The Ukrainian crisis: Winter is coming?


By Dr. Shay Har-Zvi​​ | January, 2022

Joh Biden and Vladimir Putin
Photo: The White House


A time for talking, not actionThe last few weeks have seen the exchange of deterring messages continue between Russia and the United States. The Russian leadership is actively ingraining the narrative that the West has been lying since the 1990s, deceiving Russia while NATO expanded eastwards, an issue Moscow views as a matter of "life and death". Thus, it claimed that, in the event that the security guarantees it has demanded will be rejected, Russia will not hesitate to take the necessary steps to ensure its safety. The U.S., by contrast, is issuing warning of a very severe response to any aggressive Russian measure – imposing highly painful and extraordinarily forceful economic sanctions.


It is this backdrop of soaring tension that highlights both powers' efforts to exhaust diplomacy in an attempt to reach a settlement that would prevent further exacerbation. Thus, Presidents Putin and Biden have spoken on the phone (30 December) for the second time in a month in an effort to bridge gaps. The conversation was reportedly held at President Putin's request, perhaps with the aim of exhibiting Russian willingness to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis as part of the war over hearts and minds against the West, as well as within the domestic Russian sphere, with regard to the party responsible for the deterioration in the current state of affairs. From a practical sense, as can be expected, this call did not lead to any breakthrough, and the two leaders once again resorted to conveying warnings to one another. However, the importance of this dialogue lies in its very existence, as it demonstrates open channels of communication, and, in fact, seems to have been an essential stage prior to the negotiations that are scheduled to begin after the holiday season ends. In this context, Russia will reportedly be taking a series of diplomatic steps in early 2022, primarily in the form of talks with the United States in Geneva on 10 January, with NATO in Brussels on 12 January, and with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe on 13 January.


A day after the conversation between the two presidents, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov was interviewed by the Russian Information Agency (RIA Novosti), and spoke harshly of the West. Lavrov described the evolving security-military relations between the United States and other western countries and the Ukraine, including, inter alia, the provision of extensive financial and military assistance, joint military exercises, and the establishment of military bases. In view of these developments, Lavrov warned that “if a constructive response will not follow within a reasonable time and the West will continue its aggressive line, then Russia will be forced to take all necessary measures to ensure a strategic balance and eliminate unacceptable threats to it”. He further added that Russia would take all necessary steps to protect -the citizens living in Donbas, warning that "an adequate response will be given to any possible military provocations by Kyiv against Donbas."


While cautioning that his country will protect the residents of Donbas, Putin continues to prepare his people for the possibility of an aggressive campaign in eastern Ukraine. He has reportedly been promoting legislation that would fast-track the process of obtaining Russian citizenship, inter alia for those who had lived within the former USSR, as well as their children. Alongside the positive contribution to his image domestically, this step seems to aim to strengthen Moscow's legitimization to protect Russian citizens living outside its recognized international borders (Donbas?), thereby exerting added pressure on the West in preparation for negotiations over its security demands.



Crushing the opposition: A seized opportunity


A series of steps taken by the Russian government against members of the Russian opposition has stood out against the backdrop of the Ukrainian crisis. The most dramatic among them was the Russian Supreme Court's decision (28 December) to close down the human rights organization Memorial. This step was the culmination of lengthy proceedings against one of the most prominent human rights organization in Russia, founded in the final years of the Soviet Union, and focusing on documenting crimes committed by the Communist regime during Stalin's presidency.


Meanwhile, Russia has also been proceeding with its campaign against internet giants Google and Meta. A Russian court has imposed (24 December) extraordinary fines on the two corporations, amounting to some 100 million USD on Google and about 27 million USD on Meta, inter alia because they failed to delete thousands of prohibited posts. This serves as another battle in Moscow's ongoing war against them, as part of its attempts to censor what it views as problematic content, and control Russian cyberspace.


The Russian government has been using various tools for some years to attack local opposition circles, and silence all expressions of criticism directed at it. It seems that, this time, Moscow has identified the tension with the West on the matter of the Ukraine as an opportunity to take additional extreme steps in this regard. It is no wonder, therefore, that the Russian regime is emphasizing the fact that those parties are serving ulterior interests, and actively compromising Russia's national security, in an attempt to reduce domestic public criticism against the steps it has been taking. Moreover, it seems that the Russian leadership believes that the western response will remain primarily on the declarative level (and, indeed, the United States, EU, UK, Australia, and Canada have all issued a joint condemnation of the Russian courts' rulings), and not lead to actual punitive measures, or any practical measures, despite the great importance attributed by the Biden Administration to the issue of human rights. The feeble western response, at least in Moscow's view, once again demonstrates that the current U.S. administration is hesitant, and conflict-averse.



The calm before the storm?


The holiday season seems to provide breathing room, at least temporarily, before diplomatic talks between the parties will resume. Putin – who emerges thus far as the one who is setting the tone in the evolving dynamics of this crisis – continues to keep his cards close to his chest, and indicate that all options remain on the table, although it remains unclear whether he himself has reached a decision with regard to the form of resolution he finds most desirable.


In view of the Ukraine's central role in Russian historical memory, as well as the vital part it plays in Russia's national security, it seems that Putin's prerequisites for ending the crisis would be an American commitment to stop the process of NATO's expansion, as well as cut off the ongoing security-military aid to the Ukraine. Putin has successfully created a situation whereby he has two possible routes available to him by which to reach these goals – the diplomatic option and the military one whereby aggressive (albeit limited) steps would be taken in eastern Ukraine.


Be that as it may, the upcoming weeks will determine how long and intense this crisis will be, to a large extent because Russia will not be able to maintain the image of a credible threat to use military force for an extended period of time. It is no wonder, therefore, that the Russian leadership has reiterated that it expects swift and effective negotiations rather than the West dragging its feet.


Alongside its military threats, Russia will continue to take action on several other fronts to improve its status, and increase the pressure exerted on the United States. Putin's forthcoming visit to China for the Winter Olympics in February may serve as a platform for advancing new economic and security partnerships, as well as strengthening the Russian-Chinese axis against the United States. Moreover, escalation could also lead the Russian position to become even more rigid (even if merely temporarily) in the Vienna nuclear talks, as well as to greater collaboration with Iran in an attempt to convey the price of losing to the United States.


This great power crisis places Israel in a sensitive position. For while it attributes great importance to its strategic alliance with the United States, and is striving to avoid adding yet another brick to the wall of complex U.S.-Israeli relations lately (Iran, the Palestinians). At the same time it also finds it vital to remain on good terms with Russia in light of the role it has been playing in several arenas that are essentialto Israel (the nuclear talks, Syria). Therefore, as advisable as it would be to "sit on the fence" and avoid any actions or statements that could enrage one of the parties, on a more practical level, Israel would do well to avoid any reference to internal developments in the Ukraine altogether (even those that are not associated with the Russian-American dispute), for these may be used by the great powers to justify their own positions.




Authored by Dr. Shay Har-Zvi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.



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