would be returned to Ukraine after local elections are held in Donetsk and Luhansk and the region enjoys “special status” under Ukrainian law.
Zelensky said he wants the peace process to be reworked and include countries like the United States and Canada in the negotiations. Meanwhile, Russia, which has denied having troops on the ground in eastern Ukraine, has distributed more than 700,000 Russian passports to residents of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Albats says Zelensky tried to limit Russia’s influence in Ukraine.
Last year he banned three pro-Russian TV channels from the Ukrainian airwaves, accusing them of “propaganda financed by the aggressor country”.
According to Albats, given that Ukraine is modernizing and expanding its military, a process that has been accelerated by recent arms shipments from countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, Putin may think it is now is the best time to launch an invasion.
“I hate to think that Russia is going to start a major war,” Albats said. “This is completely unacceptable behavior for the leader of my country.”
Others share this view.
Over the weekend, a statement from the Congress of Russian Intellectuals, which includes human rights activists, scientists and writers, called on the Kremlin to avoid an “immoral, irresponsible and criminal” war, saying that Russian citizens became “hostages of criminal adventurism”. .”
On January 27, CBC spoke to a number of people outside Kiyevsky station in Moscow – named after the capital of Ukraine – including Tamara Krivtson, a Russian pensioner, who believes the blame relies entirely on Putin.
“Our president thinks he is superior in the world,” she said, adding that she thought he was foolishly trying to take over Ukraine. “We have enough problems here to solve. [Russians] doesn’t have enough money.”
Across the square from the station, construction worker Maxim Kulpin told CBC that Russia doesn’t need Ukraine. But he disagrees that Putin is the one pushing Russia toward war.
“Russia plays a passive role,” he said. “Look at the map of all NATO bases [around eastern Europe].”
Kulpin said while he doesn’t think Russia is fueling the tension, he admits war is a real possibility and he is worried about his family and children.
Cold War tactics
Not everyone is convinced that war is on the horizon, despite what the United States continues to call the threat of an “imminent” invasion.
Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Moscow-based Foreign and Defense Policy Council, suggests that Russia’s maneuvers are all part of a primitive but effective “escalation game”.
“After the Cold War, we thought…that style of diplomacy was gone. But it’s back,” Lukyanov said, noting that big military exercises are part of that strategy.
Thousands of Russian troops, as well as fighter jets, have arrived in Belarus for joint military exercises, and Russia’s four naval fleets are also holding drills.
Lukyanov acknowledges that, “rightly or wrongly”, the Kremlin considers Ukraine to be “an absolutely existential territory”. But he says Russia is primarily concerned with preventing Ukraine from joining NATO, not “conquering” it.
He says Putin may be making the effort now because he sees an opportunity with US President Joe Biden, who he says is more concerned about relations with China than Europe, and could make the case. a compromise to ease the escalating tensions.
The United States formally responded to Russia’s security requests last week and Russia is currently working on its response, but said US officials have failed to address its key concerns.
The elusive solution
Still, Lukyanov says the United States and Europe are talking to Russia more than before and seem open to some changes regarding arms control and transparency of military exercises.
“It’s always a matter of intuition: when to stop, when to start defusing,” Lukyanov said. “To put it bluntly, I think [Putin] has a very good idea of how and when to do it.”
Many Western leaders remain wary. They promised economic sanctions against Russia if it invaded Ukraine, and several countries, including Canada, began withdrawing staff from embassies in Kyiv and urged their citizens to leave Ukraine.
Russia maintains that it is not seeking to start a war, but its refusal to withdraw troops and equipment near Ukraine sends a different signal.
Few people know what Putin’s plan is, and he did not elaborate when speaking to reporters on Tuesday, although he said he was open to more dialogue.
“I hope that in the end we will find this solution,” Putin said. “But I’m not ready to talk today about what it will be, of course.”