A Sword of Damocles over Ukraine
These days, in Kiev, inspectors are touring the hundreds of bunkers left over from the Cold War, in case they are called upon for service should Russia ever launch a military offensive against Ukraine.
In a report broadcast Wednesday by the CBC network, journalist Briar Stewart visits one of these shelters, built in 1986 and intended to house 350 essential workers in the event of a Russian invasion, located under an administrative building in the Ukrainian capital.
But this dusting operation of old shelters does not mean that the Ukrainians are in panic.
Since Russia gathered 100,000 troops on their country’s border at the end of 2021, Ukrainians have been living in fear of an offensive, but consider it unlikely, observes Dominique Arel, holder of the Chair in Ukrainian Studies at the University of Ottawa.
It is one thing to check the state of the shelters against hypothetical bombs, and another to decree a general mobilization. This step, reports Dominique Arel, has not been taken.
Vladimir Putin’s great strength is to play with uncertainty.
Dominique Arel, holder of the Chair in Ukrainian Studies at the University of Ottawa
And in this crisis which has been growing since the end of 2021, the Russian president has played this score brilliantly. To the point of disconcerting the experts of Russian politics, who hesitate to decipher his intentions.
“Vladimir Putin is not bluffing,” says Tatiana Stanoyava, a researcher at the Carnegie Institute in Moscow. At the same time, she adds that “no one knows what Putin really wants” and that “maybe he doesn’t know himself yet.”
“In my opinion, he has several options ahead of him and hasn’t decided what exactly he will do yet. »
Everything depends on the outcome of the current negotiations. But also influences exerted on him, particularly from Kremlin hawks.
At their head: Nikolai Patrushev, the formidable secretary of the Russian Security Council who published a “security strategy” at the end of May providing for the use of force in the event of “unfriendly” actions against Russia. Many saw it squarely as a military deployment plan.
“We still don’t understand what Russia really wants,” admits Oleg Ignatov, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Moscow.
Russia’s demands on NATO are completely unrealistic, he said.
Russia is demanding in particular that NATO undertake never to admit Ukraine and another ex-Soviet country, Georgia, into its ranks. To stop all eastward expansion. And to suspend all military aid to Ukraine.
They know that the West will never be able to accept these demands. The big question is what Russia will do when they are rejected.
Oleg Ignatov, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Moscow
Gathering 100,000 soldiers on the border with Ukraine is a “provocative and dangerous game”, he underlines.
However, Oleg Ignatov remains skeptical about the possibility of a military offensive against Ukraine. “It would be a senseless war, I rather think that Russia hopes to achieve its goals through diplomacy. »
A diplomacy conducted with a heavy sword of Damocles as an argument.
“Currently, Russia is using Ukraine as leverage in its negotiations with the United States,” says Oleg Ignatov. One of the likely scenarios for the immediate future is that these discussions will drag on.
“For Putin, it is important to dialogue with the West, and the United States understands that the best way to prevent armed conflict is to talk to each other. »
In other words, the sword of Damocles may not be about to fall.
Five questions about the crisis
How did we get there ?
The origin of the current crisis can be found in the conflict that broke out in 2014 in eastern Ukraine, in the Donbass region, between Russian-speaking separatists supported by Moscow and the government in Kiev. Peace accords signed in 2015 in Minsk did little to end the conflict, which continued despite a ceasefire reached in 2019.
The Minsk Accords provided for the Ukrainian government to grant autonomy to the breakaway regions. Which has never been implemented.
“Ukraine accepted the Minsk agreements under duress, after direct intervention by the Russian army. But politically, these are unacceptable conditions,” explains Dominique Arel.
When President Volodymyr Zelensky wanted to relaunch negotiations on this subject, he ran into a wall in public opinion. In the eyes of the Ukrainians, “it was perceived as a betrayal”, according to Dominique Arel.
“The Minsk agreements were unfavorable to Ukraine, but at the time, we wanted to stop the war at all costs,” adds Oleg Ignatov. For example, these agreements conceal the role played by Russia in this war, and which Moscow denies, against all evidence.
Negotiations on the status of Donbass finally failed and this explains the recent rise in tension.
The NATO factor
Although caused by the Donbass imbroglio, the current crisis goes far beyond the issues related to this conflict. It no longer concerns Ukraine as such, but the relations between Moscow, NATO and the West in general.
Here, we have to go back to 2008, when during a NATO summit in Bucharest, France and Germany opposed the immediate membership of Ukraine and Georgia. NATO then assured that this enlargement would take place one day, without providing a precise timetable.
Fourteen years later, the accession of these two former Soviet republics remains very uncertain.
“NATO membership requires consensus and there is no consensus on Ukraine,” says analyst Oleg Ignatov.
The conflict in the Donbass accentuates this reluctance.
Some European countries fear that if NATO accepts Ukraine, there will be a war with Russia; and they would then be forced to participate in the conflict, to send their own soldiers.
Oleg Ignatov, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Moscow
On the other hand, NATO countries already support Ukraine militarily. Four countries, including Canada, are training the Ukrainian army far, very far from the Donbass front, reports Dominique Arel.
Result: the Ukrainian army is modernizing, becoming more and more sophisticated. And potentially harder to fight.
Problems at home?
Did Vladimir Putin go into warrior mode to boost his popularity among his population exhausted by the COVID-19 crisis and economic difficulties?
Expert opinions differ on this point. For Tatiana Stayonova, the Russian president has no doubt that he can count on the support of the vast majority of his fellow citizens. “He feels invincible and he is convinced that he is acting to protect Russia,” she sums up.
For Oleg Ignatov, it’s not so clear. Because Vladimir Putin is aiming for the presidency of 2024. However, he does not have much success on which to base his campaign. In the previous election, he could brandish the success of the annexation of Crimea and the Russian intervention in Syria – operations perceived as successes attributable to Vladimir Putin.
“This time he only has COVID and it’s a disaster. »
The analyst therefore believes that Vladimir Putin could earn points during a military conflict to enhance his image as a “strong leader”.
And what do the Russians think?
According to a survey by the Russian institute Levada, 39% of Russians believe that war against Ukraine is inevitable or probable.
This does not mean that they will embark on a possible armed conflict with enthusiasm. “Russian society is very tired of the current aggressive rhetoric, they want the government to deal with internal issues,” says Tatiana Stayonova.
But in this country where the Kremlin controls the main media, the majority of Russians are convinced that a possible war would be defensive, that their army would respond, if necessary, to attacks by “Ukrainian fascists”, according to the scenario brandished by the to be able to.
The irrational factor
Beyond geopolitical considerations, Ukraine is emotionally important for Russia, which considers itself intrinsically linked to this former Soviet republic.
For the Kremlin, “Ukraine is organically united with Russia, and the Ukrainian nationalist project is the result of a Western plot,” says Dominique Arel.
Beyond NATO, and geopolitical considerations, “there is this refusal to let Ukraine escape from Russian identity space and control”.
The question remains: how far is Putin willing to go to keep Ukraine in his fold?