Timothy Ash: Russian threat remains
Kind of interesting to see all these narratives now being built, out of Moscow, that Russia is pulling its forces back from the border with Ukraine, as a de-escalation move, and that somehow Vladimir Putin played a great hand.
See the FT piece below I guess a good example of that.
I struggle a bit with this narrative for a number of reasons:
First, excuse me, but I am a little distrustful of Putin, and not sure Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s promises of pulling Russian troops back can be taken at face value.
Why should we trust Moscow after the 2004 Orange Revolution (remember the Viktor Yushchenko poisoning), Georgia, Crimea, Donbas, Alexandr Litvinenko, Sergei and Yulia Skrypal, the Czech ammo dump explosions, US election meddling, Montenegro coup attempt, Alexei Navalny and Novichok, Olympic doping, et al, et al?
Indeed, Russia is leaving most of the military kit behind, while I think one of the results of these exercises is that plenty of troops have now been quietly redeployed to Crimea and the region. More troops are now permanently within striking range of Ukraine. Also, note that the naval exercises are continuing in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Straits are likely to be closed to Ukrainian naval vessels and likely civilian vessels for much of the time through October. This will pressurise Ukraine economically.
From current military settings, Russia is still on the front foot here, and much more able now to escalate to invasion settings at very short notice.
Second, if indeed this is Russia de-escalating, then isn’t the big winner Joe Biden? He used a stick (sanctions) and carrot (a summit offer) to encourage Putin to de-escalate.
And surely this just shows Biden that sanctions work, and he can roll these out to hurt Putin if Navalny dies or if Russia does more malign stuff.
Third, what did Putin really get?
OK, he got a summit meeting offer, but that could easily still be pulled, and especially if Navalny dies. But honesty, is Biden really going to fall to Putin’s charm as this utterly ridiculous comment in the FT piece suggests? So is Biden is going to go from thinking Putin is a killer, to a cuddly loveable kind of guy who is just so misunderstood?
He showed he can put a big force on Ukraine’s border quickly to try and intimidate, but in the end, he blinked, he showed weakness. And I don’t think we saw the Ukrainians cower or give concessions. They stood up to his aggression, even if Western support was rather soft.
I don’t think the last few weeks’ actions will change the Ukrainian course at all. They are crystal clear who their adversary is, and they know him well. And imagine even Zelensky, who came in as a peacemaker, and was elected on that mandate, is now clear as to what Putin wants and how to respond to him – even he realizes that appeasement with Putin does not pay.
And in the end, Putin came out of this looking like a big bully, not a compromiser.
And I don’t think it will deter Western countries from providing further military support to Ukraine, actually the opposite, as I think they will all further realize that Russia is now the biggest threat to peace in Europe, and the Ukrainians are their best chance of defense against any further Russian advances into Europe.
Quietly, NATO members will be further arming and training Ukraine. Notable here is think was even Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan standing up to Putin and agreeing to continue to supply military drones despite being warned of a painful tourism ban by Putin.
And what about Donbas peace talks?
Well, President Volodymyr Zelensky offered Putin a summit in Donbas.
Putin responded by saying he is prepared to offer Zelensky a Moscow summit to talk about bilateral relations, but he needs to talk to rebel leaders to seek peace in Donbas. We all know that this is not going to work or happen. Who are the rebel leaders? They change almost monthly on direction from Moscow. The conflict in Donbas is being driven by Moscow, and any peace talks have to be at the state level, as per Normandy format talks and Minsk 2.
Zelensky can never sit down with rebel leaders as this will concede to Moscow’s line that the conflict is a civil war, which it is not.
If Zelensky does that then he will face uproar and a possible coup in Kyiv, which is exactly what Putin wants by making such an offer. But Zelensky seems to have conceded no ground on peace talks, or the position of Putin’s ally Viktor Medvedchuk or those pro-Russian TV stations closed down.
So what has Putin got?
In reality not very much.
Now maybe that is fine, but it leaves the question of why he bothered with all this to arguably come out weaker?
The answer likely is that this is not all over.
Remember Kavkaz 2008, and Russian military drills in the South Caucasus, as just as Russian wound down those drills proved to be the most dangerous point, as the troops were diverted to attack Georgia.
As one Russian military watcher warned me, it’s at times when lots of troops are on the move that the situation is most dangerous, as such seemingly benign actions can mask very malign endeavors.