Coercing Ukraine into neutrality: the politics behind Russia’s military threat to Ukraine

US President Joe Biden (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) during a call that happened amid Russia's sabre-rattling along Ukraine's borders. Following the call, Biden announced his intentions to hold negotiations with NATO regarding Russia's concerns of Ukraine's aims for the alliance, a move repelled by eastern NATO members. Image: RFE/RL graphics 

Opinion, Russian Aggression

Article by: Yaroslav Bozhko
Translated by: Christine Chraibi
Despite the scale of Russia’s military threats on Ukraine’s border, it would not be entirely accurate to focus on the possibility of Russian troop deployment and a full-scale invasion, although the survival and stability of the country depend on it.

Even if a full-fledged military invasion along the entire border of the Ukrainian does not happen, tactically the Kremlin has achieved some of its goals.

First of all, despite the fact that the Russian Federation is constantly raising the stakes, ongoing discussions about the invasion in the Western media and in the community of top experts together with Russia-loyal specialists can be translated into a simple question: “Does the West really need Eastern Europe (post-Soviet space)?”; “Is the West ready to plunge into a military conflict to help post-Soviet states integrate into Europe?”

The most significant article was recently written by Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, in which he suggests that the United States should put pressure on Ukraine and the implementation of the Minsk Accords in order to prevent a war with Russia and block Euro-Atlantic prospects for Kyiv. Earlier, we know that Charap repeatedly visited Russia, was quoted by the Russian media, and was quite involved in the Russian Valdai Discussion Club, which remains one of the most prominent analytical bridges between the Russian government and Western experts.

Influencing western experts has long been an essential component of advancing Russia’s interests. However, it should be noted that western experts with close ties to Russia, instead of debunking and neutralizing the possibility of a Russian invasion (which would be more logical in terms of the actual state of affairs), turn the world’s attention away and urge the West to negotiate with Russia on its terms.

In a broad sense, Russia currently focuses much more on provoking changes in Western political processes than on the direct use of its military power. Indirectly, the Russian Federation is striking a blow at the very core of the old world order, thus neutralizing the role of international organizations and international law. In the meantime, military power and force become the only legitimate way to take a stand and make decisions in international politics.

At the same time, Russia’s involvement in the domestic policy of other states has become an obstacle to uniting forces at the international level. According to French political scientist Marlène Laruelle, Russian soft power is able to make headway in the West thanks to a “sovereignist” stance (sovereignism).

In essence, the Russians are working on another status quo that will displace the current world order, and this can be achieved by encouraging discommunication between states and the so-called Centre of the Global West and its conditional periphery. In practice, both sovereignism and populism have always been essential components of the ideological know-how of Putin’s regime, which is why exporting them has become so important to the Kremlin.

Russia uses its military power to disrupt international relations based on certain principles and international law, instigating conflicts between states and between elites and ordinary voters in western countries. At the same time, internal political conflict has become inevitable in modern western societies due to more open discussions in the media, more transparency, and a democratic system.

Thus, Russia plays both sides at once:

  1. It wants to destroy the West’s consensus on international principles;
  2. It seeks to undermine the general situation within western countries by eroding citizens’ trust in their government.

Russia’s tactics can hardly be called targeted: in a broad sense, we see that they are being implemented in Europe, and in political processes in the United States and even in post-Soviet countries, which Russia sees as a kind of “Lebensraum” — a zone for expansion.

The deployments of even more Russian troops on the Ukrainian border is just one page of Russia’s plan, as Russia is basically applying not just military pressure, but a full-fledged three-dimensional strategy where political action, media activity, economic measures, and military movements are completely coordinated. Currently, Europe has no coherent answer on how to confront this threat, especially when it is multidimensional. In the meantime, Russian interest groups focus primarily on actualizing internal conflicts in western countries, the divide between moderate and more ideological political circles, and consequently – on politicizing the state apparatus, and an internal war with an abstract European bureaucracy.

Some manifestations of these processes have begun to affect Ukraine: ​​a revision of the consensus concerning relations with the West is being considered; some internal discomfort and misunderstanding between different centers of influence in the West against the Nord Stream-2 project has been observed. These events are very relevant for Russia as they represent a window of opportunity to change the situation in Ukrainian politics.

As in western countries, using the threat of a full-scale invasion, Russia is raising the stakes again and bringing into question Ukraine’s readiness for a major war here and now. This can lead to an important social divide – not on ideological grounds (for or against European integration), but on Ukraine’s stance and readiness for a full-scale war, Ukraine’s acceptance of specific concessions and partial acceptance of a Russian scenario in order to preserve state and country and state.

Russia’s foreign policy leaders seek to package “Ukrainian sovereignism” – which in practice would mean a ban on NATO and EU integration – whereby Ukraine would be “Finlandized” and remain politically neutral.

However, even the Finnish experience during the Cold War shows that nothing curtails Moscow’s appetite and does not reduce its influence in Ukraine. Moreover, a neutral Ukraine will essentially be a relief only for the West: Russia will get extra time and political space for new maneuvers directed towards Kyiv, whereas within Ukraine itself the new geopolitical status will remain one of the biggest factors of political division among pro-Western factions, even if they completely dominate the political stage.

invasion

Therefore, when analyzing, for example, the arrows on conflict maps of such publications as the German Bild, we sometimes forget how effectively such images can achieve a real political impact without the implementation of an actual military offensive. So, in this perspective,

it is political change and not the deployment of troops on the front lines that the Kremlin is truly aiming for. Click To Tweet

This should not be a demobilization factor for Ukraine, or a guarantee of Russia’s non-aggression, but rather the opposite: political changes spearheaded by such tactics can create an even more unfavorable context than Russia’s military aggression.

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Translated by: Christine Chraibi
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