By Nina Bachkatov
In less than a week, the possibility of a war in Ukraine evaporated even if the protagonists continue to feed mutual anxiousness. The Kremlin has used the latest crisis to hammer the message which has been constant during almost two decades: 1/ Russia is a world leader and has to be treated as such; 2/ Russia’s internal affairs are nobody’s business.Hence the importance of President Putin’s annual Address to the Nation on 22 April. It was shorter than usually, mostly devoted to the needs of a population, which is unhappy with constant prices’ hike affecting all sectors from potatoes to electricity, and the shortage of promised well-paid jobs. Households continue to load themselves with credits, to the point when the private, not the public, indebtment, is the headache of the authorities. Without surprise, the president promised more social aide and new infrastructures.
But the key word in the Address was “asymmetry”, a concept Putin has been sending to both Russians and foreign, mostly Western, countries. From now on, he said, the Kremlin can react to “provocations” or “aggressive behaviour” by any means it judges adequate to defend Russia’s national interests. For Putin, it means that Russia can decide, or not, to react to “hostile forces”; that one cannot expect it to satisfy itself with the classical tit-for-tat scenario; that Russia has been and is open to cooperation, but remembers how previous offers of an olive branch has been systematically translated as a sign of weakness or irresolution.
This is why his mention of “red lines” is important, and intimidating because, as it extends to internal matters. In short, Russians are invited to believe that, under their strong and fatherly president, any decision concerning their country are taken in Moscow, in line with Russian traditions, not under Western pressure. Measures will be taken against those ‘enemies from inside’ who are receiving orders and money from “foreign capitals”. And of course, Russia has the right to organise military drills on any corner of the Russian territory.
The Address was partly theatrical, as aptly put by Putin’s former adviser Gleb Pavlovsky. But it is not specific of Putin in today world – and Putin was in full control of his text.
In any case, for the moment, the only way to measure its impact is through the reactivity of the different actors.
- On 22 April, Russian defence minister Shoigu announced the end of the “giant exercise” held in the southern and western military districts, on the borders with Ukraine. “The forces had demonstrated their capacities to provide a credible defence of the country”.
- On 23 April, the troops began their dislocation to return to their permanent basis; some equipment will be left for an undisclosed period at short distance of the Ukrainian border; the additional troops dispatched in Crimea during the drill will leave on 1 May. Naval exercises will continue on a routine basis, in seas that, to the great exasperation of Moscow, are now the playfield of the US and NATO ships.
- On 25 April, the White House confirmed that president Biden will meet Vladimir Putin to ease tensions, and discuss security and geopolitical issues. The first invitation dates back to 13 April, and the presidents exchanged telephone calls. Each time, Biden repeated his full support to Ukrainian territorial integrity. And he had unveiled, on 15 April, new sanctions against Russians, sending the clear signal that, for Biden, sanctions were a geo-economic instrument aimed at constraining Russian foreign policy adventurism. After all, Biden not such a long time ago had agreed with a TV interviewer that Putin was a ‘killer’.
- Since this 25 April announcement, the two administrations have been discussing a place and a date for a summit. It will be in June, when Joe Biden is making his first foreign trip to attend the G7 summit in UK on 11-13 June, a NATO summit in Brussels on 14 June, plus a visit to the EU Commission. It will not be on the European continent. In the meantime, the ‘détente’ paved the way for Putin’s participation in the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, on 22-23 April, initiated by the American president.
- On 26 April, Ukrainian President Zelensky declared in the Financial Times that he wanted to revamp the Minsk Agreement, which he called a think of the past in need of adjustments to new conditions. This confirms his intact will to fulfill electoral promises to solve the Donbass conflict. It reflects also a sober approach to political and military situations. Since the beginning of this year, he had blown hot and cold, increasing restriction on the use of Russian language – hardly a way to facilitate dialogue with Russian-speakers Ukrainians. Then he endorsed the clothes of a commander in chief visiting the “front line”, while calling for peace. Finally, he opted for diplomacy, touring Western capitals, alone or with key ministers. He even visited Turkey – a day after president Erdogan met Putin.
- In the West, he received the predictable declarations of support and condemnations of Russian brutality but not much more. For the first time, a “pro-Western” president took the measure of Western backing, especially in case of an armed conflict with Russia. Moscow will pay the price, but Ukrainians will be left to themselves, dying on the front, albeit with better Western equipment and training. So, he has been proposing to find a new basis for Donbass peace’s negotiations. But he insists now to have the US, Canada and the UK around the table, which means a sharper influence of the Ukrainian diaspora, often fierce nationalists originating from the Western Ukraine.
- On 25 April, Alexei Navalny, whose cruel treatment caused Western indignation and sanctions, interrupted his hunger strike. He announced he would satisfy himself with the visit of ‘civilian’ doctors to assess his health condition. His activists had to recognise that their calls for huge demonstrations in the streets failed to be numerous enough to illustrate the gap between the people voice and that of Putin addressing the nation at the same moment. Main figures announced they were leaving Russia to continue their opposition movements from abroad. A Russian court was ready to declare Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Organisation an extremist movement, meaning, notably, the closure of regional offices occupying about 250 employees who have been essential to anchor opposition across Russia.