The current escalation of tensions around eastern Ukraine is dangerous and may appear untimely and inopportune while Europe and Russia seek to focus on managing the latest COVID-19 pandemic wave as well as addressing its accumulating economic and social consequences. Nevertheless, a deliberate political choice is dictating the uptick in violence in the Donbas war zone, raising the risk of renewed major military conflict. This choice is being made in the Kremlin, and the rationale becomes comprehensible only within the context of the ongoing transformation of President Vladimir Putin’s regime into an autocratic police state (VTimes, March 31).
The latest spike in frontline clashes (see EDM, March 11, 15, 24) was triggered in part by United States President Joseph Biden’s statement last month labeling Putin a “killer,” which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov continues to decry as “outrageous” (Russiancouncil.ru, April 1). Lavrov may just be demonstrating his loyalty, but Putin’s behavior has, indeed, changed since those words exploded like a bomb in Russia’s stagnant political arena (Rosbalt, March 30; see EDM, March 18, 22). The Kremlin leader has come out of his extended quarantine and now seeks to prove that the levers of control remain firmly in his hands, noting that Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin is quite effectively reformatting the government according to Putin’s own agenda (Riddle, March 29).
Russia’s sluggish economic recovery somewhat mars Putin’s reappearance in the political limelight, and yet he remains reluctant to disburse state reserves through a meaningful stimulus package (Kommersant, April 2). What worries Russians the most, at present, is the widening gap between their incomes and fast-rising consumer prices: only 25 percent of respondents in a recent opinion poll confirmed that their income is higher than what they consider a necessary minimum (Newsru.com, March 26). The government relies on administrative measures to curtail inflation, but prices on basic food products keep climbing (Novaya Gazeta, March 30). The agricultural lobby accepts the limitations and even some bans on export, but as compensation, farmers demand guarantees of profits on the domestic market; and this undermines the political instructions to ensure price stability (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 31).
Putin appears to have little interest in these mundane matters but feels the need to address the deepening discontent in order to boost his sagging popularity—and in his experience, nothing works better toward these aims than a crisis on Russia’s borders (Republic, April 2). Ukraine presents a target of convenience, and Putin also wanted to express his irritation over Kyiv’s prosecution of his useful local proxy, pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, accused by the Ukrainian authorities of treacherous collaboration with Moscow (Carnegie.ru, March 29; see EDM, February 24). Four Ukrainian soldiers lost their lives in a fire exchange on March 26, and Kyiv took that incident quite seriously (Moscow Times, March 27).
The escalation has alarmed European neighbors, so German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron held a video-conference with Putin on March 30 (Kommersant, March 31; see EDM, April 1). The departure from the principle of never discussing Ukraine behind its back was upsetting for Kyiv, but the Kremlin had few reasons to revel because the European duo insisted on discussing matters not to Putin’s liking (Rosbalt, March 31). The harsh persecution of Alexei Navalny, who has been denied medical support while suffering in prison, is a particularly sensitive issue for the Russian president, so the high-level chat with Merkel and Macron left him even more anxious (Grani.ru, April 1).
Russian pressure on Ukraine intensified with a series of snap military exercises near its borders and the deployment of heavy armor into the Crimea (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 1). The Kremlin confirmed the rise in tensions but placed the blame for “multiple provocations” squarely on Ukraine, noting that Russia moved its troops as it saw fit and needed no justification (Meduza.io, April 1). The US was compelled to take the lead in managing this crisis, and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin called Ukrainian Defense Minister Andrii Taran, while General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had a conversation with General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia’s General Staff (TASS, April 1). On April 2, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy finally held his first conversation with President Biden, and he received reassurances of US support in the face of Russian aggression (RBC, April 2).
One might have expected that, faced with these reactions by Washington and its allies, Putin would back off; but the inertia of the Russian propaganda campaign has kept him on track to keep escalating, despite rising risks and diminishing returns (Novaya Gazeta, April 3). Official commentaries in Moscow insinuated that the US encouraged and even pushed Ukraine to launch offensive operations in Donbas (RIA Novosti, April 3). Other pundits speculated that Biden berated Zelenskyy for the latter’s lack of progress with reforms and rampant corruption (Izvestia, April 4). Disinformation designed to swing public opinion is a favorite instrument for the Kremlin (Levada.ru, March 3). The problem is that the habitual denials of Russia’s own misdeeds and blunders as well as reliance on lies about the intentions of its opponents generate a distorted political reality, in which virtual war-making becomes indistinguishable from actual fire-fights in the muddy trenches cutting across the Donetsk and Luhansk regions (Moscow echo, April 2).
Starting a real war would surely be a step too far for the Kremlin at this moment; but Moscow’s conscious intensification of the situation represents another step forward along the slippery ground of political posturing and faking muscular resolve. Putin is by no means a risk-taker or a natural warrior, yet his experience with waging wars, starting from Chechnya in the early days of his “reign” and continuing in Syria, tells him that the costs are affordable while human suffering is of little import. He used to be a cynical and cold pragmatic, but the extra-long access to unconstrained power and the eager servility of his courtiers have changed him into a whimsical despot. The year-long self-isolation has only aggravated Putin’s departure into a solipsistic world, where his word rules unchallenged.
He sees Ukraine as an artificial state ridden by internal divisions, Europe as a conglomerate of disagreeable nations unable to take a joint stance, and the United States as a declining hegemon sinking into domestic discord. Dissuading him from these self-pleasing perceptions through a high-level dialogue is likely a senseless approach, but determined containment can still cut across the layers of propaganda delusions. Ukraine stands firm against Russian threats and bluffs, and with sustained Western help, it can prove Putin’s failure.