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Putin seeks to “Finlandize” Ukraine

Vladimir Putin

Almost in all recent weeks, we have been trying to understand what exactly the Kremlin‘s goals are. Reports from the leading Western publications on the concentration of the troops at the Ukrainian borders were initially skeptically perceived by the Ukrainian government. In Kyiv, they were even surprised with this information, mentioning that they did not understand why the leading American media were taking part in Russia’s “propaganda campaign.” The tone did not change even after the US officials, including US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, expressed concern about the concentration of Russian troops. President Volodymyr Zelensky noted that Russian forces are constantly at the Ukraine’s borders, and the West is noticing this only now. Other Ukrainian government officials spoke in a similar tone.

However, gradually the tone of the Ukrainian leadership has changed. The head of the main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, Kirill Budanov, acknowledged the possibility of a Russian invasion next winter. Now, American, Ukrainian and European politicians speak with one voice.

Moscow, for its part, accuses American politicians and the media of propaganda campaigning against Russia and claims that Russia is not going to attack anyone unless… Ukraine provokes it. The fact that the Russian capital often emphasises that the West is “pumping Ukraine with weapons” and that Kyiv is “carrying out aggressive plans” is also alarming. After all, when Russia accuses others of provocations, it usually prepares these provocations itself.

That is why the statements of Russian officials and propagandists should be carefully analysed. Russia’s Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, one of Vladimir Putin‘s closest advisers, has frightened the West into “flare up” at any moment in Ukraine and destabilise millions of Ukrainian refugees. Patrushev’s deputy Oleksandr Hrebenkin claims that Ukrainian special services are preparing sabotage actions in Crimea. The so-called “head of the Donetsk People’s Republic” Denis Pushylin says that Kyiv wants to solve the problem of Donbas by military means according to the “Croatian scenario.” Moreover, Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenka, who is increasingly fulfilling Moscow’s political wishes, accuses Ukraine of trying to destabilise the situation in Belarus.

All these statements allow us to conclude that Russian aggression can advance from several directions at once – the occupied territories of Donbas and Crimea, as well as from the border of Belarus, where it is the easiest to attack Kyiv. The Kremlin seems to be demonstrating to the Ukrainian leadership and the West that it is ready to take decisive action to dismantle Ukrainian statehood. But the West says it will not leave Ukraine alone in the face of a Russian attack. The United States is considering new arms supplies to Ukraine. The United Kingdom has promised to send special forces to Ukraine in the event of a Russian attack. Lastly, Sweden is ready to send military instructors to the country. The tone of the “Normandy format” mediators, the leaders of Germany and France, has become much tougher on Russia, especially after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov published his official correspondence with colleagues from Berlin and Paris, violating diplomatic etiquette. It turned out that the foreign ministers of France and Germany are not going to consider Russia as a “mediator” in the conflict in Donbas and agree to the possibility of direct talks between Kyiv and the “puppet” government of the so-called “people’s republics.”

All this, of course, on the one hand, can inspire optimism, and, on the other, create an atmosphere of anticipation of a real military conflict, not just between Russia and Ukraine, but between Russia and the West – at the Ukrainian territory.

Vladimir Putin seems to like it very much. During the board meeting of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Putin said that such strong tension is even useful. In this way Russia makes it clear to the civilised world what price one would have to pay for Ukraine’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration. These statements suggest that so far it is not that much about war as it is about creating an atmosphere of the anticipation of war.

Why does the Kremlin need such an atmosphere? Probably, the desire to demonstrate the full-potential escalation is connected to the preparation of a possible new meeting of the presidents of Russia and the United States. It is no secret that Ukraine may become the main topic of the talks between the presidents. By the way, the desire to discuss the situation with the American president is one of the reasons why the Kremlin refused to negotiate in the “Normandy format” and ignored Angela Merkel’s offer to hold a summit of leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia before her retirement.

What does Putin want to offer Biden? The sketch of Russia’s intentions was presented by an expert close to the Kremlin, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy Fedor Lukyanov. In the article published by Russia in Global Politics, Lukyanov argues that to ease tensions over Ukraine, the United States and Russia must return to a situation where other states do not have to decide for themselves which economic and military alliances they have to join. Simply put, Ukraine’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration must be put to an end. But not only that. The expert suggests returning to the model of “Finlandization”. Let me remind you that after the Second World War, Finland avoided occupation by the Soviet Union and the establishment of a communist regime. However, Finland has virtually lost the opportunity to pursue an independent foreign policy. Finland got a chance to enter the international arena only after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moscow would like to give such a status to Ukraine – with the only difference that in the Ukrainian case it may be just one of the stages of Russia’s liquidation of Ukrainian statehood.

Will the US President agree with such proposals? It is hard to believe, but it is obvious that Joseph Biden will look for ways to prevent a military conflict, a way to compromise. Thus, the Ukrainian leadership will need to make serious efforts to ensure that this compromise is not reached at the expense of Ukraine.

Here we return to the issue of trust, which we have had to talk about many times. To what extent does the current Ukrainian leadership enjoy the confidence of the White House, and can they influence the position of the President of the United States and other American leaders? To what extent do they manage to convey their opinion to the US administration during the preparations for the Putin-Biden summit? These are not simple questions. If we remember that the President of Ukraine was invited to Washington after the meeting of the American and Russian presidents and after the administration decided not to interfere with the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. After all, today, the launch of this pipeline is considered by many experts to be a possible stage that will facilitate the Russian attack. Has Washington drawn the right conclusions from the consequences of the Nord Stream 2 story? Do they understand what the real intentions of Vladimir Putin are?

Vitaliy Portnikov

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