KYIV, UKRAINE - It is Friday night in Kyiv, and Ukraine’s capital is celebrating – mostly indoors, due to the below freezing temperatures – the end of yet another work week. I am sitting in one of Kyiv’s many Georgian restaurants, and people around me, attended by waiters who are immoderately polite compared to the indifference familiar to me from Viennese cafés, are chatting about their recent experiences, smiling and, inevitably, flirting. Go to a different restaurant or a bar, it's the same.
There is, however, something missing: that feeling of excessive joy, even abandon, I remember from normal times in Kyiv. In Ukraine’s drinking spots, people are cheerful, but in a reserved way.
The reason for this self-restraint is a 100,000 Russian soldiers amassed in Russia and Belarus alarmingly close to the Ukrainian borders, as well as on the territory of Crimea, illegally annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014. According to Western intelligence, the troops are ready to escalate Russia’s war on Ukraine at any moment.
For the Russia’s authoritarian leadership, a fully independent Ukraine is an intensifying headache that they believe can only be cured by Ukraine permanently returning to the Russian "sphere of influence."
A sovereign Ukraine is not only a painful reminder of the fall of the Soviet Union, whose collapse Russian President Vladimir Putin called "“the major geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century, but one of its most resonant symbols. For Putin, Ukraine’s independence is absurd, as Ukrainians (and Belarusians for that matter) are simply elements of one "greater Russian nation." Without Ukraine, Russia can never be great enough.
A modernizing Ukraine sets a bad, if not threatening, example for Russian society, Putin believes. Were Ukrainians to be successful in their project of democratizing and Westernizing, what would that suggest to Russians, whom Kremlin indoctrination targets with the belief that the "greater Russian nation" is historically destined to walk a special civilizational path different from the West? If the Ukrainians – those "little Russians" – can prove otherwise, why should Russian society suffer for the manipulative cause of the Kremlin kleptocrats?
But a sovereign and Westernizing Ukraine is not only a headache for the Russian authorities – it is also an opportunity, as the "Ukrainian crisis" is much bigger than Ukraine itself.
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In the rising multipolar world, Russia is unable to compete with the global superpower poles such as the U.S., the EU or China. Russia does not rank even in the Top 10 of the world’s economies, and its political project is attractive only for the far Right and regressive Left.
Threatening the further invasion of Ukraine is Moscow’s chance to extort attention from the only power for which it has genuine respect, America, and be treated as if it is legitimately a pole of pre-eminent power in the multipolar world. In this sense, Ukraine is a hostage in the hands of a terrorist who demands to talk directly to the authorities, or else.
So far, Moscow has been successful in drawing the attention of Western capitals, and not only in terms of Western leaders discussing the Kremlin’s ultimatum, poorly disguised as a request for “security guarantees” from NATO. Putin’s other, "collateral" success today is the deepening of the existing divisions between Western democracies, between NATO allies, and especially between the U.S. and Germany.
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, Germany has been the largest Western power persistently attempting to appease Putin’s regime. The serial nature of this appeasement makes one wonder whether Germany – in the context of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine – is part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Berlin took no action against German companies such as Siemens or MAN which supplied hardware to occupied Crimea, in violation of the Western sanctions. Germany is continuously blocking defensive arms exports to Ukraine.
Perhaps more importantly, Berlin constantly echoing Moscow’s narrative that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, planned to transport Russian gas into the EU (with Germany becoming a central arrival hub) has nothing to do with politics and is a purely commercial project, despite the overwhelming evidence of Russia having exploited gas supplies to advance its political interests.
Ironically, by playing up to the Kremlin on a number of important issues, Germany is shooting itself in the foot. Not only is Berlin compromising its reputation among its Western partners, it also undermines the international image of the EU as a global power. Much to the satisfaction of the Kremlin kleptocrats, Berlin strengthens Moscow’s belief that the EU is unworthy of respect.
The current situation shows that the renewed invasion of Ukraine is a very possible scenario. As the history of the 20th and 21st centuries show us, Russia is unlikely to invade Ukraine in a blunt manner – it will need a "pretext."
For some circles in the West, the potential Russian invasion is already justified, directly or indirectly. These circles consist of anti-American activists, self-proclaimed peaceniks and "anti-imperialists," and well-off "tankies" who will condone any action somehow aimed against NATO. Of course, they will probably not support the invasion openly – they will just say they understandwhy Putin’s Russia opted for one.
Nevertheless, the "pretext" is important, and, should it choose to escalate, Russia is likely to stage a false-flag operation first – covertly attacking its own troops or civilian population in Russia-occupied Ukrainian territories and then pinning the blame on Ukrainian troops. The invasion would then proceed under the guise of a “peace-management operation.”
But even before creating a pretext for the renewal of the aggression, Moscow will try to exacerbate domestic conflicts within Ukraine and try to demoralize Ukrainian society. Today, we see early signs of this tactic: a number of Ukrainian ministries and state offices have been hacked and the country experiences a wave of false reports on “bombs” planted inside critical infrastructure.
But there is yet another reason why some Ukrainian men and women avoided excess celebrating the end of their work week on Friday night. Over the weekend, they will join hundreds of their fellow citizens who have started participating in voluntary military training to prepare themselves for the potential escalation. Unlike Georgians in August 2008, Ukrainians nurture no illusions: they know that nobody will fight for their country except for themselves.
It is already the eighth year of an ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine, a war without a name. Ukrainians now know that embracing modernization and Westernization is not only their free choice, not a decision made by the U.S., not the EU, and not NATO, but it is a choice they themselves must be prepared to defend, even with their bodies, no matter whether the West wobbles or toughens up.
Anton Shekhovtsov is Director of the Centre for Democratic Integrity (Austria), Senior Fellow at the Free Russia Foundation (USA), and an expert at the European Platform for Democratic Elections (Germany). His most recent book is "Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir" (Routledge, 2018). Twitter: @A_SHEKH0VTS0V