On the fate of Ukraine, Moscow multiplies gambles, silences and warnings. After the declaration, Wednesday January 19, of the American president Joe Biden seeming to exclude a strong Western response in the event of“minor incursion” of Russia in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin contented itself with denouncing remarks “destabilizers”. “For a long time, the Russian president understood that Americans and Europeans would not send soldiers ready to die to help their Ukrainian ally” warns a European military attaché in Moscow. He fears a more or less orchestrated provocation and does not rule out a surprise from Vladimir Putin, a past master of blows taking Westerners unawares.
A matter of domestic politics
In the event of a Russian invasion of its neighbour, Americans and Europeans have certainly brandished the threat of new, strict economic sanctions against Moscow. But Russia’s elite seem to not care, since the first steps, after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, failed to significantly disrupt the Russian economy. On the contrary, Moscow’s diplomacy of uncertainty, wielding a permanent state of threat, allows it to use Ukraine to strengthen its negotiating positions on other issues of tension with the West. And to…send a strong message in domestic politics.
“The more Westerners raise their voices against Putin, the more support the president has in Russia itself”, recalls among others Igor, a young Muscovite opponent. Behind the Kremlin’s arm wrestling with the West, the patriotic overtones of the official discourse taken up by the public media persuade a large part of the population that the country is surrounded by NATO and threatened by Westerners. Enough to forget the declining figures in purchasing power and those on the rise in mortality due to Covid. And boost the popularity of Vladimir Putin.
The Russian ultimatum
As the Russian military has resumed troop movements along the Ukrainian border and further north in Belarus, Russian diplomats have warned they are setting the bar high for Friday’s meeting in Geneva between Sergei Lavrov and Anthony Blinken. The Russian Foreign Minister passed on the message to the American Secretary of State: he expects written answers from Washington. Moscow demands de facto a treaty banishing any enlargement of NATO, in particular to Ukraine, but also a renunciation of military deployments in Eastern Europe.
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In exchange, Russia, which deems its demands non-negotiable and says it is acting under the threat of NATO reinforcement since the fall of the USSR, does not offer any commitment on its part. The standoff launched by the Kremlin is less like an invasion plan than a maneuver to maintain pressure on Westerners. With a key issue on which Moscow prefers to negotiate directly with Washington while marginalizing Europe: the security architecture in… Europe. The dossier will be at the heart of the Lavrov-Blinken discussions in Geneva. On Wednesday 19, French President Emmanuel Macron nevertheless called for “conclude a European proposal”. His diary – “build a plan between Europeans, share it with our allies within the framework of NATO, then propose it to Russia for negotiation” – makes Moscow smile.