Belfast, Jan 27 (The Conversation) As I was planning a trip to Russia in late December 2021, I was half-joking with friends that my return to the UK may well be delayed either by COVID or by a Russian invasion of Ukraine. The threat of impending war permeated the Western media at this point, so my concerns seemed perfectly reasonable from their perspective.
Yet every time I brought up the subject of a possible invasion of Ukraine to people in Russia, an eyebrow raised in surprise and disbelief. No one I spoke to during my two weeks in St. Petersburg seriously considered the possibility of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.
These attitudes are confirmed by the opinion polls of the Levada Center, the last independent polling company in Russia. More than half of those polled in early December thought there would be no war with Ukraine. Moreover, these attitudes have not changed much over the past year and are broadly in line with opinions since 2015.
When it comes to blaming current tensions and Russia’s role in them, the majority of those who expressed an opinion blame the US and NATO (50%) and 16 % to Ukraine itself. Only a tiny minority blamed the Russian government (4%) or the breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine (3%). The idea that Russia might invade on its own is simply not credible to the vast majority of its citizens.
Powder keg in the Donbass
The only scenario that could lead to an armed conflict with Ukraine is a military escalation around separatist Donbass. A fragile ceasefire is regularly broken there by government and separatist forces. The peace accord that was supposed to end this conflict, signed in Minsk in February 2015, remains in limbo as both sides blame each other for not implementing it.
Ominously, but quite predictably, Russian and American officials blame each other for preparing a provocation in the Donbass to be used as a casus belli. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu claimed on December 21 that a private American military company was preparing a chemical attack around Donetsk, one of the two capitals of the separatist republics of Donbass.
Pentagon officials, meanwhile, accused Moscow of sending a group of undercover commandos to perpetuate a “false flag” operation in the region. It’s unclear when this operation is supposed to happen or what it might entail.
There are regular violations of the ceasefire by both sides, including the bombardment of separatist territories, with military and civilian deaths; capture of a village in the neutral zone; and even assassinations of prominent rebel leaders. This included the 2018 assassination of the popular president of the unrecognized Donetsk republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, which the Kremlin blamed on Ukraine.
Again this week, pro-Russian rebels accuse Ukraine of preparing an offensive in the region. Significant armed clashes in the Donbass are possible – the question is whether this will turn into a wider war.
What the experts say
Popular disbelief at suggestions of an imminent invasion of Ukraine by Moscow is shared by the Russian expert community. Frankly speaking, there is no compelling argument for what such an invasion could possibly accomplish.
As American and European leaders have repeatedly made clear, any invasion by Russian regular troops would result in “crippling” sanctions against the Russian economy. The Kremlin has worked hard since the first round of sanctions were imposed on it in 2014 to protect itself against further sanctions by boosting its foreign exchange reserves to a record 620 billion US dollars (459 billion pounds sterling); ditch the US dollar for gold and the Chinese renminbi; and reduce its exposure to Western loans while accepting more Chinese investment.
It has also developed its own MIR payment service to replace Visa and MasterCard if their use is blocked and Russia’s national interbank transfer system is denied access to SWIFT. According to some reports, many European countries strongly oppose this latest move and indeed the impact of these sanctions would be huge if they were to go ahead. The Russian economy is unlikely to collapse, but the growth and relative prosperity that is evident on the streets of major Russian cities would be nearly impossible to sustain.
Of course, this would strengthen the internal stability of the Putin regime. Rallying around the flag may have a short-term countervailing effect in the event of large-scale hostilities, but the Russian public is not ready to expect a full-scale war with all the costs and losses that come with it. would result.
The diplomatic trick
So, while the Russian public and the pundit community have a rather gloomy view of a possible war, there’s no denying Moscow’s toughening rhetoric and building up its forces around Ukraine.
Putin openly suggested that building up tensions was the key to successful diplomacy. If that was the strategy, it has certainly worked so far. Once reports of the troop build-up began circulating in the US media, the US administration agreed to discuss priority issues on Moscow’s agenda, primarily European security issues and expansion towards eastern NATO.
The question is how far the Kremlin is willing to go from the edge of the abyss. Ultimately, to keep tensions this believable, you have to be prepared to follow through on your threats. Yet, if the worst comes to the worst and there is a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine, the most astonished people will be the Russian public itself.
(This article was published from a news feed with no text changes. Only the title has been changed.)