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Putin and Ukraine – a bluff?

SS-20 Intermediate Range Nuclear Missile (cc-by-sa: George Chernilevsky)

From Germany, Ukraine is no further away than Spain. Nevertheless, Ukraine is far away in the perception of most EU citizens. The former Soviet republic was the third largest nuclear power in the world in the 90s. Ukraine had inherited a significant portion of the Soviet arsenal and produced quite a few parts for these missiles. Initially, Western intelligence services assumed that Ukraine could not use the weapons anyway. The end of history had supposedly been introduced: the Cold War was over. But Ukrainian engineers soon began to override the safety mechanisms and convert the missiles for use against closer targets. In order to keep the number of nuclear powers low, Ukraine was offered... Budapest Memorandum to voluntarily give up their nuclear weapons. In order not to be left alone in the event of a third world war, the USA, Russia and Great Britain promised to help Ukraine with its defense in such an event. When Russia attacked Ukraine, took over Crimea and supported a (civil) war in Donbas that continues to this day, no one helped. They took refuge in the details of the contract and explained that none of this was covered by the agreement reached. One of the reasons why no state today wants to voluntarily give up nuclear weapons. 

Annoy the West

On the one hand, the West is dissatisfied with the Russian government's actions, but not enough to actually do anything. On the other hand, Putin knows exactly where the weak points of Western politics lie and can easily assess how his voters will react to his actions. In the past decades he has always aligned his actions with the prospects of domestic political success. Everything was calculated, almost everything went as he imagined. For Western politicians, however, the most important metric is the strategic Sunday question. The question of what percentage of those eligible to vote still support the individual or the party drives large parts of political decisions. So our politicians try to satisfy as many large groups as possible. Putin, on the other hand, only has to spread discord in the Western European states by provoking the politicians there and can then drag his political opponents through the ring like a bear by the nose. So he has the easier position. 

Does Putin want to bluff or attack?

In my research in April Sources in the Russian army explained to me that they are assuming a Russian attack on eastern Ukraine. Now they are no longer sure - but neither are their Ukrainian counterparts. “Nothing is happening right now. In thirty years, Putin has done nothing that would harm him domestically. But it's not just about the percentages in the election, he sets them himself anyway. But the economy and foreign policy are also important to him. No matter how you twist and turn it. Militarily, he could safely march through the Donbas to Kiev, and probably also to Warsaw, before someone stopped him. Or dismantle Europe with atomic bombs. But to see everything in military terms is not enough. In the end, he wouldn't get anything out of it. He needs trading partners and he needs political power. Such an action would kill him politically in the West. And therefore economically and also domestically. How was he supposed to finance such a victory? He would be economically exhausted in five years and Russia in ten years. That's what he plans to do. What Putin actually does is annoy. Gladly across the corner,” says an advisor to the Ukrainian government. 

Analysts disagree

George Friedmann, who has often been correct in his assessments in the past, sees it similarly. However, he looks next to those already mentioned Military problems too. “(…) Since combat is expected to increase as movement decreases, a phase would require massive amounts of fuel, oil and lubricants. The second phase would require large quantities of all types of ammunition. The likelihood of uncoordinated pauses in the advance is high (…) The second problem is that it would lead to a complicated multi-front war (…) The Russians have not fought such a multi-division battle since the Second World War.” On paper, that may seem "The army may be strong, but it hasn't fought a war for a long time that it considered hopeless." The pilots were able to train in Syria, and the Wagner mercenaries were also deployed a lot. But in the end, it's not enough to have a stack of puzzle pieces. They also have to be put together correctly and form a meaningful unit. 

Migrants and refugees in Belarus

Kurds returning from Belarus in Erbil

What Russia can do now is disrupt the West. On May 23, 2021, Ryanair flight FR4978 from Athens (Greece) to Vilnius (Lithuania) was intercepted in Belarusian airspace, escorted by a MiG-29 fighter aircraft and forced to land in Minsk. A Belarusian dissident who was on board was arrested and later tortured. This was followed by numerous sanctions from the West against Belarus, which may have acted with Russia's consent. Russia is compensating for the economic damage in Belarus. In order to have a bargaining chip against these sanctions, people from crisis and war zones were flown to Belarus with the promise of bringing them to Germany. Many people were desperate and naive enough to believe the farmers. The Belarusian security forces repeatedly drove them to the Polish border, where they expected Polish security forces and pushed them back. More and more refugees gave up and traveled back to their homeland, some made it, others died from the exertion escaping after reaching their destination.

Put Germany under pressure

In Germany, these actions led to the desired result: on the one hand, right-wingers want stronger action against the arriving people, while on the other hand, the illegal “pushbacks”, i.e. the pushing back of people after they have already been in the EU, are condemned. Cruel images emerge of starving people sleeping in the forest without protection, drenched by water cannons. And this PR stunt costs Putin nothing. But Putin can offer the West negotiations like this: He can use his influence to ensure that no more migrants are driven to the border and in return he would like concessions from the EU. 

On the other hand, parts of the EU depend on Russian gas. The completed NordStream 2 pipeline is intended to bring the gas directly to the EU - past the former Soviet republics. The pipelines have so far been good sources of income, especially for Ukraine and Poland. Germany imports around a third of its natural gas from Russia - more than from any other country. You cannot simply switch to other sources at short notice. Everyone involved knows that too. Putin can therefore use this bargaining chip permanently. Whether the gas comes through NordStream 2 or another pipeline is relatively irrelevant to us as users. But it is crucial for the states through which the gas has been routed so far. 

Another means of pressure that is less known to the public is the fertilizer delivery. Russia has reduced deliveries to Germany. As a result, the price of lime ammonium nitrate (KAS), a nitrogen fertilizer, rose from around €200 per ton to around €600 per ton in just one year. This is likely to have a greater impact on agriculture next year. 

Life goes on

Bar in Kiev

But on the ground in Kiev, young people seem more resigned than worried. They are not interested in the details of the conflict. The war in Donbas is almost 1.000 km away. “I'm 22 now, the war has been going on since I was 16. And before that we also had problems with the Russians. On the other hand, we import a lot of them. Russian oligarchs even have houses here in Kiev. We can't do anything with the Russians, but without them we also have problems. And the Donbas? Yes. No idea. It's like in the movie when an asteroid flies towards the earth: of course we see it. Of course it might bang. But we can't do anything here anyway. So why waste time on it? If I cared about it, I would have had big wrinkles on my forehead for seven years. Otherwise nothing would have changed. And nobody helps us anyway. Not even our corrupt government,” explains Anastasia, a student from Zhytomyr who now lives in Kiev. Your friends see it the same way. Somehow everyone gets the idea, but the bigger problems are the daily bills and crowded, drafty apartments. Whoever rules while they have no money to participate in the good life is simply secondary. 

Donbas – near the front

Armored Ukrainian military vehicle in Donetsk Oblast
Armored Ukrainian military vehicle in Donetsk Oblast

Life on the streets looks completely normal. Both in the western-oriented capital Kiev and in Kramatursk in Donbas. Many of the buildings date from the Soviet era. Poor building structure, broken stairs, holes in the street. But in these broken buildings you can also find “California Sushi”, French cafés and expensive fashion stores. Sometimes you walk through stairwells, which are reminiscent of the photos from the post-war period, before opening the door and entering a modern apartment. Those who can afford it create a good life in their own four walls, in the office, in the new shopping malls and with expensive cars. But much of what the state manages seems to have stopped fifty years ago. 

In Donbas Oblast it looks exactly like this: modern car dealers stand next to Soviet apartment blocks. In the city of Kramatursk was built in the 80s accidentally a radioactive capsule installed in a prefabricated building, which was only noticed after nine years. The Russian-led “seperatists” have been fighting the Ukrainian army in the east of the oblast since 2014. There is relative peace in the west of the oblast, even though occasional shells have hit there. The hotels and restaurants seem deserted. People are working everywhere, but the guests are missing. The fact that the area has never been particularly developed for tourism is evident from the fact that hardly anyone speaks English. 

The war that divides Ukraine and the oblast is also an unpopular topic in the latter city. Whether an attack is imminent or not, whether there are current problems or not: most people give evasive answers. The fear of giving the wrong answer is too great. You never know what political views the other person has. But after a short conversation, most people declare that they are not particularly worried. It's saber rattling, otherwise something would have happened a long time ago. Nevertheless, the permanent presence of Russian troops is depressing the mood, the economy and future prospects. Young people are moving away. “It was similar before, but they stayed close,” explains Anna, a businesswoman. “They are more Western-oriented and want to have nightclubs and bars and experience things. But now no one is going to Donetsk, everyone is going straight to Kiev.” She, too, has little concern about an attack. What bothers her more is that she can no longer visit her parents like she used to. “They live in a village at the front. Nothing has happened to them so far, but I can no longer drive back and forth as easily and they don't want to move out of there."

An entrepreneur explains that his business was getting worse and worse: “In ten years, economic output here has fallen by around 80 percent. No matter what you do, you can't earn anything and you can't give young people a future. I experienced the Russians here eight years ago. You don't want to have them. Will they come back? I do not believe it. But Putin is crazy – I wouldn’t want to bet against it either.”

In the end the question remains who is right. The large number of analysts who consider the troop buildup to be a major bluff? There's a lot to be said for that. Or the minority that too few people listen to who predict an attack in January? An older gentleman sees it pragmatically: “I've had to change the flag in front of the house a few times. But somehow it keeps going. We’ll just wait and see what happens.”