Russia Monitor is a review of the most important events related to Russian internal and external security, as well as its foreign policies.
Date: 22 March 2021
Could Putin Launch New “Short Victorious War?” Yes, But…
Tensions are rising in Donbas where three Ukrainian troops were killed in three days. Russian-controlled rebel fighters have rolled out heavy weapons while the Kremlin is taking provoking decisions in occupied Crimea. Many say that new strains between Russia and Ukraine are what Vladimir Putin is looking for, notably over domestic reasons.
As it was often in the past, when Putin’s regime encountered further problems – whether these be economic or political – now there are rumors whether the Russian leader will again reach for that which has worked very well to win massive popularity in the country. Such was the case of the Second Chechen War (1999), the military aggression of Georgia (2008), or the annexation of Crimea and the Donbas war (2014). With these brawls abroad the Kremlin seeks to save the popularity rating of the Russian leader, integrate Russian people around authorities attacked by “external forces,” and distract them from mundane problems. And there is no shortage of them this year. The coronavirus pandemic sustained the economic standstill on a macro scale while hitting the pockets of people in Russian on a micro scale. It also depicted that Putin and his closest associates are much alienated from Russian society. On top of that are political issues both at home and abroad. In Russia, there is a problem with Navalny, which grows in danger before the general vote in six months. Outside Russia has to shield Lukashenko, face a new reality in the Caucasus after the Armenia-Azerbaijan war, and spat with the West.
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The recent turmoil over how Joe Biden named Vladimir Putin makes it clear that the world starts to see Russia no longer as a stable and strong partner, but something like a rogue state, a term referring in the past to Moscow’s allies like Iran, Venezuela, and Syria. So if Russia has nothing to lose worldwide, it is easier for its officials to start a new war. The question is with whom and what kind of. Ukraine is the most obvious target for a regular war while both Georgia and even the Baltic States may feel threatened with hybrid activities. It is a certain paradox that Biden’s calling Putin a “killer” and the U.S.-Russia diplomatic spat that followed reduces the likelihood of Russia’s new incursion somewhere beyond its borders. There is nothing better than Biden’s words on Putin to solidify Russian society around the state leader. Many people in Russia will see the attack on Putin as an assault on the country. This is how things look like in a country where democratic principles have never worked actually. Also, with the rhetoric adopted by the U.S. president, the Kremlin wins a comfortable excuse to tighten repression in the country, including that targeting Navalny’s movement or independent media outlets (also those having links to the outside) and NGOs. Appointing a new deputy head of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, is a sign that Kremlin officials seek to put the screws on the opposition. That is what Putin’s new “short victorious war” will look like – targeting some of his fellow countrymen. The goal is not to restore trust. Putin no longer cares about this as he is aware that that is impossible. This only goal is to thwart all domestic threats by all means available.
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