April 28, 2021


RUSSIA: Subsiding tensions do not eliminate risks abroad and at home

BY Andrius Tursa

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  • Russia’s pullback of troops deescalates tensions along the border with Ukraine, but the situation remains volatile.
  • Diplomatic efforts to advance the resolution of the conflict in Donbas are expected to intensify in the coming months.
  • At home, the Kremlin will continue to stifle the opposition and focus on socio-economic policies ahead of the State Duma election in September.

Saber-rattling is one of the few actions at Moscow’s disposal that raises genuine concern in Western capitals. In this respect, Russia’s military build-up at the border with Ukraine has achieved its objective and sent a clear message to Kiev and its allies that Moscow can swiftly destabilize the situation. While the recently announced pullback of troops – due to be completed by 1 May – deescalates tensions, the situation remains volatile. The ceasefire observed in Donbas in the second half of last year and early 2021 is over, and fighting along the front line continues daily. Russia is also leaving heavy weaponry in the area ahead of a large-scale military exercise scheduled for September, which is set to include Belarus. In addition, Moscow until October will restrict the movement of foreign military vessels and other state ships near the Crimean Peninsula, although commercial vessels will be allowed to pass. The 2018 Kerch strait incident is a reminder of the risks of increased military activity in the area.

Diplomatic efforts to defuse tensions between Russia and Ukraine are expected to pick up in the coming months. Moscow and Kyiv are debating the format and venue of their next meeting on the situation in Donbas. However, there is little hope for any tangible progress given the fundamentally divergent interests on both sides. The situation in Ukraine will also enter the agenda of the US-Russia summit, expected to be held in the summer.

However, it is unclear whether the planned summit would remain on track if Washington imposed another round of sanctions on Russia. The US Department of State must report to Congress entities involved in the Nord Stream 2 project by 22 May, which could lead to new designations. In addition, the Chemical and Biological Weapons Act requires the US president to impose second-round sanctions within 90 days after the first round (2 March). However, previous instances show that the follow-up measures tend to be postponed beyond the formal deadline.

Carrots and sticks at home

On the domestic front, the Kremlin’s heavy-handed tactics to stifle the opposition appears to be bearing fruit. Turnout at last week’s demonstrations called by the associates of the Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny was significantly lower compared to the January protests. A likely designation of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) as an “extremist” organization by a Moscow court later this week would further limit its activities. However, even with Navalny and his foundation effectively sidelined, the risk of spontaneous and leaderless anti-government protests will remain elevated amid long-standing public discontent over a wide range of domestic issues.

It is, therefore, unsurprising that a large part of President Vladimir Putin’s state-of-the-nation address on 21 April focused on issues of socio-economic support. The president announced new monthly payments to single parents and low-income pregnant women and promised a one-off handout for every schoolchild. Putin also gave the government one month to prepare additional support measures for small and medium businesses coping with the effects of the pandemic and hinted at a possible readjustment of corporate tax at the end of the year. The pandemic-related economic support and increased social spending will likely remain important parts of government policy ahead of the general election in autumn.

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