The Kremlin has published an open letter to and about Ukraine, replete with insults and threats. An official public document in such a style seemed inconceivable in contemporary international relations, but the Kremlin has turned the inconceivable into fact with this letter. Published in the Moscow daily Kommersant (“Why It Is Senseless to Deal with the Current Ukrainian Leadership,” Kommersant, October 11) and amply rebroadcast by Russia’s media, the letter carries the byline of Russian Security Council’s Deputy Chairman (and former president and prime minister) Dmitry Medvedev. However, hardly anyone in Ukraine, Russia or the West would doubt that President (and Security Council Chairman) Vladimir Putin is this letter’s actual sender.
The Kremlin is targeting three main audiences with this epistle: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his entourage, a spectrum of groups in Ukrainian society, and those Western powers that are at this moment launching negotiations to wind down the war between Russia and Ukraine on as yet uncertain terms (see below). The Kremlin’s open letter aims to intimidate the Zelenskyy presidency, draw wedges and awaken old resentments among various groups in Ukrainian society, and, by its threatening tone, underscore Russia’s superior strength ahead of the upcoming negotiations.
“Medvedev’s” letter opens with a threat, phrased in the form of a Ukrainian proverb: “When the goat tangles with the wolf, only the skin will remain of the goat.” The document makes no attempt to justify Russia’s actions in the Donbas and Crimea. Instead, it assails Zelenskyy and some of his associates (none named), portraying them as opportunists without national identity or allegiance:
“Ukraine’s leaders, particularly those at the top, cannot clearly define themselves … What country are they citizens of? where are their roots? what is their historical allegiance? their ethnic substance? what God are they praying to? Do they feel as real Ukrainians? as ‘Europeans’? as Russians? as Jews? as Tatars? as Hungarians? as Karaites? The current president, with his clear ethnic roots, a life-long Russian-speaker who worked in Russia and earned big Russian money, has nevertheless fully reoriented himself, politically and morally, after becoming president, for fear of another Maidan against his personal power. Basically, he has abandoned his own identity. He has become a devoted servant [sic] of Ukraine’s most fervent nationalist forces. Along with them he glorifies “Bandera’s terrorists.” Comparing Zelenskyy with an “insane German Jew who would have volunteered for the SS,” the pseudonymous Medvedev claims that Zelenskyy is fearful of nationalists who might pin a yellow star on him. The president, therefore “acts as more of a nationalist than the most radical nationalists.”
That collective portrait draws inspiration from the late-Stalinist image of “rootless cosmopolitans.” This marks the first time that Putin’s Kremlin borrows that image, adjusting it to present-day Ukrainian circumstances in this case. The allusion to Zelenskyy’s inner circle is plain to see.
The letter rejects Zelenskyy’s quest to meet and make “peace” with Putin. The pseudonymous “Medvedev” adduces five pretexts for refusing to meet and talk with Zelenskyy:
1) This president is, willingly or unwillingly, “playing to the most radical nationalist forces in Ukraine” (see above). “Can we, in this situation, negotiate and make agreements with him? No way.”
2) Current Ukrainian leaders depend on “foreign management” and “cash infusions” from the West, are controlled by “their American masters through the intelligence agencies,” and help the United States to “contain Russia,” vainly hoping to join Western alliances. “Therefore, it makes no sense for us to deal with these vassals. We should deal with the suzerain [the US].”
3) “Ukrainian leaders are fragile, striving only to stuff their pockets and to keep the money offshore … and even to make money off the hated Russia.” Thus, “it is pointless to deal with such fragile characters; they could betray [us] for a few pennies any time.”
4) “Dealing with Ukraine’s current leaders is senseless and even harmful, as they don’t keep their word … They sign the Minsk accords, make agreements in the Normandy format [Russia, Germany, France, Ukraine], but then—facing uproar in parliament or in the streets, or instructions from across the Ocean—they veer around and turn the agreement into its diametrical opposite. They are constantly lying to us and to our [Western] counterparts. The problem is not just with a particular Ukrainian leader but with all Ukrainian negotiators. It means that negotiating with them is absolutely senseless.”
5) Russia will therefore “wait out until a more reasonable Ukrainian leadership emerges, one that does not go for total confrontation with Russia to the brink of war but aims instead for mutually advantageous relations with Russia. Such a Ukrainian leadership would be worth dealing with. Russia can wait. We are a patient nation.” This suggests that Putin would refuse to meet with Zelenskyy even if the latter accepts Putin’s demand to exclude the Donbas and Crimea from the meeting’s agenda.
Stung, one of Zelenskyy’s gaffe-prone advisers, suggested that Medvedev may not have had the authority to speak for Putin (Ukrinform, October 11). Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov promptly responded that “Dmitry Anatolievich’s [Medvedev] publication is very important as it names a lot of things by their names … all fully in line with what has already been aired at various levels” (TASS, October 11).
The Kremlin’s demarche is closely timed to the resumption of two parallel international negotiation processes concerning Russia’s de facto seizure of Ukraine’s Donbas. Both of these negotiation processes have long been inactive: US-Russia and the Normandy format (Russia, Germany, France, Ukraine).
The Joseph Biden administration has initiated (practically solicited) bilateral negotiations with Russia on a comprehensive package of contentious strategic issues. Among these, Ukraine holds the top priority for Russia, but not for the Biden administration. The release of “Medvedev’s” letter on October 11 greeted US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland arriving in Moscow on the same day with that package to negotiate.
It is also on October 11 that Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Zelenskyy agreed by video-conferences to restart the deadlocked “Normandy” process, with a sudden sense of urgency (TASS, Bundeskanzlerin.de, Elysée.fr, President.gov.ua, October 11).
The Kremlin’s letter attempts to intimidate and bully Kyiv at the outset of those reactivated processes. It is also designed to show that Russia can treat Zelenskyy as a pariah. This treatment seems to be Russia’s new method rejecting the bilateral negotiations that Zelenskyy so eagerly seeks.
A “tête-à-tête” (in Zelenskyy’s words) with Putin could be a reckless adventure. Zelenskyy and his aide Andriy Yermak would almost certainly be easy prey to their counterparts, Putin and Dmitry Kozak, in a bilateral negotiation. The Kremlin seems nevertheless determined to refuse a bilateral negotiation because it would expose Russia’s real role as a party to what this conflict really is: an inter-state conflict between Russia and Ukraine. A bilateral negotiation process with Ukraine could nullify Russia’s thesis about this conflict being internal to Ukraine and the pretense of Russia’s mediating role.