Saint Petersburg, Russia – In Western and Ukrainian media, the armed build-up at the border is a sign of Russian imperialist aggression, of Moscow trying to bully its smaller neighbour. In Russia, however, the situation is viewed rather differently.
NATO is a “cancer”, Sergey Karaganov, an influential, hawkish Russian political scientist said in a recent interview.
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Comparing the standoff with the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Karaganov said it is better for tensions to rise now than to “allow a repeat of June 22, 1941” further down the line, referring to the Nazi invasion.
In other words, Karaganov sees NATO expansion to Russia’s borders as an existential threat better dealt with sooner than later.
Ukraine should be left alone to become a “proper buffer state”, and having reached that understanding, Russia and the West may become friends – so long as it is not ruled by the “LGBT cult” and “ultra-feminism”, he added.
However, he is not for an all-out invasion.
“Occupying a country that is economically, morally and intellectually castrated, a country with a destroyed infrastructure and an embittered population, is the worst-case scenario,” he continued, echoing the position of pro-government media and experts – that Russia does not want war, and any hostilities will begin from the other side.
Western powers are fearful that Russia, having massed thousands of troops at the Ukraine border, is planning an attack. Russia has said its actions are aimed at protecting its interests, and blames NATO for undermining the region’s security.
In December, Moscow delivered a series of ultimatums to key NATO member the United States, chief among them a promise that NATO would never allow Ukraine to become a member. The US and NATO have turned down that request.
“Donetsk has been surrounded! Horlivka has been cut off! Ukrainian and NATO cyber troops have already begun a new war in Donbas,” read a recent headline in the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, while the state-run TASS news agency reported on claims from pro-Russian separatists that Ukrainian forces were conducting reconnaissance on their positions, preparing an attack.
Most Russians still get their news from television, but social media apps like Telegram are increasingly popular.
Economist and political analyst Yevgeny Satanovsky wrote recently on his Telegram channel, “The background noise about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is about to begin, is intended not so much to save it (Ukraine) from the evil Muscovite government, but to disguise its own preparation for aggression.
“Everything will start, of course, with the Crimea and Donbas.”
Satanovsky compared Ukraine to a cow that both the Germans and Americans are trying to milk.
Russia, on the other hand, would let it graze in peace, so long as it, too, is left alone.
Referring to the White House press secretary and United States president, Satanovsky went on, “What somewhat softens for Moscow the impression of [Jen] Psaki’s tantrums, [Joe] Biden’s rhetoric and the nonsense that the American State Department utters at all levels, is the current dilapidated state of the United States political elite, and the failures in their foreign and defence policy.
“After Afghanistan, the threats from the United States are hard to take seriously.”
Other pro-Kremlin commentators also play down Russia’s role in the crisis.
Talkshow host Vladimir Solovyov, one of the best-known faces on Russian television with his own radio and YouTube shows, told his audience that Russia is able to destroy Ukrainian forces “without even crossing the border”.
“We have enough firepower for the full annihilation of the Ukrainian military infrastructure without an incursion of forces into Ukrainian territory. But we aren’t preparing to do this,” Solovyov said on his YouTube show, Solovyov LIVE, which has nearly one million subscribers.
Solovyov also recently interviewed Ukrainian separatist leader Denis Pushilin, who said that “NATO is pumping weapons into Ukraine.”
Last week, the governing United Russia party officially asked the country’s leadership to openly arm the separatist, pro-Russian Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.
Alexei Chepa, a member of the State Duma, told the independent TV channel Dozhd that sending weapons to the separatists was the “correct response” to the Americans, and the failure of the 2015 Minsk agreements to bring peace.
The interviewer pushed back, arguing that Russia was responsible for the crisis by provocatively placing its troops on the border, but Chepa said this was necessary to convince Ukraine to reconsider its position and avoid any further escalation.
But this itself was risky and could backfire, another guest told Dozhd.
Ukrainian political scientist Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the PENTA Center of Applied Political Studies in Kyiv, said Ukrainians think Moscow has mobilised its forces to put “Washington, Kyiv and European capitals into a psychological stupor”, rather than launch an invasion, and will likely ease off once the Winter Olympics begin in Beijing in February.
He warned that sending more weapons into the hands of separatists will make another war more likely.
Similarly, a story in the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper about the build-up of tanks and other military hardware at the border suggested that, because it’s being carried out in full view of NATO, the world’s press and even social media, the main aim was to pressure the West during negotiations, rather than plan an invasion.
The Novaya Gazeta article also warned, however, that these war games could get out of hand.
Writing on the website of the independent radio station Echo of Moscow, Lev Schlossberg, a politician and member of the liberal Yabloko party, said he believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing an incredibly dangerous game with NATO, because the alliance is unlikely to back down.
“What was the purpose of Russia’s ultimatum, the answer to which could only be an inevitable refusal?” he wrote, adding that Putin could become trapped because if the Russian leader wanted to use NATO’s rejection as a pretext for war, he will raise the stakes “higher than resources allow”.
Schlossberg urged Putin to reach a compromise in “real negotiations, where you will have to take into account the interests of everyone, and not just your own”.
Some among the Russian opposition believe that the ramping-up of tension with Ukraine and the West is itself the point, and having an outside menace to point to benefits Putin.
In another article published on Echo, journalist Anton Orekh said the crisis was an example of how Putin uses East-West tensions to win popularity at home.
“There is no foreign policy in Russia – only domestic. Therefore, the point of all this back-and-forth and squabbling is to have it all on the air, around the clock.
“If suddenly NATO makes some compromises, then we will scream that a great victory has been won … Our interest is not that the crisis is resolved, but that it exists.
“The Kremlin’s interest is not in a settlement, but in constant tension.”