Putin’s aggression behind radical change in Ukrainian attitudes towards Russia

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When I visited Kiev in September, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was a worried man. No one seemed to care, he told a gathering of European officials and foreign policy experts, that Russia invaded Ukrainian Crimea in 2014 and occupied it for eight years.

Its Western allies seemed insufficiently alarmed by the 100,000 Russian troops on its border and Moscow’s constant provocations aimed at destabilizing its government and sparking civil unrest. Few outsiders mourned the more than 13,200 Ukrainians who had already died fighting Russian-backed separatist forces in the eastern Donbass region or the two million who had been displaced by low-intensity warfare, a conflict that, even then, cost the life of a Ukrainian soldier. every three days.


The West’s apparent indifference to the specter of escalating conflict on the European continent for the first time since the Cold War, he complained, has left him feeling politically isolated and Ukraine from increasingly vulnerable. When it came to fighting Russia or the deadliest global pandemic of modern times, the discrepancy between the West’s rhetorical support for his country and its actions led him to conclude that Ukraine was only. In such crises, he lamented, “it’s every man for himself”.

Despite their delay, the United States finally made it clear that Zelenskyy was not alone. While President Joe Biden has repeatedly ruled out a military response from the United States or its NATO allies if Russia invades Ukraine again, he warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that further military aggression would entail what he recently called “massive consequences and severe economic costs”. Paradoxically, some of Biden’s toughest moves to date — that is, the actual Saturday delivery of long-promised weapons to Kiev and the threat to eventually deploy some 8,500 U.S. forces to bolster Russian members NATO frontline — came after Biden stumbled by saying a “minor” Russian incursion into Ukraine might not trigger a painful economic and diplomatic response.

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 19: United States President Joe Biden answers questions during a press conference in the East Room of the White House on January 19, 2022 in Washington, DC. With his approval rating hovering around 42%, Biden is nearing the end of his first year in the Oval Office with rising inflation, a surge in COVID-19 and his legislative agenda stalled on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

And paradoxically, Biden’s blunder may have inadvertently hardened American policy. “Of course, talking about possibly sending additional troops to Eastern Europe is not the same as actually sending them,” said John Herbst, a veteran diplomat, former ambassador to Ukraine and current senior director of the Atlantic Council Eurasia Center. “But it can be big enough to get the job done.”

Although Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said on Wednesday there was “every indication” that Putin was preparing to use more force against Ukraine – but not at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing in February , which he plans to attend and which would embarrass his rival. / ally China – Herbst said he thinks Putin may ultimately decide against it. While Putin has repeatedly argued that Ukraine is linguistically, culturally and historically an integral part of the “Russian world” and that Russian national security is threatened by Ukraine’s desire to join the European Union and NATO – which is unlikely to happen anytime soon – Herbst argues that Putin probably knows how risky such a move can be.

On the one hand, as Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dimitri Kuleba said this week, if one of Putin’s main foreign policy goals is to ensure that NATO forces withdraw from Eastern Europe, a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine would only “accelerate what he fears.” Second, Herbst and others argue that Putin knows that apart from its nuclear prowess, Russia is economically weak and that sanctions could further depress its economy and intensify political pressure on his waning regime.

Russia is already suffering economically from the threatened economic sanctions. As The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday, Russian stocks have fallen 8% this week and the ruble has fallen to its lowest level in 14 months. JPMorgan Chase bank has already stopped managing the ruble and closed all its positions in the Russian currency, saying the possibility of war makes ruble trading too risky.

Even if Washington fails to persuade Germany to cancel the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that will supply the Germans with Russian natural gas, bypassing Ukraine, and fails to convince other European allies to kick Russia out of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), which facilitates international money transfers, the United States could increase financial pressure on Russia by sanctioning companies and countries that buy Russian debt .


But perhaps one of the strongest deterrents is the Ukrainians themselves. Although Ukrainian forces are no match for the Russian military, “this is not the Ukraine of years ago,” Wendy Sherman warned in her remarks at a forum sponsored by the Yalta European Strategy (YES) based in Kyiv. “This is a country that will defend itself. Russia must know,” she warned, that an invasion “will cost Russian lives.” While it may not matter to a brutal autocrat like Putin, video on TV and social media of Ukrainians fighting and killing Russians is likely to undermine his argument that Russians and Ukrainians are “brothers” and that Russophobia is the work of the United States and NATO.


Indeed, the capture of Crimea by Moscow and the ongoing war in the Donbass have triggered a radical change in the attitude of Ukrainians towards Mother Russia. While young Ukrainians used to speak Russian to each other, Ukrainian is increasingly their language of choice. While pro-Russian political parties once won presidential elections and formed majorities in parliament, they are now struggling to secure the required 20% turnout. Although Russia has been carrying out intensive destabilization operations in Ukraine for eight years, it has shown little success. On the contrary, loyalty to Ukraine, especially among young Ukrainians, who lack their grandparents’ nostalgia for the Soviet regime, was strengthened by Putin’s autocratic rule at home and his aggression towards them. and other former Soviet republics abroad. Although it may hurt him to acknowledge it, Herbst said, “Putin is the father of Ukrainian nationalism.”