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Smells Like War: The Russian-Ukraine Tension
After eight years of holding back one of the most developed armies in the world, the situation in Ukraine has quickly escalated. But while western media has primarily focused on the “conversation” between Russia and the US, Ukraine’s perspective has remained rather in the background.
23 February, 2022

“So when you’re asking what can be done, well lots of different things can be done. We can even provide you the list. The most important is willingness” – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the 2022 Munich Security Conference

After eight years of holding back one of the most developed armies in the world and fighting a war with the pro-Russian separatist republics established in Donetsk and Luhansk, in the Donbas region, the situation in Ukraine has quickly escalated in the past couple of months. Back in October 2021, Russia began positioning troops and military forces near Ukraine’s eastern border. The following months were marked by a massive military build-up – stacking more than 100,000 troops and heavy weaponry near the border whilst conducting various military exercises.

Even though Putin has assured the western powers numerous times that he has no intentions of invading Ukraine, his actions have become a central concern for Biden’s administration. US officials recently reported that the Russian troops have numbered 190,000 and large-scale drills are currently taking place dangerously close to the border, with no sign of de-escalation of the situation. With Biden saying that he is now fully “convinced” that Putin has decided to invade Ukraine and attack their capital city, Kyiv, the Western allies have joined forces to avoid the worst and peacefully resolve the situation. 

But while western media has primarily focused on the “conversation” between Russia and the US, Ukraine’s perspective has remained rather in the background. 

Volodymyr Zelensky’s Position

Since Russia’s escalation, Zelensky’s position has remained relatively modest. As head of state, he initially sought to underplay the threat posed by the military build-up to avoid the creation of mass panic, to save Ukraine’s already crippling economy, and to attempt to diplomatically ease the tensions. Arguing that the “destabilisation of the situation inside the country” is the bigger threat, he reminded that Ukrainians have been living with the potential danger of a Russian invasion for the past eight years now, so there is no need for creating unnecessary distress by further provoking Putin. “We understand what the risks are. We do not see a bigger escalation than last spring when Russia’s military build-up started. We don’t need this panic”said Zelensky. 

He even went further and criticised the Americans, getting frustrated at Biden’s characterisation of the situation as an “imminent invasion” and urged the allies to soften their saber-rattling. Zelensky is particularly worried that such claims are putting Ukraine’s economy at serious risk – they create consternation in the financial sector which depletes the country’s gold reserves and weakens its currency, damaging the purse of the ordinary people. Ukraine’s economy has already been severely hit by the Covid crisis. If the US continues claiming that war could break out at any minute, this could scare the scarce few investors left in the country and causing even more trouble for the Ukrainian government. Hence, Zelensky’s main goal is to preserve the economy and to show that Ukraine is a safe and stable state, open to foreign investment. 

According to him, the Russian military build-up on the border is a purely psychological move. Even without real intentions of attacking, Putin wants to make sure that the West is completely aware of Russia’s military power. And by positioning so many troops near the border, he creates psychological tension. “We don’t have a Titanic here”, Zelensky adds, trying to minimize the threat posed by Russia’s actions. 

Change of Tone 

However, we have lately witnessed a slight change in Zelensky’s tone. He is becoming more anxious and advocates for a tougher approach from his western allies.

In February he signed legislation to strengthen their military force, increasing them to about 361,000 active armed troops (unfortunately, this is still insignificant to Russia’s 900,000 troops). Moreover, he warmly welcomed the forging military support pouring into the country, mainly from NATO member states, and urged their allies to do even more. Britain has already provided anti-tank missile systems and weapons, and 500 tons of American military equipment and ammunition have arrived in Kyiv. 

At the Munich Security Conference, Zelensky expressed Ukraine’s willingness to defend itself against Russian aggression and criticized Western leaders for using “appeasement policies” against Moscow demanding security guarantees. He also requested Ukraine’s allies to finally start imposing sanctions on Russia, before it is too late: “What are you waiting for? Just putting ourselves in coffins and waiting for foreign soldiers to come in is not something we are prepared to do. We will protect our country with or without [outside] support”, Zelensky affirmed. 

Hopes For Peace? 

For now, nobody can tell for sure how the situation will develop. Ukraine and NATO are working in the direction of peacefully and diplomatically easing the tension. But it all comes down to Putin’s psychology and personal desires. It is uncertain whether he is bluffing or truly wishes to invade Ukraine. Therefore, measures need to be taken to avoid any further escalation. Despite all this, it still remains highly unlikely that Russia would engage in an actual hot war given the large economic and human costs for all parties involved. 

Editor’s note: This article was written one day before Russia recognised the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk and dispatched troops into the territories for “peacekeeping duties.”

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