Why is Russia massing troops on its Ukrainian border?


MOSCOW – As the Kremlin is massing troops near Ukraine, it signals a core belief: Russia cares more about the fate of its neighbor to the southwest than the West ever will.

In speeches, interviews and long articles, President Vladimir V. Putin and his close associates telegraphed this year a singular fixation on the former Soviet republic. The Kremlin thesis argues that the Ukrainians are “one people” with the Russians, living in a failed state controlled by Western forces determined to divide and conquer the post-Soviet world.

The Ukrainians, who ousted a president friendly to Russia in 2014 and are increasingly in favor of the obligation to bind their country to Western institutions, would largely take a different view. But Mr Putin’s conviction finds an attentive ear with many Russians, who see themselves as intimately linked to Ukraine through generations of linguistic, cultural, economic, political and family ties. Today, with a force of 175,000 Russian troops set to be in position near Ukraine early next year, in what Western officials fear is a prelude to an invasion, centuries of common history are emerging.

Mr Putin’s bet may be a cold calculation of coercion, backed by signals that the threat of war is real – a way to force President Biden to recognize a Russian sphere of interest in Eastern Europe. Mr Putin has said in recent days that Russia will demand “legal guarantees” that Ukraine will not join the NATO alliance or host more Western forces, and he is expected to hold talks with Mr. Biden by videoconference on Tuesday.

But for Mr. Putin – and for many other Russians – the nearly eight-year conflict with Ukraine is not simply a matter of geopolitics; it is a wounded national psyche, a historic injustice to be repaired. One of his former advisers, Gleb O. Pavlovsky, in an interview described the Kremlin’s view on Ukraine as “trauma shrouded in trauma” – the dissolution of the Soviet Union coupled with separation of a nation that the Russians have long viewed as a mere extension of their own.

For many Ukrainians, Mr. Putin’s call for a common history is nothing more than a futile attempt to appropriate the country’s own heritage and justify territorial ambitions.

“They stole our past,” said Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the New Europe Center, a pro-Western think tank in Kiev. “Now they are trying to steal our future. “

After Ukraine’s pro-western revolution in 2014, Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and fomented an ongoing separatist war in the east of the country. Mr Putin has since sought to prevent Ukraine’s drift to the West – and expressed his growing anger that the United States is training and helping to arm Ukrainian soldiers.

According to polls, the use of military force to bring Ukraine back into the Russian fold would hurt Mr. Putin’s national position. Russian lives. But Mr Putin’s belief that Russians and Ukrainians are unfairly and artificially divided is widely shared in his country, even by opponents of Mr Putin.

While other conflicts in the post-Soviet world have pitted one ethnic group against another, the one between Russia and Ukraine is more complicated. Ukrainian is the official language of Ukraine, but Russian – which is closely related – is still widely spoken.

Russians often regard Kiev, now the Ukrainian capital and once the center of medieval Russia from Kiev, to the cradle of their nation. Well-known Russian-speaking writers such as Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Bulgakov came from Ukraine, as did the communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky and the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky now speaks Ukrainian in public, but first rose to prominence as a Russian-speaking comedian who performed throughout the former Soviet Union.

“One of the colossal problems which drives us to the conflict is that the Russian identity does not exist without the Ukrainian identity,” said Ilya Ponomarev, a former member of the Russian parliament who was the only lawmaker to vote against it. annexation of Crimea.

Mr Ponomarev then fled to Ukraine, where he obtained Ukrainian citizenship and continues to live.

Millions of Russians and Ukrainians have family members in their respective countries, in part due to migration during Soviet times, when Ukraine was an industrial power. For example, Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition leader jailed earlier this year, spent his childhood summers in Ukraine, his father’s birthplace. While criticizing Mr Putin’s aggressive foreign policy, Mr Navalny said in 2014 that he did not agree with the Ukrainians “for whom it is a matter of principle to prove that we are peoples different”.

“I don’t see any difference between Russians and Ukrainians, none at all,” he said in a radio interview.

Emotions aside, the idea of ​​a Western-allied Ukraine as a threat to Russian security is widely shared in Russian foreign policy circles. Ivan Timofeev, program director at the government-funded Russian Council for International Affairs, said NATO troops in Ukraine would drastically shift the military balance, even though the alliance already borders Russia in the region. Baltic and Arctic.

“If it is also Ukraine, then the potential theater for military action becomes very large,” Timofeev said of NATO expansion. “The longer the front line, the less clear the origin of the attack will be.”

In an article last month for the Valdai Club, a foreign policy forum with close ties to the Russian government, Mr. Timofeev said that a full-fledged Russian invasion of Ukraine was highly unlikely, in part because ‘it could arouse national discontent. While Ukraine will always be a higher priority for Russia than for the United States, he warns, Western sanctions and military assistance would make a Russian invasion extremely costly. Rather than portending a larger war, he said, Russia’s military build-up is meant to signal to the West Russia’s extreme dissatisfaction with its growing influence in Ukraine.

“While reunification with Crimea has been enthusiastically received by the Russian public for many reasons, a great war is unlikely to find such support,” wrote Timofeev.

Yet Mr Putin took advantage of the emotional weight many Russians attach to Ukraine for his own purposes, both on the world stage and in domestic politics. Mr Pavlovsky, a longtime Kremlin adviser until he turned on Mr Putin in 2011, said Ukraine has now become a vehicle for Mr. Putin’s ambitions to resurrect Russia’s status as a world power. In particular, it means talks with the United States – as has been demonstrated in recent weeks, with Russia pushing Washington to negotiate over Ukraine even as its troop movements raise concerns in the West that it is over. about to mount an invasion.

“Ukraine is a strategic maneuvering ground to bring Russia back into a strategic dialogue,” Pavlovsky said. “He’s interested at the global level, not at the regional level.

Nationally, the annexation of Crimea, a sparkling Black Sea peninsula, boosted Mr. Putin’s approval ratings to nearly 90 percent in 2014. This year, the Kremlin has stepped up its attacks on pro-Western rulers of Ukraine by appealing to Ukraine’s place in Russian identity; Mr Putin opened a July article on why Ukrainians and Russians are “one people”, describing their current divisions as “a great common calamity”.

The West, he writes, was trying to make Ukraine a “bridgehead against Russia,” much as it claimed that the Poles and Austrians had tried to uproot the Ukrainians in previous centuries. As proof, Mr. Putin presented trends as diverse as the laws promoting the use of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine, as well as the deepening of the country’s cooperation with the Western military.

“It would not be an exaggeration to say that the course of forced assimilation, the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state and aggressively oriented against Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of a weapon of mass destruction against Russia. us, ”Putin wrote. .

The message has an impact. The share of Russians saying they have a negative opinion of Ukraine rose to 49% in August, from 31% in February, according to polls this year by independent center Levada in Moscow.

In fact, it was Mr Putin’s policies that turned Ukrainians against Russia in droves, said Ms Getmanchuk, director of the think tank in Kiev. Support for NATO membership among Ukrainians has reached 54% this year, up from 14% in 2012, according to the Razumkov Center, a Kiev research institution.

“Without wanting to, of course, he contributed to the development of Ukraine as a nation,” she said.

Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.

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