Putting military pressure on Ukraine could have seemed to the Russian leadership to be the most practical way to assert Moscow’s central role in international affairs. The standard working assumption in the Kremlin is that facing a risk of violent conflict, the disunited West would become attentive to Russian grievances and demands—and opt for a compromise. This crisis-manipulation ploy—if that is what is, indeed, happening—has not worked this time, and Moscow now finds itself in a self-made trap (Moscow Echo, April 9). Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whom Putin’s court considers an indecisive waverer, has taken a firm stance in response, visiting the trenches in the Donbas war zone and gaining support for his plea of help from much of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 8). It is certainly possible for the Russian high command to pretend that the concentration of forces on the border with Ukraine all along was merely a part of a series of spring exercises (Izvestia, April 10). However, for President Vladimir Putin, backing off from threatening Ukraine now, while the official Russian media continues to blare hysterical war propaganda, would be humiliatingly difficult (Novaya Gazeta, April 8).
Repetitive denouncements by top Russian officials of United States President Joseph Biden’s characterization of Putin as a “killer” leave no doubt that the Kremlin leader was deeply offended. And Putin has sought to use the pause between that challenge and the full reevaluation of US policy toward Russia to try to preempt the looming punishment coming from Washington (Kommersant, April 8). Now, the US review is done, and the new collection of sanctions is reportedly set to be wide-ranging and impactful (Forbes.ru, April 8). So far, all Moscow has achieved by its crude pressure on Kyiv is firmer support for Ukraine from the European Union, which used to be more circumspect in its sanctions policy, compared to the US position. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin are intent on consolidating this transatlantic solidarity by traveling again to Brussels this week (RBC, April 10).
In late April, Putin will deliver his annual address to the Federal Assembly (upper chamber of the Russian parliament), but he will hardly be able to retread the topic from 2018, when his presentation revolved around “wonder missiles” (Kommersant, April 10, 2021; see EDM, March 8, 12, 2018). This year, he needs to focus on urgent economic and social problems but remains reluctant to disburse the accumulated financial reserves either for a solid stimulus package or for generous social support programs (Znak.com, April 9). The Russian president is also wary about the steady expansion of the authority and popularity of Prime Minister Mikhail Mushustin, who is proceeding with reforming the government according to his own agenda, underscoring efficiency, subordination and loyalty (Riddle, March 29). Whatever promises Putin might provide, Russians are quite disappointed with his economic policy and give him particularly bad marks for ensuring stable incomes, curtailing corruption, and taming the “oligarchs” (VTimes, April 8).
The highest popular ratings he receives are for modernizing the Armed Forces; and until recently, he has been able to largely distract public attention from the deadlock in the conflict with Ukraine by launching a simultaneous military intervention in Syria. Presently, however, the hostilities in Syria are also deadlocked, and Putin’s key partner—Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—is more interested in sorting out difficult issues with the EU and US than in deconflicting in Syria with Russia (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 7). Moscow sought to gain an extra advantage by establishing formal ties with Lebanese-Syrian Hezbollah, but this initiative encountered a sharp démarche from Israel, reinforced by several airstrikes (Kommersant, April 8). Iran, Hezbollah’s main sponsor, is not particularly keen on the Russian maneuvers either, and it is apparently placing a higher value on its strategic cooperation agreement with China (Izvestia, March 31).
Turning to China had, likewise, routinely been the strongest move for Russia in the latter’s previous low points in relations with the United States; but this time, the attempted rapprochement seems to be yielding little fruit (Novaya Gazeta, April 3). Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Beijing with suggestions of joint measures against possible sanctions, including a preemptive withdrawal from the SWIFT financial telecommunication system; but his Chinese counterparts showed scant interest (Forbes.ru, March 22). China carefully calibrates its responses to US sanctions and EU protestations, finding few benefits in coordinating such actions with the economically insignificant Russia (Finanz.ru, April 1). Russian brinkmanship vis-à-vis Ukraine may be beneficial for China in the sense that it distracts Western attention from its own transgressions, but Beijing is surely not going to rescue Moscow from the self-inflicted distress (Meduza, April 6).
For autocratic regimes, the most natural response to international setbacks is to expand domestic repressions, and Russia is experiencing a new peak in suppression of protests alongside the inflated war scare (Rosbalt, April 9). This resort to police force in squelching mass discontent has become personified in the cruel mistreatment of Alexei Navalny, today’s foremost leader of the Russian opposition and imprisoned since February (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, April 2). The Kremlin is deaf to the arguments that brutal repressions are inevitably undermining the regime’s legitimacy and stability (Newsru.com, April 9). It can dismiss the Russian intelligentsia’s protests against the coercive measures of the state (New Times, April 7). What is somewhat more difficult to ignore is the demands from Western leaders to uphold human rights and basic democratic freedoms. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, did not hesitate to raise the Navalny issue yet again in her telephone conversation with Putin last week (April 8), during which Ukraine was supposed to be the key issue (RIA Novosti, April 8).
Putin is adept at shifting political directions and altering inconvenient agendas, but he has found himself in an awkward situation, forced to back off in various showdowns at the same time. His subordinates are eager to act on his obvious desire to eliminate Navalny from Russia’s political stage, but he is wary of the sternly communicated international consequences. He might fancy a surprise move in the Middle East, but Turkey and Israel constrain his maneuvers in Syria from two sides, and Iran is a problem too complex and loaded to juggle lightly. This brings him back to Ukraine, where every sound strategic calculation points to the need to deescalate but the temptation to show resolve is fusing with his fear to show weakness. This Kremlin’s urge to prove potency for aggression can be countered, but it will require Ukraine and its Western allies to resolutely reconfirm their commitments to containment.