Vladimir Putin is irritated: there is Joe Biden’s recent interview on TBEN “Putin is a killer”, the painful sanctions imposed by the White House in early March against the Russian aerospace industry and, equally important, the latest measures taken by the administration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
These include shutting down pro-Kremlin media, sanctions against Russian government organizations, including the Rossotrudnichestvo agency – a soft power vehicle similar to the Chinese Confucius Institute. Zelensky’s administration also imposed sanctions on Ukraine’s leading pro-Kremlin politician Viktor Medvedchuk, whose daughter is Putin’s goddaughter.
In recent weeks, Ukrainian officials have spoken of the futility of further talks on the implementation of the 2015 Minsk accords that were supposed to stop fighting in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. Among the skeptics is former President Leonid Kravtchouk, official Kyiv delegate to the Minsk Agreement working group. In addition, the Ukrainian government has created the “Crimean Platform” – a long-term project aimed at exerting maximum international political and diplomatic pressure on Moscow to return the peninsula.
Konstantin Eggert of TBEN
Putin is infamous for being seen as weak and cornered. His reaction to such situations is invariably one of the bravado and intimidation of his opponents. The build-up of the Russian military on the borders of Ukraine, accompanied by hysteria in Russian state media, sounds like such a response: “[I] I am not afraid! Count with me! “
His “Fortress Russia” attitude will also help distract from the plight of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is seriously ill in prison. It could also garner support from Putin’s United Russia Party ahead of what happens for the parliamentary elections in Russia in September. The party has been suffering for some time now. Putin’s new triumph over “genocidal Ukrainian nationalists” would help revive the fortunes of United Russia.
A warning or a war?
At first glance, the Kremlin appears to be warning Kiev to revert to the Minsk accords. However, Putin should have realized by now that no government in Kiev will ever honor the 2015 accords. Most Ukrainian politicians and the general public regard them as deeply humiliating.
In 2015, France and Germany, traditionally reluctant to stand up to Moscow, relied heavily on former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to sanction the agreements. The Obama administration in Washington, which has distanced itself from European affairs, agreed.
This time around, the initial reaction from Berlin and Paris seems to justify the Kremlin’s calculations, judging by the typical calls for “de-escalation” and “restraint” that avoid sharing the blame.
However, the reaction of the United States is very different from that of 2015. President Joe Biden called Zelensky and assured him of the unequivocal support of the United States. The State Department has asked Moscow for an explanation of the border activities.
If Putin withdrew his troops from the Ukrainian border, it would appear that he would give in to American pressure. Launching a full-scale assault from the Russian-controlled areas of the Donbass to the Sea of Azov and water-hungry Crimea may be his dream. But that will mean many Russian servicemen lost in a bloody battle with the Ukrainian military, US military and massive Western sanctions – a risky and potentially unpopular move.
A test for Biden
Another possibility is official recognition of the puppet states in the Russian-occupied Donbass. But the West will see him as a de facto annexation. It will also mean new sanctions, the final death knell for the Minsk accords, as well as a complete loss of any leverage on Kiev.
In my opinion, the most likely scenario is that Moscow will send so-called peacekeepers to “republics” – ostensibly to protect civilians from impending Ukrainian aggression. The Russian audience will applaud. Putin will renew the pressure on Zelensky to maintain his party of the Minsk accords while leaving a way out for himself.
The Kremlin is counting on the EU, or more precisely on Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, to rely on the Ukrainians to make further concessions to Moscow. Putin is convinced that the Europeans will, as before, avoid confronting him and that Biden will accompany Berlin and Paris to avoid a transatlantic divide.
Putin is preparing to test the United States’ resolve. Biden better be ready.