Kalina Zhekova: Time to tone down rhetoric on Ukraine

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A TOUGHER Western response to Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine would only increase bloodshed – a de-escalation of threatening rhetoric is necessary in a climate of fear, suspicion and violence.

It has become almost commonplace in both Russian and Western contemporary media and political discourse to discuss the tragic events in Ukraine as part of a new Cold War between the US and Russia, referring to the crisis as a proxy battle between the two states aiming to extend their spheres of influence. Although this provides a convenient explanation for Putin’s annexation of Crimea last year or Russian intervention into Georgia in 2008, Moscow’s material and ideological realities contradict this argument.

Russia is neither economically comparable to the Soviet Union, nor does it have a state ideology as widespread as communism was during the Cold War. Nevertheless, the fact that the Ukrainian conflict keeps being framed within Cold War terms is indicative of deep-seated old bloc thinking existing among Russian and Western media and political elites. Escalating the threatening rhetoric, and a tougher Western response to Putin, are not only dangerous to the level of violence in Ukraine, but also counter-productive to attempts at resolving the conflict.

Let’s take a closer look at Russia’s domestic realities and threat perceptions. Russia remains one of the world’s largest nuclear powers, with 8,400 warheads compared to a total of 7,500 in the US. Despite its struggling economy, over the past year Moscow’s defence budget has grown by 33 per cent to £54bn.

Military might combined with economic weakness is a dangerously unstable situation in which Putin is quick to hail Russia’s nuclear arsenal, insisting that Russia ‘should be able to repel any aggression’ by ‘adequate response’ to foreign pressure. As Sergey Markov, a Russian political strategist, says: “In Russia, we believe that Ukraine has been occupied by the US… The US is seeking to undermine our sovereignty, neutralise our nuclear potential and steal our oil and gas. Under these circumstances, the danger of nuclear confrontation is very real.”

This points to an acute sense of fear from an impending threat at Russia’s doorstep, suggesting that a Western response, which involves deployment of weapons on Ukrainian ground, could easily lead to a dangerously escalating arms race. It is Putin’s fear of encirclement by the West, supported by both current tensions and stereotypes from the past, which could motivate such an escalation. Thus, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasised, the Ukrainian conflict “cannot be solved by military means”.

Yet imposing sanctions and increasing the economic costs to Russia has not led to tangible results so far. Although it was hoped that worsening economic conditions would undermine support for Putin and demotivate separatists, the resolve of the rebels has become even stronger; we have witnessed even more violence in Ukraine and a boost in Putin’s reputation at home.

Threats and sanctions from the West have provided an opportunity to Putin to act as a ‘strong leader’. Over the past year, his popularity has increased to an exceptional 85 per cent approval, according to the respected Levada Center.

Most recently, tens of thousands of pro-Kremlin activists appeared on the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg, claiming their aim was to demonstrate support for the president and discourage a Western-supported uprising in Russia, similar to that in Ukraine. Although some have suspected financial benefits for those who attended, it is doubtful whether Putin’s spending potential could have actually stretched that far.

What are, then, the options for Western response to Putin’s actions in Ukraine? As a Cold War warrior, Putin still thinks of Nato and the US as posing an existential threat to Russia – either by perceived destabilising of its neighbourhood or by allegedly plotting to cause instability in Russia itself.

Hence, a de-escalation of the threatening rhetoric in diplomatic discourse is first needed, reducing the risk of defensive or destructive reaction from Vladimir Putin. Although a diplomatic solution cannot be ruled out, such efforts have been better received by Russia when led by Germany and France.

A threatening West does Putin a double favour; it provides him with convenient justifications of his actions abroad and solidifies his reputation at home.

Kalina Zhekova is a researcher in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds.