As the COVID-19 crisis persisted and tragedy struck at a Siberian coal mine, President Vladimir Putin fixed his gaze on Ukraine and the West, making a new play for a NATO pledge that would turn neighboring nations that are outside the Western alliance into buffer states with limited sovereignty.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
Trouble At Home
Putin, whose job is to protect the Russian people and promote their well-being, has plenty of battles to fight at home.
There’s the coronavirus crisis, for one thing. New case numbers have been dropping after climbing to a peak in early November, but the official daily death toll — widely seen as a substantial undercount — has been hovering close to the record high reached two weeks ago: 1,254.
With the onslaught of the omicron variant, the future is even less certain than it was just a few days ago, in Russia and elsewhere. But whatever developments occur in the coming months and years, the Kremlin’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic seems highly unlikely to be a bright spot in Putin’s legacy.
There’s also a more deeply rooted problem: the corruption, corner-cutting, and negligence that can lead to or exacerbate the death and destruction caused by both human-caused and natural disasters.
It happened weeks after Putin’s most recent election, in March 2018, when a fire at a mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo killed 60 people, including 37 children — some of them trapped in a movie theater as toxic smoke spread.
It happened again in the Kemerovo Oblast on November 25, when a methane blast and fire ripped through a major coal mine in the region known as the Kuzbass, leading to 51 deaths. Miners alleged safety standards were ignored and methane-gas gauges tampered with to show lower readings.
“The air was bad for many weeks. But the bosses just said, ‘Go,’” one survivor told RFE/RL. “They just wanted coal.”
Meanwhile, there is Putin’s battle against foes real and perceived. A sweeping campaign targeting political opponents, independent media, civil society, and ordinary Russians who run afoul of the authorities has appeared to be a major focus of domestic policy during his current term, and particularly since last January, when opposition leader Aleksei Navalny returned from Germany following treatment for a nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin.
In the sights of the authorities now, it appears, is Valery Rashkin, a Communist member of the State Duma, the lower parliament house.
The Communists are considered part of the “systemic opposition” — a component of Putin’s ruling apparatus rather than an opponent. But after the Duma elections in September, Rashkin protested in central Moscow to draw attention to allegations of fraud benefiting the Kremlin-backed United Russia party.
Following an incident in which an elk carcass was found in his car in October, Rashkin has been stripped of his parliamentary immunity from prosecution and accused by the Investigative Committee — whose chief is close to Putin — of illegal hunting. He faces up to five years in prison if tried and convicted.
But despite the developments at home, the bulk of Putin’s attention lately seems to focused on Ukraine, a neighboring country and fellow former Soviet republic that has — it should be entirely unnecessary to say — like Russia, been independent for 30 years.
In numerous comments in various formats in recent weeks and months, from a July article one historian described as “deranged” and a commentator said reflected a “destabilizing fixation” to a meeting with Foreign Ministry staff last week, Putin has made clear that he does not believe — or sees fit to suggest he does not believe — that Ukraine should be a sovereign state.
Now Putin’s rhetoric has become a seemingly menacing backdrop to concerns about a buildup of Russian military forces not far from the Ukrainian border and also in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia seized from Ukraine in March 2014, after Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych was pushed from power by the pro-European, anti-corruption Maidan protests in Kyiv.
The main worry in Kyiv and the West is that Russia could soon launch a new offensive targeting Ukraine — possibly limited to land around the portion of Ukraine’s Donbas region that was seized by Russia-backed separatists at the start of a war that has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014, or possibly with more ambitious goals.
To put it a different way, Putin wants as much influence with Ukraine as he can get — control over the country seems to be his “very personal and heartfelt goal,” Kadri Liik, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a November 23 opinion article in The New York Times — but he appears to be running out of ways to get it. To a large degree, it’s a dilemma of his own doing: The aggression in 2014, and events since, have driven Ukraine and its people further from Russia’s orbit.
The Minsk 2 agreement, which Kyiv signed at one of its most dire hours in the war in the Donbas, in February 2015, has gone largely unimplemented amid perpetual finger-pointing, so far scuttling what Putin clearly saw as a chance to gain sway over Ukraine by creating a powerful Russia-backed presence inside the neighboring country while weakening its central government.
That means that Putin may be more likely to resort to force in an attempt to get what he wants — and what he wants goes beyond the Donbas, and even beyond Ukraine, though Ukraine appears to be the main object of desire. In recent weeks, Putin and people in the Kremlin orbit have made what amounts to a wish list, or a list of demands, for Washington and the West.
When it comes to Ukraine and to NATO, most of Putin’s desires go back decades, long steeped in a volatile mixture of ambition, emotion, and resentment. But he laid out what he suggested are now his core objectives at a credential ceremony with new ambassadors to Russia on December 1, saying that “the priority facing Russian diplomacy at this juncture is to try to ensure that Russia is granted reliable and long-term security guarantees.”
“While engaging in dialogue with the United States and its allies, we will insist on the elaboration of concrete agreements that would rule out any further eastward expansion of NATO and the deployment of weapons systems posing a threat to us in close proximity to Russia’s territory,” Putin said. “We suggest that substantive talks on this topic should be started.”
Those demands seem clear. But they’re unacceptable to the West — and Putin must know it.
Some in Moscow “hope that [US President Joe] Biden, needing Russia to contain China, will help Russia get its way in Ukraine — either by pressuring President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to allow Moscow a say over the country’s future decision-making or, better yet, by declaring NATO’s door officially closed to countries like Ukraine,” Liik wrote in her opinion article. That hope, she wrote, is “outlandish.”
For one thing, the United States and other NATO allies say that Moscow cannot have a veto on membership for Ukraine or any other country — and, in fact, the alliance said at a 2008 summit that Ukraine and Georgia will someday join the alliance. For another, NATO says that its military moves are defensive and pose no threat to Russia — while Russia has shown in the past, including in 2014, that its deployments are sometimes precursors to an offensive.
“NATO couldn’t give those kinds of guarantees even if it wanted to do so. And it doesn’t,” Samuel C-harap, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp-oration think tank, wrote in a tweet following Putin’s remarks to the ambassadors. “Not a good omen.”
And Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wondered on Twitter: “[W]hy again seek legal guarantees of NATO’s non-expansion that cannot be given — and even if given would not be trusted?”
The military buildup, the anti-Ukraine rhetoric, and the calls for the country to be barred from NATO have sparked fears that the Kremlin may be preparing to blame Kyiv, the West, or both for any new flare-up of fighting in the Donbas — or to justify a new Russian offensive in advance.
In the short term, what Putin may want most is a meeting with Biden. And he could soon get it — or maybe just a phone call, which would fall short of the in-person summit the Kremlin would like. After talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meeting in Stockholm on December 2, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it is “likely the presidents will speak directly in the near future.”
‘Costs And Consequences’
Blinken also said that both Moscow and Kyiv should fulfill their obligations under Minsk 2 and that Washington is willing to facilitate this.
That could be seen by Moscow as a step in the right direction, toward an effort by the United States to press Kyiv to implement the agreement. But Russia and Ukraine have different interpretations of the pact, and Moscow is seen in the West as a major violator, so there’s a great deal of room for continued discord and deadlock.
And with Putin now pressing for much, much more from Washington — and Blinken making clear that in the eyes of the United States, it is Moscow that must change its behavior — tensions seem likely to persist, even if the prospect of a major Russian offensive eases off ahead of the expected talks between Putin and Biden.
As Russia angles for more substantive negotiations with the United States, it may maintain pressure by keeping the military forces in place near Ukraine — but Washington will not accept Moscow’s claim that Russia is under threat from either NATO or Ukraine.
Ukraine is neither threatening nor seeking a military confrontation with Russia, Blinken said, despite what he called a “massive Russian disinformation campaign” pointing the finger at Kyiv.
“The only threat is that of renewed Russian aggression toward Ukraine,” Blinken said, adding that the West will “impose severe costs and consequences on Russia if it takes further aggressive action against Ukraine.”
“It’s now on Russia to de-escalate the current tensions by reversing the recent troop buildup, returning forces to normal peacetime positions, and refraining from further intimidation and attempts to destabilize Ukraine,” he said.
Regardless of whether Russia pulls back troops in the next few weeks or months, the Kremlin has given no sign that it will stop putting pressure on Kyiv — or stop using the situation in Ukraine to put pressure on the West. Putin’s focus on Ukraine does not seem to be fleeting, and he appears to be in this for the long haul.