Observations of an ex-pat: Ukrainian Light

There is a glimmer of light the end of the Ukrainian tunnel. The messages emanating from Moscow have shifted from unrestrained militant threats to militant threats with the occasional conciliatory murmur.


For a start, Moscow has agreed to continue negotiations. Most encouraging was an interview Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave to Russian radio stations on Friday. “If it depends on Russia,” he said, “then there will be no war. But we also won’t allow our interests to be rudely ignored, to be trampled.”


Of course, the only person whose opinion really matters is President Vladimir Putin, and he is the personification of Churchill’s definition of Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”


Attempts to fathom the inner workings of the Russian leader’s mind seem destined to failure as one of his clear aims is to keep the US-led Western Alliance guessing and off-balance in order to constantly retain the initiative.


One possible guide to Putin’s thinking is the Russian media. The state broadcaster Russian TV (RTV) is sticking to a bellicose line. The Ukrainians are “Nazis” threatening to attack “peace-loving” Russian speakers in the Eastern part of Ukraine. Little is reported about the 125,000 troops on the Ukrainian border but when they are referred to, the commentators stress the Kremlin position that Moscow has the right to move its forces whenever and wherever it wants within Mother Russia.


A better indication is what is being written by Russia’s leading foreign policy analysts. Former diplomat Veronika Krashenninikova, is the leading foreign affairs expert on the Supreme Council of Putin’s United Russia Party. This week she wrote in Literaturnaya Gazeta that “Moscow has already achieved unprecedented results. It forced a discussion of its agenda…and did not allow its ‘partners’ to dodge the issues. It restored dialogue on arms control and measures for military transparency.”


One of the reasons that Putin may be hesitating is that the result of the invasion option is far from a foregone conclusion. The Russian military is six time the size of the Ukrainians, but Kiev has the home ground advantage and is capable of fighting a fierce and drawn out partisan war.  Also, an invasion does not necessarily have popular Russian support. A recent poll by the Russian polling agency VTsIOM revealed that 53 percent opposed an escalation of the fighting in Ukraine.


One reason for lack support on the streets of Moscow is that the wider Russian public would be hit hard by proposed sanctions.  Putin has failed to deliver the economic growth that the 143 million Russian people need. The average salary in Russia is less than a third that of an EU worker and it dropped ten percent between 2019 and 2020. A further drop—along with body bags– will hit hard at the president’s popularity ratings.


There is also the issue of NATO solidarity. The alliance’s 30 members are committed to each other’s defence and this involves a coordinated diplomatic response. But at the same time they have their own national interests. At the moment it seems that the US and Britain are on the hard-line end of the NATO spectrum (along with most of the East European allies). France and Germany are more conciliatory.


The Russian press paint the differences as a major rift within the Alliance. This is an exaggeration. The positions are not so much a split as a case of the two groups acting out a variation of the good cop bad cop routine. The Germans have steadfastly refused to send any weapons to Ukraine but have shelved the Russia’s Nordstream2 gas pipeline. Britain has despatched anti-tank weapons to Kiev and President Biden has placed 8,500 US-based troops on heightened alert.


France’s President Emmanuel Macron has held his own Zoom talks with President Putin, partly in his capacity as the current president of the European Council, partly as a signatory to the Minsk Two Agreement with Russian on Eastern Ukraine and partly because he is in the middle of a presidential election campaign.

A spokesman for the Elysee Palace said that France and Germany did not think that the danger of war was as imminent as Britain and America believed. This message will likely be carried to Washington by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz when he meets Biden at the White House on 7 February.


Another factor giving Putin cause for further reflection is American moves to protect European energy supplies. Europe, along with the rest of the world, is suffering an energy crisis as the global economy adjusts to a post-pandemic gas and oil shortage. Oil prices this week hit a seven-year high of $90 a barrel. Russia supplies more than a third of Europe’s natural gas. The Nordstream2 pipeline would increase Russian gas exports to Europe by another third.


One of Putin’s aces was his stranglehold on Europe’s energy consumption. The shelving of Nordstream2 has weakened that hold. The US is now busy negotiating a diversion of liquefied natural gas tankers from Asian markets to Europe to further reduce European dependence on Russia. The main sources are the US, Qatar and Libya.


Of course, Putin may decide to simply put his dreams of a new Russian empire on hold for a while. He has made his wishes known; forced a reaction from the West; sowed a few seeds of discord; rattled his tank turrets; and regained a seat at the top table with threats.


If that is the case then the light at the end of the Ukrainian tunnel is definitely the oncoming Russian train and it will either keep rolling, pause, remain on the tracks, and start moving forward at another auspicious moment.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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  • Brad Barrows 29th Jan '22 - 9:47am

    I think the best interpretation is that Putin plans a more limited intervention in Ukraine but hopes that, compared to the threat of all-out war, the USA and EU are relieved and there is then no unity to apply severe sanctions. For example, officially moving forces into the Donbass ‘to protect the area from Ukrainian attack’ may not trigger unity for more sanctions when most countries already believe that Russian forces are there already.

  • @brad You may be right. But then you may be wrong. I may be right. But then I may be wrong. The only one who is likely to be right is Vladimir Putin. But then he may be wrong.

  • Nonconformistradical 30th Jan '22 - 11:26am

    @Ian Sanderson
    “‘’Moscow has the right to move its forces whenever and wherever it wants within Mother Russia.’
    Well, up to a point.”
    Who else is going to prevent them from positioning their forces whereever and whenever it likes on their own territory?

    On a totally different point – could it be that the Russian agreement to reposition its naval exercises outside Ireland’s exclusive economic zone rather than within it is a strategy to demonstrate Russian reasonableness – maybe especially as Ireland isn’t in Nato?

  • Andrew McCaig 31st Jan '22 - 10:53am

    I would echo the comment that Moscow has already achieved a significant victory through the invasion threat.
    Firstly, NATO members have made it clear they will not send forces to directly help Ukraine in a war with Russia. This is a big deterrent to the Ukrainians who would like to retake Donbass by force, since they know Russia would intervene to protect the 1 million plus Russian citizens living there.
    Secondly, Pew Research polls show that NATO citizens are very keen on being protected by the USA, but not at all keen to send their own soldiers to help other NATO countries. This makes it extremely unlikely that all the NATO countries would ever vote to accept Ukraine as a member.
    Thirdly, talks have been forced on a range of other issues, including missile deployments in Europe, and perhaps more importantly the Minsk/Normandy peace process in which autonomy for Donbass was the agreed solution. Zelenski was elected on a platform of achieving peace but nothing has happened since. The hardliners in Ukraine may have been cowed somewhat by the points above. It is at least possible that Putin genuinely wants a peaceful solution to the Ukrainian civil war, but of course that would have to include acceptance of the “right to self determination” of the Crimeans..

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