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Magic Call

Biden-Putin

The direct interference of U.S. President averted the military-political crisis that the Kremlin was trying to create

The dangerous situation near the eastern borders of Ukraine and from the side of Crimea eased somewhat after President Biden’s phone call to Vladimir Putin. Russian troops remain concentrated and, according to Ukrainian intelligence data, their size will even increase by the end of April. But the likelihood of their use in large-scale actions against Ukraine has decreased significantly, even though it was not very high.

Trying to understand why Putin suddenly moved troops, there are at least three important factors to keep in mind.

First, the Kremlin failed to force President Zelensky to implement the Minsk Agreements on its own terms, which Russia hoped for after the change in Ukrainian leadership and the proclaimed course towards peace.

Second, last year and the beginning of current year were marked by a sharp, even under Russian standards, toughening of the regime, due to the procedures for consolidating the eternal status of the Russian president amid decline in support and a sudden surge of protests in the “allied” Belarus, which only yesterday was a model of stability and total loyalty to Lukashenka. Those factors certainly did not contribute to the peace-loving and liberalising policies of the Kremlin.

And third, perhaps most important aspect, is the new White House administration that is overtly hostile towards Putin. Sanctions over all things, which Trump apologised, were guaranteed to Russia, as was the resumption of intensive U.S. relations with NATO partners. The Russian leadership faced the problem of how to react to the new American policy, while indicating a strong position. Obviously, they decided to press on the most vulnerable point, the Ukrainian one.

It is very difficult to describe Russia’s actions as successful. Politicians, the military and diplomats at the highest levels in the EU, NATO, G7, and individual states quickly liven up, reassuring Ukraine of their support and calling on the Russian leadership to end the dangerous game. At the same time, consultations were held between the Allies and Ukraine on the necessary assistance. The West, and not only the West, if we recall the position of Turkey, sided with Ukraine. Biden’s phone calls, first to Zelensky and later to Putin, crowned these urgent mobilisation actions. After that, the President of Ukraine had talks with Macron and Merkel, but the aggravation started to abate after the direct involvement of the U.S. president in the process.

If the Kremlin’s goal was to force Biden to be the first to make contact, Putin received the most expensive call ever, given the cost of large-scale movements of military units and equipment. Indeed, Washington offered Putin a meeting, and in the two-day pause that separated the offer from the announcement of a new wave of sanctions, many made triumphant statements that Biden allegedly backed down and Putin was stronger. But the sanctions package turned out to be so serious and painful that talks about a weak Biden quickly stopped.

Restrictions were imposed on Russian organisations and citizens over Russia’s interference in the 2020 presidential election, the cyber attack on U.S. government agencies and an agreement with the Taliban to attack U.S. troops. Six technology companies involved in the cyberattacks, 16 individuals and as many legal entities involved in the disinformation campaign, as well as organisations and individuals involved in construction of the Crimean Bridge, are now under sanctions. Moreover, the sanctions will also apply to family members of persons subjected to sanctions, including adult children. Ten Russian diplomats will be expelled from the United States. But most importantly, American investors are prohibited from working with Russian government securities that will be issued after June 14. This practically kills the possibility for the Russian government to borrow money in the foreign market in the future. According to experts, this is the most powerful blow, the force of which will be felt over time.

Commenting on the move, Biden said modestly that he had chosen the softest version of sanctions so far because he wanted to stabilise and normalise relations with Russia. But if Russia does not change its policy, he is “ready to take further action.” In the summer, the President of the United States is ready to hold a summit with Putin in one of the European countries. Why not? By then, by the way, the second round of sanctions over Alexei Navalny’s poisoning will be launched. To evade them, Russia must commit to stopping the use of chemical weapons and allow inspections at its production sites. It is hard to imagine that Russia will accede to these conditions.

Thus, the Kremlin upped its stakes in a major game with the West by threatening Ukraine. However, it only convinced everyone yet again that it is a constant source of international danger and forced opponents to unite and strengthen collective security measures. Ukraine has become a part of this security system somehow or other, and its role will only grow. In this sense, Russia helps to accelerate these processes. No wonder the NATO perspective is now much more often mentioned in Ukraine.

The threat to Ukraine from Russia under the current regime will continuously increase and decrease, but it will never disappear being a constant factor. So far, the recent escalation has allegedly been abated by the involvement of the most powerful force, the United States. But it is important to move gradually from sporadic putting out fires, which Russia has ignited or threatens to ignite, to establishing conditions when there will be no fires or fire threats. This is a common cause of all those who held out their hands to Ukraine during the current crisis, and much has to be done.

Leonid Shvets

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