Since mid-November, the concentration of Russian forces on its side of the Ukrainian border, spotted since late summer, has become an international source of concern. The alarm was raised on the basis of unnamed American intelligence, saying that Russia was preparing another invasion of Ukraine. Soon the suspicion was transformed into a certitude, and the question was not “if”, but “when”. Both sides of the Atlantic were unveiling joint contingency plans to hit Russia, and even threaten Putin’s regime. Doing so, the West looked like winning both ways: or Russia does invade, and pay the high price, militarily and economically; or it doesn’t, and the West can claim that its determination had deterred president Putin.
There were few mentions of another scenario, in which Putin, largely backed by public opinion or inertia, was ready to take the risks. The question has been taken seriously by the Ukrainian authorities, which at first had said that the situation on the border was unchanged, before changing their mind under pressure of its allies and some internal forces. Kiev has also been distressed by the West readiness to test, and hopefully roll back, Russians on Ukrainian soil. Then, on 24 January, Washington called for the departure of American diplomats’ families and other non-indispensable staff present in Ukraine. Zelensky, and his ministers, expressed fears that it will create a panic and push away foreign and Ukrainian investors. It did, even before the second shock, when, on 10 February, president Bidden asked all American citizens to leave Ukraine in 48 hours. Washington, he did add, will not send American troops to evacuate those who had decided to stay.
From Kiev, it was looking as if the Americans had lost confidence in the capacity of the Ukrainians to provide security to their people and to foreigners. The urgency of the departure was backed by declarations of US State Secretary Blinken that the Russian invasion will not take place around New Year as it has been foreseen earlier, but by mid-February. According to American experts, by then, 170.000 Russian soldiers would be encircling Ukraine, the threshold for Putin to move on. The date has been vindicated by climatologists consulted by president Biden to assess what any local peasant might have said about mud and snow there in mid-February.
The 5 hours spent by Macron in the Kremlin were about keeping the channels open, about dialogue, not about unrealistic goals. Both sides had stated clearly the limits of the possible before the presidents sat around such a large table that it led to endless speculations about its indirect message. Paris lately announced it was part of a sanitary protocol as Macro’s team had refused Russian Covid test.
For once, the Russians had decided to tune down their remarks about EU’s division. Macron had been cautious, making clear he was acting in the framework of France’s rotating EU presidency, in coordination with the Commission, the US and NATO, and even OSCE. Ukraine was not left out, as Macron went from Moscow to Kiev, and then to Berlin to discuss with his German and Polish colleagues. His visit unlashed a diplomatic rush through the continent, alongside with visits to Washington. It was also forcing Moscow to repeat that it wanted to settle the crisis through dialogue – even if it emphasised its readiness to keep on military or “technical” pressures, as long as Russia was not involved in discussions about the global European security.
But the evolution of the Western narrative (mostly American and British, and by NATO’s general secretary) about the Russian invasion of Ukraine has taken a life of its own. It was sustained by a flow of information leaked to medias, putting president Zelensky in an almost impossible position. For instance, British sources had claimed that they were holding a film showing how Russia was planning its “fake flag” provocation in Ukraine; US State Department secretary Blinken repeated that the Russians were preparing a coup in Kiev to replace pro-Western Zelinsky. Europeans had own unformulated questions about the defence of their own interests, and about the effect on public opinion of all those films showing American troops arriving on the continent.
Back to Minsk
This is where the emphasis put jointly during Macron’s visit on a reactivation of the Minsk Agreements (or the Normandy format) took its full dimension. After their meeting, Macron and Putin insisted on their mutual conviction about the need to settle the Donbass situation, without underestimating the obstacles; after their own, Macron and Zelensky talked of their shared interest in the peace process in Eastern Ukraine. Almost all successive visitors to Moscow or Kiev adopted the same position, with the caveat concerning the Russian military de-escalation. All eyes are on Moscow where even sources “close to the Kremlin” are left guessing what Vladimir Putin has in mind. They fear that Moscow went too far to back down under American, and NATO’s pressure; that the West and Russia have entered into a dangerous zero-cum-game. The Russian goodwill might be tested soon, on 20 February, when the “joint exercises” with Belarus are due to end, and Moscow to repatriate most of its forces and material.