Since the beginning of April, the Kremlin has deployed overwhelming military forces across Ukraine, with high publicity and terrible rhetorical threats. The likely goals are political:
a) extort important Ukrainian concessions in the Minsk negotiation process;
b) to urge Germany and France to put pressure on Ukraine to obtain such concessions through the process in Normandy; is
c) induce the US to downgrade Ukraine from other US priorities in the global package (Whitehouse.gov, Kremlin.ru, April 13) on which Biden’s White House hopes to elicit cooperation from Russia.
Moscow appears to be approaching these three objectives right now without sending its forces against Ukraine through existing armistice lines or land borders. Russia, however, has already crossed the borders of Ukraine into the Black Sea; and its latest additional naval deployment caused the United States to cancel a scheduled naval visit to besieged Ukraine. The cancellation took place on the day of Biden’s phone call to Putin, apparently related to it (Anadolu Agency, April 13).
That and some other unedifying Western responses to Russia’s war scare (see below) have become contributing factors to Zelenskyy’s decision to try his luck and catch up with Putin. Fundamentally, however, Zelenskii is reverting to his instinct from day one of his presidency to deal directly with Putin. The Ukrainian president has eagerly pursued summit opportunities with Putin in any format (bilateral, Norman quadrilateral or multilateral) for the past two years; but this latest attempt is Zelenskyy’s response to a real war scare.
In a video speech on April 20, Zelenskii proposed that he and Putin “meet in any place in the Ukrainian Donbass where a war is underway”. But he did not indicate what purpose, in his view, such a meeting might serve. Referring to Putin’s often cited rule of conduct that “you must strike first if a fight is inevitable”, Zelenskyy argued that all sides are ultimately losers in a war, that “one cannot liberate someone by invading” and “you can’t bring peace to tanks.” Ukraine, for its part, would never start a war. “Ukraine does not destroy other countries and peoples, but it will not allow itself to be destroyed […] nor are we going to run away. “Zelenskii said that” we are not afraid “at least five times.
Zelenskii went on to urge Russia to “stop the murderous arithmetic of war victims” and return to respect the ceasefire along the line of contact to the east. He praised the fighting morale of the Ukrainian army and its (as he put it) modern equipment, as well as the willingness of Ukrainian society to help the army. Russia’s military build-up is tantamount to “blackmail” and Ukraine is calling on Russia to withdraw its forces. The US, French, German, British and Turkish leaders “are on our side […] ready to support us financially and to impose increasingly severe sanctions [on Russia]. “Stressing for Russia that” we are ourselves while you are yourself “(paraphrase of” Ukraine is not Russia “by former president Leonid Kuchma), Zelenskyy said that” Ukraine and Russia each have their vision of the future, despite our common past “(President.gov.ua, April 20).
This speech was addressed to three audiences: Putin, the Ukrainian public and the West. The message to Putin conveys both the weakness and the moral superiority claimed by the weak against the strong. This would do little to discourage Russia. The Kremlin also knows firsthand from its Western interlocutors that Zelenskii overestimated the extent of Western support for Ukraine in his speech. The response from Ukrainian civil society appears to be muted, two days after the president’s speech was delivered. However, civil society can be expected to respond with a backlash – as it has done several times – if the Presidential Office again ventures into a deal to benefit Russia. For their part, Berlin and Paris will likely view Zelenskyy’s praise for their solidarity as a pep talk to his domestic audience.
Indeed, Berlin and Paris are currently demanding Ukrainian acceptance of their “Clusters” peace proposals which adhere closely to the Minsk Two “accord” imposed by Russia (see EDM, March 30). On April 19, an extraordinary videoconference of the foreign ministers of the member countries of the European Union refused to consider possible new economic sanctions against Russia as an emergency measure, to be activated in the event of a Russian military attack. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba attended this conference as a guest, but his proposals went unheard (with the probable exception of some EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe) (Ukrinform, April 19). In Washington, the Biden administration (and the president himself in his April 14 press conference) made it clear that it will not use (or forgo) the available economic sanctions that could block the Russian-German. Nord Stream Two pipeline project, despite Zelenskyy and Kuleba’s latest appeals to block it.
Biden and, separately, French President Emmanuel Macron (see EDM, April 19) each seek a summit with Putin where Ukraine could be packed with other issues to discuss. Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that Zelenskii is falling back on his former ambition to meet Putin. Ukraine’s chief delegate to the Minsk Contact Group, Leonid Kravchuk, has also announced that he wants to meet Putin (presumably by capitalizing on Kravchuk’s status as former president of Ukraine) (Ukrinform, April 21). For Zelenskyy, Kravchuk and Presidential Office Head Andriy Yermak, all out of their depth in international affairs, meeting Putin alone could turn into a reckless adventure.