The first signs of the dual track in Russia’s hybrid war in Ukraine have surfaced. By Thursday evening, the Kremlin held out an olive branch to the Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky.
Succinctly put, President Vladimir Putin expressed his preparedness to engage in discussions with his Ukrainian counterpart with a focus on obtaining a guarantee of neutral status for Ukraine and the promise of no offensive weapons on its territory.
The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said without elaborating, “The president formulated his vision of what we would expect from Ukraine in order for the so-called ‘red-line’ problems to be resolved. This is neutral status, and this is a refusal to deploy weapons.”
Putin had made it clear in a nation-wide address Thursday morning announcing the launch of the military operation that the Russian objective narrowed down to “demilitarisation” and “denazification” of Ukraine. The latter refers to the ascendant neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine who have been acting as a state within the state and perpetrated atrocities against the ethnic Russian population.
The Kremlin offer didn’t come out of the blue. A group of Ukrainian MPs also came out yesterday with an appeal calling on Zelensky, in an open letter, to start negotiations with Moscow. Interestingly, the group is led by Vadim Novinsky – a Ukrainian billionaire and one of the co-leaders of the Opposition Bloc, an association of over dozen political parties. The group also proposed direct consultations between the parliaments of the two countries.
But what lends enchantment to the view is that Zelensky on his own also requested French President Emmanuel Macron to convey a message to Putin directly. Macron has since disclosed that he has had “a quick, direct and frank conversation on a request from President Zelensky.”
Macron said the aim of the conversation was a request from Kiev “to end hostilities as soon as possible.” The Kremlin confirms that Putin held a “frank” conversation with Macron.
Macron’s role is important, since it was he who first floated with Putin the idea, in the course of a conversation recently, that one way out of the impasse could be that Kiev unilaterally gave up any intention to join the NATO. Subsequently, in an interaction with the Russian media at the Kremlin on Tuesday, Putin also mentioned this idea.
Zelensky himself said (after Macron’s conversation with Putin) in an emotional video address to the nation after midnight Thursday, “We have been left alone to defend our state. Who is ready to fight alongside us? I don’t see anyone. Who is ready to give Ukraine a guarantee of NATO membership? Everyone is afraid.” He went on to disclose that he had heard from Moscow that ”they want to talk about Ukraine’s neutral status.”
Quite obviously, Zelensky realises by now that the cavalry is not coming from Washington or Brussels to salvage his government. In fact, Zelensky’s request to Macron followed the repeated categorical affirmations by US President Biden that there is no question of American intervention in Ukraine or of US troops engaging Russian military.
Meanwhile, Russian Defence Ministry highlighted on Thursday that Moscow’s strategy will be to hit military targets and avoid civilian casualty. Ukraine’s air defence system has been rendered non-functional. Moscow is encouraging Ukrainian soldiers to surrender or simply return to their families, the intention being to minimise any fighting.
All this suggests that a political track is on standby. The Russian game plan is to force Zelensky to see the writing on the wall. Ukraine’s capitulation is a matter of days only. This hybrid war would have the following elements:
Russia will no doubt systematically vanquish the neo-Nazi elements in Ukraine (especially within the military such as the Azov Brigade) who have Russian blood on their hands. These elements so far acted with impunity because of covert western support for their anti-Russian disposition. Russia estimates, rightly so, that any crackdown on the neo-Nazi elements will only strengthen Zelensky’s hands. Lacking a power base of his own, he has been a hostage of extreme nationalists. On the other hand, Western powers have retrenched in panic from Kiev, and an embittered Zelensky is left to fend for himself. But, paradoxically, this also makes Zelensky a reasonable interlocutor, liberated from the US’ vice-like grip. Zelensky has been acting under immense external pressure and fear of extreme nationalists who enjoy “street power.”(The coup in February 2014, scuttling an orderly constitutional transition from President Viktor Yanukovich, was organised by the ultra-nationalists with overt US support.) Zelensky’s massive mandate (over 73% of votes) in the 2019 election was largely due to whole-hearted support from Russian voters who were attracted to his platform of dialogue with Russia and the promise of a negotiated settlement in Donbass with Moscow’s help. But in the event, he became a captive of extreme nationalists and a victim of western manipulation. Nevertheless, Zelensky has been sporadically signalling to Moscow his desire for an exit route, sensing he was on a road to nowhere. Lately, he voiced dissatisfaction over the war hysteria in Washington. At least during one telephone conversation with Biden recently, they had a heated exchange, according to the CNN.
Russia’s tentative offer appears to be that Ukraine could opt for a status of neutrality on the lines of Austria and Finland with a self-imposed ban on its NATO membership. Conceivably, Zelensky would be open to such an idea. Now, what is there in it for him?
First, Russia will forthwith call off or at least suspend the military operation. That will strengthen Zelensky’s standing. Second, Russia’s direct involvement holds the key to easing of tensions in the Donbass. Moscow had been dodging such a role.
Third, Zelensky could resume his links with the pro-Russian constituency in Ukraine, which was his mainstay of support in the 2019 election. This would have implications for his bid for a second term in the 2023 election.
Fourth, Russia enjoys extensive networking within Ukraine, which has a chaotic political environment driven by corruption and venality, oligarchs and mafia and so on. Russia still wields influence with the power brokers who have at one time or another enjoyed Moscow’s patronage. Thus, Zelensky would see that Russian help can also heal Ukraine’s fragmented political economy.
As for Russia, out of the conditions for security guarantee that it had projected to the US in mid-December, where Moscow drew a blank, Putin may succeed in reaching his objectives at least partially if Ukraine were to turn its back on NATO membership and terminate western military deployments on its soil.
Given the profound civilisational links between Russia and Ukraine, enduring people-to-people relations and family kinships, there is a reservoir of opinion in Ukraine favouring improvement of relations with Russia. Ukraine’s economy is also closely aligned with Russia — even today, Russia is Ukraine’s number one export market. Russia has been a generous donor too. The transit fee for transportation of pipeline gas to Europe alone exceeded 1 billion dollars annually!
Russia’s main gain will be that in geopolitical terms, Ukraine regains its sovereignty and ceases to be a de facto American colony. Russia calculates that a neutral Ukraine will de facto take the Ukraine matrix to its priori history before the 2014 coup.
What is of crucial importance will be that Zelensky is somehow enabled to navigate his path toward dialogue with Putin. The good part is that Russian military operations will throw radical nationalists into disarray, and, secondly, it is improbable that Biden is raring to resume the shenanigans in Ukraine. American politics is increasingly riveted on the mid-term in November and public disfavours Washington taking sides between Ukraine and Russia.
Will the US acquiesce with the nascent processes? There is hope that Macron can mediate. Conceivably, he is in touch with Biden.