In recent weeks, Russia has assembled troops on the Ukrainian border, raising alarm bells in Kiev and the capitals of the European Union. Kremlin-controlled television stations have worked to prepare the Russian public for a new war. Alarming and jingoistic statements are made on various talk shows, with hosts and guests suggesting the possibility that Russia will seize new parts of Ukrainian territory or even advance as far as Kiev.
Western observers have speculated that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to test US President Joe Biden’s resolve or wants to distract public attention in Russia from the fate of the first opposition leader who was poisoned and then jailed. , Aleksey Navalny. Nor is it inconceivable that he plans to reproduce the “Crimean effect” by waging “a small victorious war” on the eve of the legislative elections in September. In 2014, the annexation of Crimea led to a huge increase in his personal popularity.
But given Putin’s propensity for stealthy and surprising moves, the current deployment of troops is far too demonstrative to be a preparation for an impending invasion. Their increased visibility has led some observers to conclude that they are viewed as bullying rather than outright assault.
From a Russian perspective, however, the Kremlin is reactive, not proactive, in the face of a new emerging threat. The troop rally is the Kremlin’s brutal response to what it interprets as a coordinated attempt by Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to upset the fragile balance that underlies relative calm on the front line in the east. Ukraine.
A landmark event leading up to this escalation was the war in Nagorno-Karabakh last fall, in which Russia’s military ally, Armenia, was thoroughly defeated by Azerbaijan with the aid from NATO member Turkey. This war has demonstrated the limits of Russia’s ability and will to allow itself to be drawn into another serious conflict. He also highlighted the vulnerabilities of an army too dependent on Russian arms supplies, especially against Turkish drones.
The Atlantic Council, a hawkish NATO-linked think tank that largely drives Ukraine’s discourse in Washington, was quick to suggest that the Nagorno-Karabakh war opened up the possibility of a military solution in the Donbass, while the peace talks were a road to nowhere. Incidentally, the Karabakh and Ukraine talks are taking place in the same place – Minsk, Belarus.
The Minsk Accords were forced on Ukraine after suffering a series of defeats in the war against Russia-backed Donbass separatists in 2015. If fully implemented, they essentially ensure that Russia retains a stake in Ukrainian politics, allowing it to block the country’s membership. in NATO – the main concern of Moscow that drives its Ukrainian policy. Kiev has long tried to change the agreements while threatening to leave the Minsk framework altogether, but Moscow was unwilling to budge.
The arrival of Biden’s administration coincided with Zelenskyy’s adoption of a new assertive policy on Russia, which could not help but alarm the Kremlin.
First, his government shut down TV channels associated with Viktor Medvedchuk, an oligarch considered Putin’s man in Ukraine. The move served primarily to undermine Medvedchuk’s Opposition Platform / For Life party. This Russian-friendly force became Ukraine’s most popular party at the end of 2020, not least due to Zelensky’s inability to bring peace and repeal ethno-nationalist legislation restricting the use of the Russian language, a time bomb planted by his predecessor, Petro. Poroshenko, in the last days of his presidency.
In the meantime, Ukraine has renewed its efforts to become a member of NATO. Three days after Biden entered the White House, Zelenskyy gave an interview to US media Axios, in which he made it clear that Ukraine was ready to join the transatlantic alliance under this US administration. The interview was followed by Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba who posted an op-ed on the Atlantic Council website titled: Why is Ukraine Still Not a Member of NATO ?, which called for the launch of a membership plan for Ukraine.
On March 5, the same think tank presented a list of recommendations to the Biden administration, which included granting Ukraine “major non-NATO ally” status and Russia’s threat to activate a NATO membership plan for Ukraine, if Moscow fails to be more cooperative in the Donbass.
In the meantime, the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine – Zelensky’s main achievement on the peace settlement front – has essentially collapsed. At the end of March, Putin met with French and German leaders, co-sponsors of the Minsk peace talks, to express his concern at the worsening situation. Ukraine has clearly been left out of the conversation. Soon after, Russia began to gather troops on the Ukrainian border.
Unlike his usually accommodating approach, Zelenskyy doesn’t back down. On April 6, he told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that NATO was “the only way to end the war in Donbass” and that the membership action plan would be ” a real signal for Russia ”. A real signal indeed: a few hours later, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu ordered a combat readiness check for the entire Russian army.
Ukraine’s membership in NATO is a clear red line not only for the Kremlin, but for Russian society as a whole. It would place hostile troops just 500 km (310 miles) south of Moscow, in addition to those already stationed 600 km (373 miles) west of the Russian capital in the Baltic states. This would not only result in a hostile response from the Kremlin, but it would also solidify the Putin regime for years to come and marginalize the currently nascent anti-Putin opposition.
Putin is known to skillfully exploit the unhealed trauma of WWII to mobilize support, including from those who dislike his other policies. America’s contempt for this trauma and its endless flirtation with radical nationalism in Eastern Europe makes it too easy for the Kremlin to sell NATO to the Russians as an existential threat. There are too many examples of this tone deafness. At a political conference earlier this month, the former commander of the US armed forces in Europe, Ben Hodges, fiercely declared that “it was Ukrainians and not Russians” who perished in World War II. At the same conference, a Ukrainian politician promoted the idea of Idel-Ural, a separatist project for the Russian Volga region that Hitler played during the war.
Diplomats representing all parties involved are surely working hard to avoid the worst, but all of this does not bode well for millions of Eastern Ukrainians trapped between Putin’s dictatorship and the ethnonationalist project backed by the United States. United States for Ukraine – as promoted by experts from the Atlantic Council – which challenges social and cultural reality in the post-Soviet region.
Renewed conflict will inevitably lead to renewed polarization in Ukraine. A unifying figure that transcends the country’s east-west linguistic divide, Zelenskyy could be Ukraine’s last chance to escape partition and the West’s last chance to preserve Ukraine as a potential role model to inspire the pro-democracy Russians. No one, except the hawkish hawks of Moscow, Washington and Kiev, would gain from another bloodbath in Ukraine.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.