KYIV BLOG: Don't believe the hype

KYIV BLOG: Don't believe the hype
Western powers have been decrying the Russian build-up of troops on Ukraine's border, but Ukraine itself says there are no troops there. Politicians are cynically hyping these fears for their own ends. / wiki
By Ben Aris in Berlin November 17, 2021

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson caused a stir on November 15, saying that Europe has to choose between buying Russian hydrocarbons or backing Ukraine.  

"So when we say that we support the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine, that is not because we want to be adversarial to Russia, or that we want in some way strategically to encircle or undermine that great country," Johnson said in speech excerpts released by his office.

"We hope that our friends may recognise that a choice is shortly coming between mainlining ever more Russian hydrocarbons in giant new pipelines, and sticking up for Ukraine and championing the cause of peace and stability."

Whitehall followed up by sending Britain's Defence Minister Ben Wallace to Kyiv, who met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a show of support at a time when Ukraine and Nato countries have “expressed concern” about Russian troop movements near Ukraine's borders.

The trouble is, there is no hostility and this talk of troop build-up is largely hype: the Moscow Times reported on the same day that the Ukrainian border service was saying “there is no sign of Russian troops” near the border. This comes on top of reports when the original reports were released by the Ukrainian Defence Ministry that any troop movements that had taken place were all on the Belarusian, not Ukrainian, border.  

"Directly near the border, we do not fix any moving equipment or military [in] neighbouring country; if some action [does] occur, they can be tens or even hundreds of kilometres from the border," a representative of the State Border Service Andrei Demchenko told TV channel " Ukraine-24 " as reported by TASS on November 15.  

That came on top of another good piece by the Moscow Times, where they quizzed leading experts on the war talk: “Russia unlikely to invade Ukraine despite ratcheting tensions, experts believe.”

“To be quite honest, I don’t see any grounds to expect an invasion,” Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), a Kremlin-aligned think-tank, told the Moscow Times. "I don’t know what it would achieve. The losses would be huge, and the potential gains very limited."

As bne IntelliNews said elsewhere, the reported 100,000 near Ukraine is far too few to be a credible invasion force: Ukraine has 250,000 active servicemen and another 800,000 reservists. It has been spending 5% of GDP on modernising its military for seven years – more than twice the Nato norm of 2% – making any Russian invasion extremely costly in lives.

bne IntelliNews’ own contributors have come to the same conclusion. Famous Russian journalist Leonid Ragozin has just filed a piece looking at the history of tensions between Russia and Ukraine and also suggests that the current war hype came out of Washington and is part of the toxic relations between East and West.  

And finally, as bne IntelliNews reported this week, investors into Russia simply don't buy the hype at all.  

“We could speak at length about the factors and sources of mounting geopolitical tensions, but, in our opinion, they are directly or indirectly related to the preparation of the US-Russia summit. Even a faint hint of a potential thaw in relations between Moscow and Washington immediately provokes a sharply negative reaction in Kiev, Eastern Europe and among the anti-Russian lobby in the United States. It is not surprising that the sources of recent reports about the alleged transfer of Russian troops and preparations for an offensive in Ukraine were in Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic states, and were also associated with conservative media in the United States,” Vladimir Tikhomirov, the chief economist of BCS Global Markets, said in a note.

To underscore the disbelief, the ruble exchange rate has remained stable in the last week at around RUB72 – its strongest level in about two years – whereas when there was a real and very obvious build-up of troops on the Ukrainian border in April the currency fell to RUB77 – its weakest since the collapse of oil price in March 2020.  

Likewise, the Russian stock market rally that has been going on all year has paused in the last two weeks, but there has been no sell-off and the RTS index remains at its highest level in over a decade. Having said that, as one of bne IntelliNews’ readers pointed out, “investors all have ADHD.” They tend not to act proactively. They will sell on “the sound of cannon and buy on sound of trumpets.” (You’re supposed to do it the other way round.)

So what is going on?  

First, the UK is in the middle of a big arms deal and is bigging up Ukraine solidarity, as it is good for business. A similar thing happened in June when the UK’s HMS Defender deliberately provoked Russia by sailing into the Russian-controlled waters off Crimea, provoking a nasty incident where Russian frigates fired shots across its bows.  

It just so happened that British Defence Ministry officials were in Odesa at the time to celebrate the closure of a $1.3bn naval contract to supply Ukraine with warships and also modernise its naval bases. And it just so happens that the Brits are back in Kyiv as they are currently working on another deal to provide Kyiv with arms for the army.  

The UK is increasingly sticking its oar into Eastern European politics. It said last week that 600 troops were being readied for deployment in Poland as part of the Belarus migrant crisis, and the leadership has been explicit about blaming Russia for masterminding the catastrophe on the Belarus-Poland border, despite the fact that there is not a shred of evidence to support it.  

What is so strange about all this activity is the UK is no longer part of the EU, and the Belarusian border drama is an entirely EU issue, and that the UK has played almost no role in the Ukraine-Russia conflict until now, leaving it to Berlin and Paris to take the lead.  

Indeed, it is “highly likely” that the Kremlin is unhappy with the whole Belarusian situation, as their control over Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko is limited. However, the Kremlin not above capitalising on the clash that was engineered by Lukashenko, who is looking for some leverage over the EU to undo the mounting sanctions regime, argued bne IntelliNews columnist Mark Galeotti in a column this week.  

Criticising Russia has become a useful tool for Western politicians that they are fond of employing, as it makes them look tough. Tikhomirov argued that conservatives in the US government have leapt on the Russian troop movement story as they are unhappy with US President Joe Biden's attempts to reset relations with Russia. The two are due to have a follow-up summit to their meeting in Geneva on June 16 before the end of the year. Plus a big defence spending bill is due to go before the House in the coming weeks. So a bit of fear mongering will help that debate pass smoothly.  

For their part, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron are trying calm things down. Merkel was widely criticised for calling Lukashenko this week to try to find a way out: the EU doesn't recognise his administration, so her call was seen as legitimising an illegitimate leader. But that is how pragmatic politics works. However, as she is now a lame duck, due to depart any day when the new German government is formed, her ability to do anything is severely limited.  

And finally, it should be noted that Russia is not entirely innocent in this story. It is clearly moving some troops around. But Kremlin has complained it is only responding to Nato exercises in the Black Sea and Polish redistribution of troops closer to Russia, which it finds “worrying.”  

A hallmark of Putin’s administration is that he is entirely paranoid about Nato and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a definitive break with the West that caused irreparable damage to whatever relationship there was before. That move was based largely on the need to secure Russia’s crucial naval base in Crimea and Putin calculated that with Ukraine’s move towards Europe following the Maidan revolution it was only a matter of time before Ukraine joined the EU and then Nato and Russia would lose this base in the process.  

As winter closes in we have found ourselves in a particularly toxic position. Western politicians are hyping tensions with Russia for their own political, and in the UK’s case commercial, gains. But they are provoking Russia, which has shown itself not to be above taking actual military action when it deems it must.  

Moreover, the aggressiveness of the Western provocations will only increase the Kremlin’s paranoia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took things to a new low at the start of this year, setting relations to zero with his new rules of the game speech in February. All this rhetoric puts us in a dangerous situation where a mistake could lead to shots fired and events overtaking the ability of the same politicians to control them.