The sound of clashing sabers
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Military movements and belligerent speeches on state television again raise concerns about the Kremlin’s intentions regarding Ukraine, seven years after the capture of Crimea and the start of a war in Donbass. Meanwhile, the condition of Russia’s most prominent prisoner, Alexei Navalny, is causing growing concern.
Here are some of the main developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways for the future.
Talk about war
Two buildups in Russia are raising concerns that the Seven Years’ War in Donbass will flare up again this spring. One is the movement of military forces towards the Ukrainian border and into the Crimea, the other is a wave of belligerent reporting and rhetoric on state television.
An example: an exchange in which a guest told Vladimir Soloviev, a prominent political talk show host, that Russia could end hostilities “by threaten use tactical nuclear weapons, at least “, and suggested that to show the warning had bite, Moscow could” carry out a nuclear blast somewhere in empty ocean waters – but not so empty it wouldn’t be seen. “.
Soloviev had asked how quickly a “Russian battle against NATO forces in Ukraine” “would lead to a nuclear conflict”.
With military movements, Russia’s ultimate goal is unclear, presumably on purpose. And several of the Kremlin’s objectives may not live up to the intention of launching a major offensive and taking control of more territories in Ukraine – where Moscow has occupied the Crimean peninsula since March 2014. and helped separatists take and hold parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions since April, in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 civilians and combatants.
The intention of the belligerent programming barrage seems clearer: justify any offensive or the increase in hostilities, mainly in the eyes of the Russian public, and to blame Kiev and the West. As analysts say about the military movements themselves, it can also be a warning to Ukraine, the European Union and the United States that Russia is ready, willing and able to take action whenever. that she hears it.
Senior Russian officials have also advanced these goals. In the midst of televised talks on demonstrative nuclear explosions, Nikolai Patrushev, a close ally of Putin who heads his Security Council, told the Kommersant newspaper that it is the United States that must show “common sense.”
And Dmitry Kozak, Putin’s deputy chief of staff, said on April 8 that if Kiev takes major military action, it will mean “the beginning of the end of Ukraine.”
Assessments and risks
The evocation of nuclear weapons and existential threats may be a means of making – at least at the propaganda level – what is on the ground a regional conflict into a major potential test for Washington and a warning that if the United States and Europe will support Kiev with words, they may have to be prepared to do so with actions.
The fear of war in [the Donbas] will pass. This time. But the threat of war will remain.
Despite the increasing tension, continuation of Russian military movements, and reports of increased fights in the Donbass, there are lots of reasons believe that a major Russian offensive is not in the cards.
On the one hand, the Russian population may have little appetite for it, despite the propaganda on television. With the COVID-19 pandemic still hitting the economy and declining real incomes, there are other areas of concern.
Putin got a boost from Russia’s takeover of Crimea seven years ago, but a new offensive against Ukraine now “is less likely Booster [the] Kremlin ratings, ”analyst Maria Snegovaya wrote on Twitter on April 8. “My study shows that in times of economic decline, Russians are much less inclined to support aggressive military rhetoric from the authorities.
“This is based on logic: [The] The Kremlin should solve internal problems instead of going to war with other countries, ”she wrote.
From Russia with …
And many Russians have no desire to see relations with the United States deteriorate further, no matter what state television says about Moscow’s former enemy during the Cold War, as relations continue to deteriorate. probe the depths but never seem to find a bottom. A recent survey by the independent Levada Center found that 65% of Russians aged 18-24 and 51% aged 25-39 have a positive opinion of the United States. Those who said they had a negative opinion of the United States were only over 50% in the 55 and over age group.
In addition, analysts say that the Ukrainian the army has improved noticeably since 2014, when Russian forces that occupied Crimea helped separatists from the east – whose actions were instigated by Moscow – to seize parts of Donbass.
So, for now at least, Russia could be more in the game for the signals it sends – the sound of a saber, almost in the literal sense – than anything else.
“The fear of war in [the Donbas] will pass. This time ”, Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Twitter on April 5. “But the threat of war will remain.”
The Kremlin may want it so – and deliberately keep its intentions obscure.
“Russian forces are on the move around Donbass and in Crimea, and what is troubling to the outside world is that we don’t know why,” wrote author and analyst Mark Galeotti in an article published by BNE Intellinews April 6.
The current crisis, ”he wrote, is“ a case study of what happens when nations lie, bluff and take a stand ”.
One cause for concern is the fact that in 2014 few predicted that Russia would seize Crimea and move deeper into eastern Ukraine, altering Europe’s borders and making a part of eastern Ukraine a platform of constant pressure on Kiev.
Another is the idea that with the world still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and US President Joe Biden grappling with multiple priorities at home and abroad less than three months into his tenure, Putin believes he sees an opportunity to weaken the West.
Emboldened by the EU’s inconsistent responses to its actions in several areas, Russia poses a “more severe test», Wrote Nigel Gould-Davies, senior researcher for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, in an April 7 article in the Moscow Times in English. “This is a dangerous time for Europe and the transatlantic alliance.”
“The risk now is that a major Russian offensive against Ukraine will separate the continent from the Anglo-American world,” he wrote.
“Russia may think it is the right time to attempt a decoupling of the Atlantic alliance that the Soviet Union never achieved,” Gould-Davies added. “If he waits, Biden will repair the damage his predecessor caused to the alliance and Europe will recover from COVID-19. The stakes are high not only for Ukraine but for the West.
Another test for the West is the Russian state treatment of Aleksei Navalny, the Kremlin opponent who survived poisoning with a nerve agent he attributes to Putin and now suffers from health problems that worsen in prison 100 kilometers east of Moscow.
Navalny, who declared a hunger strike on March 31 after accusing his jailers of denying him adequate medical treatment and effectively torturing him with sleep deprivation, loses around 1 kilogram per day, his lawyer Vadim said. Kobzev.
Navalny, 44, has been complaining of severe back pain and numbness in his legs for almost three weeks. On April 8, another lawyer for opposition politician Olga Mikhailova said that a previous MRI scan showed he had two herniated discs in his back – and that he also began to lose sensation in his hands. She said he had refused treatment with two obsolete drugs that had not been used by doctors in Russia for 30 years.
It is also be trolled.
Meanwhile, the government crackdown that escalated after Navalny’s return to Russia in January persisted.
On April 8, a Moscow court kept Navalny’s spokesperson Kira Yarmysh under house arrest and made the same decision during hearings with Maria Alyokhina, a member of the protest group Pussy Riot, and two other detainees. amid protests sparked by the imprisonment of Navalny, who was arrested at the airport upon his return from treatment in Germany, and other grievances against the government.
On April 7, the same court ended the house arrest and imposed lighter restrictions on four other people in the case, including Navalny’s brother, Oleg; a lawyer from the Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation, Lyubov Sobol; and Moscow city legislators Lyusya Shtein and Konstantin Yankauskas.
The other eight and two face up to two years in prison if convicted of breaking public health rules during the pandemic, but they dismiss the charges and prominent Russian human rights group Memorial them recognized as political prisoners.
Kremlin opponent Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was arrested at a forum in Moscow on March 13 in which nearly 200 participants were assembled in a police raid, wrote in the Washington Post that “ the most grotesque fables ”by Franz Kafka Trial“ pale in comparison to the reality of the judicial system under Vladimir Poutine ”.
Like all those arrested, many of whom were municipal lawmakers, Kara-Murza faced an administrative charge of “participating in the activities of an undesirable organization”. As expected, he wrote, he was found guilty in a hearing he described as “an exercise in absurdity” – in part because the organization in question never existed.
Navalny’s ordeal recalled the fate of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow prison in November 2009 after accusing the authorities of refusing him medical treatment.
April 8 was Magnitsky’s birthday: He would be 49 years old now.