RAGOZIN: Zelenskiy swimming in the shark infested waters of friends and foes

RAGOZIN: Zelenskiy swimming in the shark infested waters of friends and foes
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy is pleasing no one. Russia is threatening to invade his country. His political rivals want to impeach him. And even his friends in Washington think he is annoying, infuriating and downright counterproductive. At least the Ukrainian people still support him. / wiki
By Leonid Ragozin in Riga January 27, 2022

The chief of Ukraine’s Security Council, Oleksiy Danilov, can hardly be accused of being an appeaser of the Kremlin. It was he who signed off the sanctions against Putin’s man in Ukraine, Viktor Medvedchuk, the head of the Political Council of the Opposition Platform, For Life Party, at the beginning of 2021. That was one element in what appeared to be a co-ordinated attempt by Ukraine and the US to change the delicate equilibrium established after the hot phase of war in Ukraine’s breakaway Donbas region in 2014-15.

Other elements included exerting pressure on Russia to alter the Minsk agreements in Ukraine’s favour, a push for activating Nato membership for Ukraine, derailing the Nord Stream 2 gas project, challenging Russia in the Black Sea and putting Crimea back on the international agenda. These policy goals were listed in Atlantic Council’s strategy for Biden’s administration published in the early March of 2021.

It was this abrupt change of tack in Ukraine’s behaviour in the first two months of Biden’s presidency that has likely prompted the amassing of Russia troops at the Ukrainian border at the end of the same month. Their menacing presence continues up to the moment. Observers with better knowledge of regional politics and Putin’s patterns see it as a show of force that backs up Russia’s negotiating position but is unlikely to result in war. The White House has chosen to interpret it, at least publicly, as a threat of imminent invasion.

A year after it all started, Ukraine and the US are hardly speaking with one voice.

Interviewed by the BBC on January 24, Danilov accused Western allies of spreading panic by hyping up the possibility of Russian invasion. He claimed that the scaremongering, primarily fuelled by the US and the UK, was harming Ukraine and benefiting Putin. He also speculated that it might be driven by domestic and geopolitical considerations in the countries it emanates from.

While thanking Western allies for voicing support and sending weapons to repel Russian aggression, he warned them against trying to manipulate Ukraine.

Danilov mentioned that he even attempted to argue with the Washington Post after it ran an article on October 30, which was the first in a massive wave of alarmist publications and official statements in the US highlighting the allegedly high risk of war in Ukraine. But he said the newspaper wouldn’t listen to him.

The WaPo piece was based on comments by anonymous US officials claiming there was a serious uptick in October in the number of Russian troops deployed near the Ukrainian border. These comments were backed up by military analyst Michael Kofman, who in the next few weeks emerged as a vocal proponent of the looming invasion narrative. But it also contained a quote by Danilov who contradicted the premises of the story by putting the number of Russian troops massed at the border at 80,000 to 90,000, the same or even lower than what was estimated back in the spring.

In the weeks that followed the publication, top US officials, including President Biden and State Secretary Blinken, were raising the alarm volume to the level, which made observers talk about a repeat of the 1962 Cuban crisis. The Kremlin kept its poker face and dismissed the claims of imminent invasion as “madness”.

Towards the end of January, US officials began sounding as if they were annoyed by Putin failing to live up to their dark predictions. “He has to do something,” President Biden said on January 20.

Danilov is not the only Ukrainian official who has been trying to play down the invasion hype. On January 18, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned Ukrainians against being stirred up by “horror stories”. Next day, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy released a video address in which he said that risks of renewed Russian aggression weren’t any higher than any time in the previous eight years, when Putin ordered the occupation of Crimea and instigated a bloody war in Donbas. He said Ukrainians should stay calm and vigilant instead of falling for manipulative messaging that strives to sow panic.

One larger than life reason for the Ukrainian government to be much more restrained than its Western allies is their concern about the economy. Since the beginning of the year, the hryvnia has lost 4.5% of its value year to date, falling to UAH28.83 as of January 25 – a four-year low – while Ukrainian Eurobonds were sold at default alert levels, even though the main macroeconomic indicators didn’t suggest the possibility of a default.

Russian markets were showing the exact same trends, but Ukraine can’t boast anything remotely similar to Russia’s massive gold and currency reserves, which will definitely allow it to weather this as well as much more serious calamities.

But the economy is just one of the reasons for Ukraine’s caution. Its analysis of military risks is also in stark contrast with the one that guides US and British officials, as they push the imminent invasion narrative.

A report by the Centre of Defence Strategies, a think-tank close to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence, concluded that “a full-scale invasion capturing most or all of Ukraine in the near future seems unlikely” not just in the coming weeks, but throughout 2022. However, it stated that “other threatening scenarios could materialise”.

Although it put the number of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border at 127,000, which is about 30% higher than usually cited, it also claimed that there had been no increase since it all started in April. That directly contradicts the American claims about a major uptick in October and November, which have triggered the invasion scare.

Crucially, according to the Ukrainian analysts, Russia is still short of forces to conduct a large-scale operation, while some of the critical elements necessary for the invasion, such as medical units, are simply absent from the picture.

Yet there is a more delicate and fundamental issue, which explains Ukraine’s wariness. Dealing with the US has never been easy for Zelenskiy since day one of his presidency and even before that. Already during his presidential campaign in 2018 and early 2019, the DC elite showed the utmost disdain about a Russian-speaking comedian running on the platform of seeking compromise with Putin and letting Ukrainians decide on Nato membership at a referendum, the result of which would be hard to predict.

It applauded when the losing side in the election, incumbent president Petro Poroshenko, used the last months before his humiliating defeat to push through a constitutional amendment which declared Ukraine’s goal of joining Nato, as well as discriminatory ethno-nationalist legislation which severely limited the use of the Russian language in education and everyday life.

Poroshenko proceeded to declare all of these as “red lines”, threatening another revolution, should Zelenskiy choose to change any of that, even though the new president enjoyed an unprecedentedly broad support across Ukraine. The threat of a coup by a militant minority, composed of nationalist activists and war veterans, continued to dog Zelenskiy throughout his presidential term.

Enter Donald Trump, who tried to coerce Zelenskiy into backing up accusations against Joe Biden and his son Hunter, and linked the latter’s employment by a company of an oligarch from the camp of ex-president Viktor Yanukovych, ousted by the Maidan revolution. Trump tried to bully the Ukrainian president by denying military aid needed by Ukraine to defend itself against Russia.

Biden’s victory over Trump renewed hopes that the US leadership might start treating Ukraine as a genuine ally, not expendable material in its global rivalry with Russia as well as in domestic political squabbles. Before the US elections in 2020, the freshly dismissed Ukrainian ex-premier Oleksiy Honcharuk moved to the US and embarked on a very long tour of the country, meeting with political and business leaders, in what appeared to be an attempt by Ukraine and its American allies to lay groundwork for a better co-ordinated joint strategy once Trump is gone.

“I think you will see some results of these activities in January,” he told National Interest for a story published on the first day of 2021.

In no time these results did emerge in the shape of Zelenskiy clamping down on Medvedchuk and his TV channels, launching a massive campaign for Nato membership and all in all radically changing tack from his previously dovish and compromise-seeking position on the conflict with Russia. His new stance was backed up by think-tanks and lobbyists close to the Biden administration, especially the Atlantic Council, which receives some of its largest donations from Ukrainian oligarchs.

It wasn’t a success, to put it mildly. Perhaps because Putin’s heavy-handed response to this plan was never a part of the calculation, Zelenskiy achieved exactly nothing from what was envisaged in the Atlantic Council’s strategy for the Biden administration published in March 2021.

The Nato membership action plan, promised in case Russia shows “intransigence” by refusing to compromise on Donbas, failed to materialise, despite the Kremlin showing maximum intransigence. Hopes that the Greens would win the election in Germany and derail Nord Stream 2 project were also shattered.

Worse than that, throughout the year Zelenskiy has been forced to devote significant time and attention to an attempt by the radical part of the security community, close to Poroshenko, to launch an impeachment process through the so-called Wagnergate affair. They claimed that Zelenskiy committed an act of treason through a last-minute cancellation of a madcap plan, hatched by Ukrainian military intelligence, which envisaged the forced landing of a civilian Turkish plane carrying mercenaries from the infamous Russian Wagner group. The affair resulted in an open rebellion by the military intelligence chief, which Zelenskiy had to put down in September.

By the time the US went into red alert mode over “imminent” Russian aggression, Zelenskiy was clearly more preoccupied with domestic politics and the threat of a coup. His messaging became confused as he tried to link his foes, such as oligarch Rinat Akhmetov and ex-president Poroshenko to Russia, while it was clear that if any great power were behind them, then it would be the United States of America.

Akhmetov is one of the top sponsors of the Atlantic Council. The militant street movement, which backs Poroshenko and keeps the threat of a new Maidan alive, is run by Andriy Levus, an activist and former security official directly linked to diaspora organisations created by Nazi collaborators who found refuge in North America under the auspices of the CIA.

The Ukrainians have reasons to suspect that the United States and Britain, with their radical rhetoric unmatched by the real level of threat as well as their enthusiasm about “brave Ukrainians” fighting and dying for the Western cause, are prepared to throw Ukraine under the bus so as to get Russia bogged down in a devastating war. The vision of “a new Chechen war” was evoked by British PM Boris Johnson. Former Obama administration official Evelyn Farkas went as far as calling for the US to form a new “coalition of the willing” and engage in a direct conflict with Russia over Ukraine.

Zelenskiy also has good reasons to believe that his allies see him as an impediment. As Julia Ioffe put in her piece for Puck, “the White House and its Democrat allies have just about had it with President Zelenskiy”. Three sources in Biden's administration and the Capitol she spoke to described the Ukrainian president as “annoying, infuriating and downright counterproductive”.

Ukraine has an America problem on top of its Russia nightmare. Never groomed to be a professional politician, not to mention a national leader, Zelenskiy has to demonstrate the utmost skill to prevent great powers from turning his country into a battlefield.