April 15, 2021


RUSSIA: Sabre-rattling might prove counterproductive for Moscow

BY Andrius Tursa

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The proposed US-Russia bilateral summit might help deescalate tensions in eastern Ukraine but will not bring a political solution to the conflict in Donbas. Moscow’s saber-rattling appears counterproductive on the international front but could provide a temporary respite at home.

Amid persisting tension along the Russia-Ukraine border, on 13 April, US President Joe Biden held a phone call with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and proposed a summit in the coming months to discuss various bilateral issues. The Kremlin is yet to respond to the invitation, but its readout of the call also noted Putin’s suggestion to settle the conflict in Donbas within the framework of the Minsk agreement.

The return to the negotiating table could help deescalate the situation, but a political solution to the conflict is not in sight. The Minsk II framework – agreed upon back in February 2015 – has proved ineffective, mostly due to disagreements between Moscow and Kyiv over the legal status of the occupied territories and their control at the time of local elections in Luhansk and Donetsk. However, Russia is unlikely to abandon the Minsk II framework so long as it can avoid making tangible concessions. At the same time, Ukraine is unlikely to implement its provisions in a way that is satisfactory to both Ukrainian voters and Moscow-backed separatists.

While Moscow’s ultimate goals remain unclear, it is hard to pinpoint any tangible gains on the international front for now. In fact, the renewed standoff with Russia will likely provide a temporary but much-needed boost to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. A survey conducted on 6-7 April already showed that public trust in the president rose by seven percentage points compared to February. If Zelensky fails to deliver his main electoral pledge – bring peace to Donbas – he could conveniently blame Moscow’s aggressive and unpredictable actions. The latest escalation has also reignited widespread international backing for Ukraine – although it is yet to translate into more tangible support – and strengthens Kyiv’s case for stepping up cooperation with the EU and NATO.

Concerns over a potential Russian military offensive could only weaken voices calling for cooperation with Russia in Europe, including the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The probability of harsher US sanctions on Moscow – including targeting sovereign debt – is also rising, even if Russia refrains from military action in Donbas. Finally, mounting security concerns in Europe appear to be facilitating closer transatlantic cooperation towards Russia.

The showcase of Russia’s military power – interpreted by the Kremlin as a response to Kyiv’s provocations and the buildup of NATO troops at Russia’s western borders – may prove popular at home. The modernization of Russia’s armed forces is perceived as Putin’s greatest achievement during his time in power. However, it is doubtful whether another military campaign against Ukraine – such as in 2014 – would revitalize Putin’s flagging appeal.

The standoff with Ukraine also overshadows pressing domestic issues, such as accelerating inflation, a slow Covid-19 vaccination campaign, and the deteriorating health of imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny. Around 432,000 people have signed up to participate in countrywide protests to free Navalny, the date of which will be set once the count hits 500,000. As a result, the Kremlin might be forced to refocus its attention on domestic challenges.

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