Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on a trip to the Donbas front lines April 8, 2021. Photo courtesy of Ukrainian Presidential Administration.
KYIV, Ukraine — Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing challenges on two fronts this week.
Protests are planned in 160 cities across Russia Wednesday in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Meanwhile, following an extraordinary Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy challenged Putin to a face-to-face meeting in Ukraine’s embattled eastern Donbas region, where Ukrainian troops have been locked for years in a stalemated trench war against Russian troops and their separatist proxies.
“I go there every month, Mr. Putin. I am ready to go even further and invite you to meet anywhere in the Ukrainian Donbas, where the war is going on,” Zelenskiy said in an April 20 video message posted on his administration’s presidential website.
The Navalny protests are likely to spur a heavy-handed response from the Kremlin — indeed, as of this article’s penning, there were already reports from Russia that authorities had allegedly arrested several of Navalny’s most prominent allies. However, Wednesday’s gatherings won’t likely mark a serious threat to Putin’s rule, nor will they alter Moscow’s military calculus regarding Ukraine, some experts say. Above all, many doubt whether Putin would deliberately instigate military action against Ukraine as a diversionary tactic.
“Clearly the ongoing Navalny tragedy puts the Putin regime at odds with much of the democratic world and a sizable chunk of his own domestic population,” said Peter Zwack, a retired US Army brigadier general who serves as the senior Russia and Eurasia fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University.
“Launching a punitive, nonexistential strike against Ukraine could backfire for [Putin], especially at this time,” Zwack told Coffee or Die Magazine. “Better, I think, to continue proclaiming this is an exercise and slowly de-escalate over the next couple of weeks. The situation, however, remains rife with risk for an accident, incident, and/or provocation — as such, unpredictable and dangerous.”
Similarly, Michael Kofman, director of the CNA Corp.’s Russia Center and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center’s Kennan Institute, remained skeptical that Wednesday’s Navalny protests would impact the precarious military situation on Ukraine’s border, where Russian troops continue to mass by the tens of thousands.
“The problem with the diversionary-war line of thinking is that it falsely assumes that domestic problems can be resolved with foreign policy actions, but what is the logic or operating mechanism that links these two?” Kofman said to Coffee or Die.
He continued, “How would a war in Ukraine resolve the issue of Navalny? Has it solved such domestic problems in the past? The short answer is that there really is no visible relationship between these and no evidence that Russians would positively receive a war with Ukraine.”
Navalny, 44, returned to Moscow Jan. 17 after recuperating in Germany following exposure to a Soviet-era nerve agent while in Russia. Navalny blamed Putin for the assassination attempt.
Russian officials immediately arrested Navalny upon his return to Russia. A Moscow court subsequently ruled that, by traveling to Germany for lifesaving medical treatment, Navalny had violated a parole agreement stemming from an earlier embezzlement charge. The opposition leader is currently serving a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence at a penal colony east of Moscow.
To protest the conditions of his incarceration, Navalny has been on a hunger strike for three weeks — and his health is failing, his supporters have said. Amid calls for Navalny’s release, the Kremlin has threatened to label his political organization an extremist group.
“A really tough final battle between normal people and absolute evil lies ahead,” Navalny’s allies wrote in an online statement.
Wednesday’s pro-Navalny protests coincided with Putin’s annual address. The Russian leader used the occasion to warn against foreign interference in his country’s affairs.
“Anyone who stages any provocations that threaten our safety will regret it in a way they’ve never regretted anything before,” Putin said, adding, “I hope, though, that no one will consider crossing Russia’s so-called red line.”
With his health in jeopardy, Navalny’s death could spark a durable, nationwide protest movement against Putin. However, even if Navalny dies, many experts argue that Russia will probably not embark on a “diversionary” military venture in Ukraine.
“I can’t see any real direct connections between the situation around Navalny and Russian aggression against Ukraine,” said Mykhailo Samus, deputy director of the New Geopolitics Research Network, a Ukrainian think tank.
“I think that Navalny case is not the most important factor for defining the Kremlin’s position toward Ukraine, the US, and Europe,” Samus told Coffee or Die.
Kofman, too, doubted whether Navalny’s death would have any bearing on Russia’s military posture toward Ukraine.
“If Navalny dies, Russia will be much more aggressive in signaling because it will seek to deter Western punishment, but it is not going to launch objectless wars with countries where there is no clear linkage between use of force and political goals,” Kofman said.
Putin’s domestic popularity ratings rose sharply after Russia’s 2014 invasion and seizure of Crimea. That led some Western observers to conclude that Russia’s 2014 aggression against Ukraine was pursued, with the Russian audience in mind, for propaganda purposes.
Kofman disagreed with that interpretation, arguing that the Kremlin — which wields a formidable internal security apparatus — does not lean on foreign policy ventures to secure Russia’s domestic stability.
“Divergent interpretations of what happened in 2014 has led to the fallacy of generalizing from a single, not-so-well-understood case,” Kofman said. “I don’t think that we can find a serviceable correlation between internal challenges to the regime and aggression in foreign policy.”
Kofman added: “The issue really comes down to people’s interpretation of Crimea, a bloodless seizure of politically significant territory, which is why it proved so well received by the Russian public. But this is not a repeatable event, nor is there good evidence that Putin seized Crimea primarily for domestic political gains in the first place — simply, the domestic environment proved enabling rather than constraining for that set of choices.”
Russia’s buildup on Ukraine’s frontier is expected to include more than 120,000 troops in about a week, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Tuesday. US defense officials said about 80,000 Russian soldiers have mobilized to Ukraine’s borders; European Union officials put that number at more than 100,000.
According to US and NATO officials, the current Russian buildup is now larger than in 2014, when Russian forces invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and prosecuted an unconventional war in the Donbas that ultimately escalated into an outright invasion.
“It is certainly bigger than that,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Monday, comparing the current situation with Russia’s 2014 mobilization.
Moscow, for its part, described its current military maneuvers near Ukraine as benign exercises.
Russia’s military buildup parallels weeks of escalating violence along a roughly 250-mile-long, entrenched front line in Ukraine’s embattled Donbas region, where Ukrainian troops remain engaged in combat against a combined force of Russian regulars, pro-Russian separatists, and foreign mercenaries.
After seven years of war, Moscow continues to arm, fund, and exert authority over its two client breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine. For its part, Moscow has described the Donbas conflict as a civil war and denies any Russian involvement. However, according to a recent nationwide poll, some 65% of Ukrainians view the war in the Donbas as a direct conflict between Ukraine and Russia.
With some 30 Ukrainian soldiers killed in action this year, the intensity of combat in the Donbas is ratcheting up. For now, the general consensus among Ukrainian officials and outside experts is that Russia’s recent actions are meant to strong-arm Kyiv into making concessions on key diplomatic issues, such as water supplies to Russian-occupied Crimea and recognition of Russia’s client territories in the Donbas.
Along that line of thinking, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank on Tuesday issued a report downplaying the chances of an imminent Russian military offensive.
“Troop numbers and postures, although worrying, do not fit the template for an invasion,” the report’s authors wrote. “That said, the troop build-up could set the stage for a standoff in which Ukraine has to choose between doing nothing in the face of repeated provocations and acting in response, which Moscow could take as an excuse to escalate further.”
However, with Russian firepower and shock troops continuing to mass on the border, many Ukrainian officials and outside experts don’t discount the possibility that a genuine prelude to invasion is in the works.
“My overall view of the situation has not changed,” Kofman said. “The next two weeks will prove telling. There is a significant chance that they’re spoiling for a fight, but I still see this action as coercive in nature.”
In 2014, Ukraine’s military remained in shambles after decades of post-Soviet corruption. But Ukraine has since rebuilt its armed forces into a significantly more formidable fighting force. Thus, a full-blown offensive against Ukraine would be much costlier to Moscow now than it would have been seven years ago.
“I personally believe that Putin is, in the end, extremely risk averse,” Adrian Karatnycky, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Coffee or Die.
“Ukrainian military capability is stronger than before, meaning more lost Russian lives,” Karatnycky said. “The saber-rattling is to create fear in Ukrainian leadership, as well as in Europe, and so to force concessions that fragment and make Ukraine ungovernable — a major Putin aim. That said, we should always prepare for a more grim scenario.”
Highlighting the seriousness with which Ukrainian officials take the current Russian threat, Kyiv city officials recently published a map showing the locations of all the city’s bomb shelters — most of which were built during the Cold War in case of an American nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. Moreover, Zelenskiy signed a law on Wednesday allowing the government to call up military reservists within 24 hours.
“Does Ukraine want a war? No. Is it ready for it? Yes. Will Ukraine stop fighting for peace through diplomacy? Never. Will Ukraine defend itself if it needs to? Always,” Zelenskiy said Tuesday.
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