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Russia and Ukraine: between theater and real war

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On December 1, Washington accused Russia of “planning an invasion.” THE’NATO met this week and issued formal warnings against Moscow.

A brief face-to-face meeting between the heads of the Russian and US diplomacy took place in Sweden on December 2. But this meeting did not help to ease the tension, judging by the statements made on the sidelines of this half-hour face-to-face between the American Antony Blinken and the Russian Sergey Lavrov.

On the images of Stockholm, we see them both, Blinken and Lavrov, face rather closed, with a good distance between the two, going there for two monologues.

Blinken and Lavrov giving official speeches.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov deliver remarks during a meeting in Stockholm, Sweden, December 2, 2021.

Photo: AFP / JONATHAN NACKSTRAND

In his statement, Blinken urges Moscow to abandon any plans to invade Ukraine, calls for a peaceful resolution of the clash. And then Lavrov, he reiterates that Russia has no belligerent intentions and echoes the remarks made the day before in the Kremlin by his boss Vladimir Putin according to whichNATO“,” text “:” the real danger comes from NATO “}}”>the real danger comes from theNATO, alleging that it is this organization that threatens the security of Russia, manipulate and use Ukraine for this purpose, etc.

Is a Russian invasion really possible today? Blinken said, at the last meeting of theNATO in Riga, Latvia, that Washington has proofs supposed to demonstrate that Moscow is considering an invasion.

Proofs? But of what exactly? Regarding an accumulation of troops at the border, satellite photos show it. Several tens of thousands of Russian soldiers; maybe 100,000 were brought there sometime in November. But for what purpose exactly?

Moscow had done the same in the spring, before withdrawing a good part of its troops… after a few weeks of intimidation maneuvers.

A satellite image of the Russian Army.

A satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows the deployment of Russian armed forces to Yelnya, Russia on November 1, 2021.

Photo: Reuters

A deep conflict

A deep conflict and much hostility remain between Moscow and Kiev. The case is steeped in history and geography. There is, in the south-east of the country, a war jelly since seven years. Two cities are de facto separated from Ukraine, in a very Russified region.

Moscow has local allies there. It is an open secret that unidentified Russian mercenaries – the famous little green men – entered in 2014, helping armed rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk.

This war, although jelly, nonetheless killed 13,000 people in seven years, including women and children. Moscow seeks to intimidate, to destabilize (in different ways) the Ukrainian regime, which is trying to defend its sovereignty against Moscow, relying as best it can on the West. Westerners who help the government in Kiev, but only up to a certain point, because above all they do not want to be sucked into a military confrontation.

There is also a divided people, in a country where the political scene is fragmented and difficult to read. President Volodymyr Zelensky, however, was elected in 2019 with an overwhelming score (73% in the second round). Today it follows a pro-Western line, with repeated requests for membership in NATO and the European Union, to which the West is opposed.

Russia has never accepted the independence of Ukraine (30 years ago), an event experienced in Moscow as an uprooting, during the collapse of the Soviet Union. This feeling of tearing, coupled with a desire for revenge, prompted, shortly after the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency (late 2012), and the so-called Maidan movement (late 2013 and early 2014) in Kiev which had driven out the pro-Russian authorities in power a powerful backfire.

These were the conquest and annexation of Crimea in the spring of 2014; then the war in eastern Ukraine, relying on local pro-Russian populations. So much for the general decor.

  Ukrainian soldier in a trench.

A Ukrainian soldier on the line with pro-Russian rebels near Donetsk.

Photo: AP

Invasion… or simple intimidation?

Now, in 2021, are we in a real preparation for an invasion or is it not rather a big theater of bullying piloted by Moscow?

Antony Blinken said on February 1: We don’t know if President Putin made the decision to invade. What we do know is that he is building the capacity to do it quickly, if he so chooses.

The military, it is known, regularly make plans which may or may not be finally implemented on the ground. At the end of the day, it’s the president who decides.

So that Putin wants to put pressure on the Ukrainians in all kinds of ways is clear. Let him see, in his crazy dreams, a Russia reunited with Ukraine, the historical cradle of the Slavic peoples (Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians)… that is undoubtedly part of his psyche, of his fantasies.

But there is nothing that Vladimir Poutine loves more than to sow doubt, fear, uncertainty … without always putting his threats into action. He’s a poker player.

Zelensky ready to negotiate … or to fight

For his part, President Zelensky said yesterday that he was ready for bilateral negotiations“,” text “:” anytime “}} ‘>whenever with his Russian counterpart. We do not have the impression that Moscow is in a hurry to respond to this invitation.

  Volodymyr Zelensky, in front of a Ukrainian flag, gesturing

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

Photo: Reuters / GLEB GARANICH

Moscow, credibly accused of massing its troops at the border, on the other hand accuses Kiev of massing its own soldiers in the south-east of the country, in the Donbass region, near the two cities taken by the pro-Russians in 2014. Which is not wrong. Moscow speaks, perhaps exaggeratingly, of 125,000 Ukrainian soldiers displaced in the Donbass.

In his last speeches, President Zelensky, while saying that he wants to speak immediately with his Russian counterpart, adds in the same breath: My army is ready, if necessary, to fight.

He even said this week that this army is incomparably stronger than it was in 2014 – when indeed we saw its collapse against the Russians in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk.

There is undoubtedly a good majority of Ukrainians attached to the independence won 30 years ago, to an identity distinct from that of Russia. People who have their eyes turned to the West, to Europe… and not to Moscow.

But a sizeable minority in this country, on the contrary, thinks that the commonalities are more important with Russia than with the West. Some of these pro-Russians even dream of dismembering Ukraine and reuniting a large part of its territory with Russia.

The tragedy in Ukraine has a lot to do with this great east-west divide: social, linguistic, identity divide.

Western ambivalence

And the Westerners in this drama? Doesn’t Ukraine’s military build-up in recent years prove that the Russian accusations are partly founded? Yes, but…

State Secretary Antony Blinken

State Secretary Antony Blinken at a press conference following the NATO Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Riga.

Photo: afp via getty images / GINTS IVUSKANS

The Americans support Kiev in words and in money. But only up to a point. They sent weapons and military equipment – including the famous anti-tank Javelin missiles provided by Washington. Aid that would total in the $ 4 billion for seven years, according to figures circulating.

Americans also say: If the Russians dare to attack Ukraine, there will be very harsh sanctions against Moscow, sanctions that will hurt a lot. We strongly support the sovereignty of Ukraine. (Antony Blinken at the NATO meeting on December 1, then the next day, almost in the same words, to his Russian counterpart).

But NATO in Riga did not say anything specific about what would be done, in concrete terms, if Russia crossed the Ukrainian border. A constant in the attitude of Westerners: a lot of words, a little money and weapons defensive… But without ever, never wanting to get involved directly against Moscow.

Crossed lamentations

In the opposing lamentations of Moscow and Kiev, there is something very ironic, a sort of mirror effect. On the one hand, we hear the Russians (and the usual anti-Americans, who support them) repeating: The Ukrainians are the Americans’ pawns; everything is the fault of the Yankees, who manipulate everything; Ukraine is full of American weapons.

A soldier in a trench

Ukrainian soldier in a trench near Dontetsk

Photo: afp via getty images / ANATOLII STEPANOV

But on the other hand, and frankly, you hear Ukrainians who feel – despite the beautiful words of support from Antony Blinken and Joe Biden – really alone and half-abandoned. When, for example, NATO tells them: No way, you will not join our organization. When they also see that despite the economic aid and the arms supplies, they are made to understand: We will not go and fight with you.

In Kiev, the concern over intimidation from Moscow is real and well-founded. Concern answered by the Russians, who are absolutely haunted by the supposed imperialist encirclement NATO, an old obsession that dates back to the USSR. Putin said on December 1 – and his minister Lavrov repeated it the next day: We want formal commitments that NATO will no longer expand east.

A formal Russian invasion? Unlikely. The Ukrainian army could prove to be more resilient than expected. But a continuation of false negotiations, invectives, skirmishes, harassments, with perhaps a remake of the episode of little green men of 2014, aimed at expanding the Donetsk-Luhansk area? Plausible scenario, without much hope for a solution.

In 2021, everyone’s eyes are on China… but the Russo-European Cold War has fine remains.

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