President Joe Biden has now taken a waiver on the "unwavering", full-throated support that he, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had been giving to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The recurring "unwavering" meme was played right up until late Tuesday after Biden’s telephone talk with Putin Tuesday.
Zelensky’ earlier profession was comedy. But what serious people saw in his decree three weeks ago (March 24) was a de facto declaration of war on Russia. With that decree, it became the official policy of Ukraine to take Crimea back from Russia. Kiev began to dispatch by rail tons of military equipment headed south and east. And Russia did the same – south and west to Crimea, and to the Donbass where armed clashes have increased between the Ukrainian regime and anti-coup-regime forces (dubbed "pro-Russian separatists" by western media) determined to preserve a degree of autonomy.
With strong rhetorical support from the U.S. and NATO, the Ukrainian regime seemed eager to let slip the dogs of war. Then someone – whether in Washington or Moscow, or both – apparently told Zelensky that "unwavering" rhetoric was not going to protect him from disaster, should he tweak too tightly the nose of the Russian bear. On April 9, Zelensky used his Facebook page to call off the dogs of war and stress the need to establish a new truce in the Donbass. Earlier that day the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces had said that the use of force to "liberate" the Donbass is unacceptable, since Ukraine "puts the lives of its citizens in first place", and civilian as well as military casualties would be massive.
In a telephone conversation on April 13, President Biden expressed obligatory concern at the Russian military buildup near Ukraine and called on Russia "to de-esclate tensions", according to the White House. Then, in a surprise move (and in an oh-by-the-way vein), Biden suggested a bilateral "summit meeting in a third country in the coming months to discuss the full range of issues facing the United States and Russia." Until now there has been no response from Russia. It would not surprise me if Putin, uncharacteristically, does not respond for a while.
It seems a good bet that President Putin was the actual originator of the telephone talk with Biden. It seem likely that Putin called and left the same message he is likely to have given Zelensky; i. e., You are playing with fire.
But what got the most attention in Kiev and Washington?
Putting Force Behind the Rhetoric
On April 13, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that over the past three weeks Moscow had sent two armies and three airborne formations to western regions "as a response to the alliance’s military activities threatening Russia". The "alliance", of course, is NATO, which has been stepping up its own reinforcement and maneuvers from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Shoigu said the maneuvers in western Russia would last for another two weeks.
The Donbass: More Russian Than Ukrainian
The Eastern Ukraine is home to millions of ethnic Russians, most of whom took violent exception to plans of the leaders installed by the 2014 western-sponsored coup to ban Russian as an official language and extend the coup regime’s writ into the Donbass. When the local leaders appealed to Russia to annex them, the Kremlin turned them down but promised the kind of support that would prevent them from being decimated or extinguished. Yesterday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov reinforced that pledge, saying pointedly, “If any escalation occurs, we will of course do everything possible to ensure our own security and the security of our citizens wherever they are." [Italics added.]
Civis Russicus Sum
Over the past two years, residents of the Donbass have been able to become Russian citizens via a fast-track procedure by a presidential decree issued by Putin. By mid-year 2020, Russia reportedly had issued about 200,000 Russian passports to Ukrainians from the "People’s Republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbass.
Putin as Protector
These Ukrainian/Russians are the people Ryabkov is referring to. They are also some of the people President Putin has shown he is particularly interested in protecting from abuse. In his April 2005 state-of-the-nation address, Putin emphasized that when the Soviet Union fell apart, "It became a genuine drama for the Russian nation. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory." …
In November 2014, nine months after the coup in Kiev, Putin was interviewed by German TV channel ARD. I imagine he has been saying something quite similar to both Zelensky and Biden in recent days. NOTE: In Russian, the words "we will not allow it to happen" are much stronger.
Today there is fighting in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian central authorities have sent the armed forces there and they even use ballistic missiles. Does anybody speak about it? Not a single word. And what does it mean? What does it tell us? This points to the fact, that you want the Ukrainian central authorities to annihilate everyone there, all of their political foes and opponents. Is that what you want? We certainly don’t. And we will not allow it to happen.
For more background on Ukraine, see "Ukraine For Dummies", Nov. 14, 2019.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).