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For Ukraine, less ‘imminent’ threat is still very real

Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is prepared to keep talking, and that he expects visits from European leaders to Moscow soon — after he gets back from the opening of the Winter Olympics on Friday in Beijing. The Biden administration is no longer saying an attack on Ukraine is “imminent.”

But even as the threat appears to be subsiding ever so slightly — and perhaps just for a moment — Ukraine remains trapped.

The country of 44 million is surrounded by hostile forces and weapons, caught in the middle of brinkmanship between bigger powers, and grasping, with only limited success, to retain some say over its own fate.

While the top priority of U.S. President Joe Biden and other Western leaders has been to deter a Russian military strike, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had to undertake a more complex balancing act: bracing his country for hostilities, minimizing panic that could undermine the economy, appealing for help from allies, shoring up energy supplies to get through the winter, and restraining his own forces in war-torn Donbass to avoid creating any provocation.

At the same time, Zelenskiy and his government have faced the persistent challenge of avoiding pressure from Biden and others to make concessions to Russia, particularly within the Minsk 2 peace process, that could foment political instability within Ukraine.

Initial signs of such pressure were visible last week when the Ukrainian government abruptly withdrew a controversial bill on creating a transition period in the currently occupied areas of Donbass. The legislation was strongly opposed by Russia, and its withdrawal was reportedly demanded by Moscow as a condition for attending a Normandy format meeting in Paris on January 26.

While the withdrawal of the bill was seen as a relatively minor concession, there is widespread apprehension in Kyiv that Ukraine will be pressed to give in to other Russian demands, such as immediately calling local elections in the occupied areas, which could cause a public backlash against the government.  

Many Ukrainian officials, diplomats and analysts have long believed that rather than bear the tremendous cost in lives and money of invasion and occupation, Putin’s preferred strategy is to destabilize Ukraine politically, by exploiting the historic fault lines between the Russian-oriented East, EU-minded West, and moderate center in hopes of splitting the country apart.

This view is rooted in the belief that neither Ukraine nor NATO, in fact, pose any real security threat to Russia and that Putin’s bigger concern is that a democratic Ukraine, with respect for rule of law and a vibrant civil society, will encourage Russian voters to demand a similar path.

Kyiv’s frustrations

At a news conference on Wednesday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba voiced Kyiv’s frustrations over being expected to make concessions to implement the Minsk accords.

“The question should be put differently: When will Russia finally start implementation of Minsk agreements?” Kuleba said, replying to a reporter’s question with a litany of complaints about Moscow’s obstruction of the Normandy process.

“Why do we always hear this message that Ukraine has to do something?” Kuleba said. “It’s not us who attacked. It’s not us who put on hold the work of the Trilateral Contact Group. It’s not us who refuses to meet in the Normandy format at the level of leaders and foreign ministers. It’s all Russia.

“Ukraine is ready for a constructive discussion,” Kuleba added. “We want to resolve this conflict. Diplomatically and peacefully, we are ready to move forward — but it’s Russia who has to make the first step.”

Putin, at a news conference on Tuesday with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, insisted that the opposite was correct.

“About the implementation of the Minsk agreements,” Putin said. “On the one hand, we hear statements that Ukraine wants to fulfill them. We are constantly blamed for not complying with the Minsk agreements. At the same time, there are public statements that if Ukraine fulfills these Minsk agreements, it will fall apart.”

Putin complained that the U.S. and NATO were using Ukraine as a tool to impede Russia’s development, and he warned bluntly of war if Ukraine tried to retake Crimea by force. “This is sovereign Russian territory,” Putin said. “In this sense, the question is closed for us. Imagine that Ukraine is a NATO country and starts these military operations. Should we fight the NATO bloc? Has anyone thought about this? It seems not.

“It seems to me that these same United States are not so concerned about the security of Ukraine,” Putin said. “Although maybe they are thinking about it somewhere in the background, their main task is to curb the development of Russia. That’s the key. In this sense, Ukraine is just a tool to achieve this goal.”

Some experts believe Ukraine will eventually have to abandon the Minsk agreements; others say Ukraine will have no choice but to muddle through.

“Even though the current Ukrainian leadership was very skeptical of Minsk/Normandy process and the idea to quit Minsk deal is quite popular in Ukraine … quitting from Minsk process is mainly perceived as a huge present to Putin, who would use it to justify the narrative about Ukraine as not committed to peace,” said Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the New Europe Center, a think tank in Kyiv.

Getmanchuk said that despite the flaws of the accord, work on implementing Minsk also creates pressure on Russia to negotiate and, perhaps most importantly, gives Ukraine a say in its own affairs. “Minsk/Normandy process is a way for Ukraine to be at the negotiating table, where Ukraine’s future is discussed,” she said. “Most other current formats don’t include Ukraine.”

It was this fear of being bypassed that led Zelenskiy to insist that the U.S. and European allies adopt a slogan of “no decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine.” But such anxiety persists every time senior U.S. and Russian officials get on the phone, or whenever a Western leader pays a visit to Moscow.

Poroshenko’s take

In an interview with POLITICO last month, former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who negotiated the Minsk agreement with Putin, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former French President François Hollande, urged the West not to buy into the Russian interpretation of the agreement.

While Russia calls for local elections and political autonomy for the occupied areas, Poroshenko insisted that the accord calls first for a full withdrawal of fighters and weapons, and restoration of Kyiv’s overarching legal authority.

“If you read what is mentioned in the Minsk agreement, there is the local self-governance for the limited period of time,” Poroshenko said. “Excuse me, but foreign policy is not local self-governance. Excuse me, but defense is not local self-governance. Excuse me, but the court system and everything, this is not local self-governance.

“Security first,” Poroshenko added, “And this is your responsibility, Mr. Putin, because we’ve done our part of withdrawal.”

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who was prime minister of Ukraine when the Minsk deal was reached, said that Ukrainians would be thrilled to implement it, starting with its core ceasefire provisions, but that Putin’s interpretation of the agreement was just another strategy for trying to take over the country.

“If Russians share the Ukrainian interpretation of the Minsk deal, well, we are ready to make it – please, ” Yatsenyuk said.

“The key precondition is all Russian forces, Russian guerrillas and Russian proxies must be withdrawn from the Ukrainian territory. Ukrainian National Guard, National Police, Ukrainian government have to take over  the control of these regions, and then we can hold free and fair elections — not elections under the barrel of Russian guns.”

Yatsenyuk said that many political goals envisioned in the Minsk accord had already been adopted for the rest of Ukraine as part of a broad decentralization program. “In terms of so-called additional authorities,  or powers to these regions, we already accomplished this,” he said.

“All Ukrainian regions already received additional financial and economic powers. So there is no need to amend the Ukrainian Constitution because it’s already done.”

William Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said he believed that concerns of pressure from Washington related to the Minsk accords were unfounded.

“I see no evidence, zero evidence that anybody in the United States government or anybody else is pressuring Ukrainians, or President Zelenskiy, to do anything that would compromise Ukrainian sovereignty,” Taylor said. “The Russian interpretation of the Minsk agreements — unacceptable. Unacceptable to Ukraine, unacceptable to the United States.” 

Taylor, who just visited Ukraine and saw Zelenskiy, praised the Ukrainian leader’s handling of the crisis. “He’s not rattled. He understands the gravity of the situation, he understands very well the threat … he’s not backing down,” Taylor said. “Any and all politicians are concerned about domestic politics. Domestic politics will support him if he defends the Ukrainian nation and that’s what he seems to be doing right now.”

But if Taylor is right, and Ukraine won’t face pressure on Minsk, Putin may also see no path forward.

In that case, some analysts see the Russian leader taking steps to shift the security situation, potentially recognizing and effectively absorbing the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Donbass, and potentially even doing the same for the pro-Russian separatist Transnistria region in Moldova.

Such moves would test the willingness of Western nations to impose new sanctions on Russia in the absence of any new military conflict.

At the same time, Putin could continue to pursue negotiations with the U.S. on some of the issues that Washington has said it is willing to address, like arms control, or the stationing of troops and weapons on Ukrainian territory.

In the meantime, what’s clear though is that while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken trade letters and hold phone calls on the Euro-Atlantic security architecture, with Lavrov especially keen on debating the so-called indivisibility of security principle, Ukraine remains surrounded by a huge — and still growing — mass of Russian troops and weapons.

In searching for a seat at the table — any table — Ukraine may find its strongest ally is the EU, which often finds itself sidelined in discussions about security issues.

On Thursday in Brussels, Ambassador Delphine Pronk, the chair of the EU’s Political and Security Committee, met with NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană as well as Ukraine’s ambassador to the EU, Vsevolod Chentsov, and Ukraine’s ambassador to NATO, Nataliia Galibarenko, in what was billed as a new format to address security concerns.

“External threats continue to unite [Ukraine’s] international partners,” Chentsov tweeted.

Nahal Toosi contributed reporting.

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