Owen Matthews

The phoney war: what’s really going on between Boris and Putin

The phoney war: what’s really going on between Boris and Putin
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What a lucky coincidence. At the start of a week that could see the ignominious collapse of Boris Johnson’s premiership, an opportunity to go fully Churchillian has appeared out of the blue. In an unprecedentedly detailed and direct memorandum, the British Foreign Office announced that it had exposed Russian plans to mount a coup in Kiev. Johnson was quick to back the alarming news with a grave warning to Vladimir Putin. ‘The intelligence is very clear that there are 60 Russian battle groups on the borders of Ukraine, the plan for a lightning war that could take out Kiev is one that everybody can see,’ Johnson told reporters on Monday. ‘We need to make it very clear to the Kremlin that that would be a disastrous step.’ The government also announced fresh shipments of anti-tank missiles and 30 trainers from the Rangers Regiment — leading ‘God save the Queen’ to trend briefly on Twitter in Ukraine.

What was the information that sparked the FCDO’s dramatic démarche? The report named five men the British government believes have been given the nod by the Kremlin to head a pro-Moscow government after a lightning Russian invasion. One is the former Ukrainian MP Yevhen Murayev, who lost his seat when his party failed to win 5 per cent of the vote in 2019 elections, and who the FCDO believes is being ‘considered as a potential candidate’ for the Kremlin’s Quisling president. Murayev is the owner of the Nash TV station — which Ukrainian regulators have been seeking to shut down since last year for airing pro-Russian propaganda. However, he’s actually banned from Russia, where prosecutors have frozen the assets of a firm belonging to his father. ‘I think the Foreign Office is confused,’ Murayev told the Observer, laughing. The other four men named by London as key plotters — former prime minister Mykola Azarov, former deputy secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council Volodymyr Sivkovich, ex-deputy premiers Sergiy Arbuzov and Andriy Kluyev — have, by contrast, been exiles in Russia since 2014. All are marginal has-beens. The idea that these men could form a credible government in Kiev is far-fetched.

And what of other intelligence that has underpinned the drumbeat of war? Last month the US formally warned its Nato allies that it had information that the Russian military was predicting detailed tactical plans for a land invasion of Ukraine. Washington followed up with news that Russian agents were at work preparing attacks and provocations on the ground inside Ukraine. Plus there is the undeniable satellite evidence of a 100,000-strong build-up of Russian troops on the Russian-Ukrainian-Belarusian border, ongoing since October, as well as a deployment of 140 Russian warships to conduct exercises in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Persian Gulf.

But there’s one problem with this alarmist picture. The Kremlin has made no effort to prepare its own population for war against Ukraine. Putin has made no demands of Kiev or issued any threats. Russian state television over recent weeks has been focusing on the iniquities of Nato expansion and the hysteria of the West over rumours of war — but not much about the plight of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population which formed a backdrop to the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Recent polls show that a land invasion of Ukraine would be a very hard sell — above all to the young men and women who would have to fight it. The independent Levada centre found last month that 66 per cent of Russians aged between 18 and 24 have a ‘positive’ or ‘very positive’ attitude toward Ukraine.

So far, all of the Kremlin’s messaging, from hardball diplomacy to movements of heavy metal around Russia’s frontiers, has been aimed solely at a foreign audience, not a domestic one. If that changes and Putin and his media machine start making demands and threats against Ukraine’s government, we might start to worry. But for the moment, all Putin’s demands to stop Nato expansion have been aimed at Nato members themselves — above all at Washington — rather than at Kiev.

So what of the intelligence reports? They’re most probably true. It’s entirely plausible that many people inside the Kremlin as well as in Russia’s military and intelligence services dream of executing a coup, and are even scoping out potential candidates for their fantasy puppet government. That’s probably many Russian spooks’ actual job description. It’s equally plausible that Russia has many undercover officers and agents exploring ways to foment ethnic unrest and organise provocations against the Russian-speaking population of central and eastern Ukraine. So is the idea that the Russian military has been asked to draw up various invasion plans based on -current Ukrainian defences.

Is that scary — or just standard Russian operating procedure? Capability is not the same as intent, though one day it could become so. Right now, Putin’s intent is pretty simple. He wants to show the West that he’s deadly serious about putting a stop to Nato’s military engagement with Ukraine. And he also wants to demonstrate just how divided Nato is on the issue.

In that, Putin has already succeeded. Nato and the EU appear united enough on promising devastating sanctions — though, significantly, no boots on the ground — if Putin actually invades. On the wisdom of deepening military ties to Ukraine — not so much. France’s Emmanuel Macron has expressed irritation at the US and Russia discussing Europe’s future over the heads of the EU — which depends on Russia for 40 per cent of its natural gas. And Germany— even more dependent on Russian gas — has always been nervous about a drive to expand Nato further east. Berlin has refused to supply Ukraine with arms, and German naval chief Kay-Achim Schönbach resigned last week after saying that it would be ‘easy to give [Putin] the respect he wants, and probably deserves as well’. US President Joe Biden, for his part, gaffed that there might be such a thing as a ‘minor’ Russian incursion into Ukraine — to be quickly corrected by his deputy Kamala Harris, who insisted that any incursion would bring crippling sanctions.

Putin doesn’t want more sanctions — especially not ones which will threaten Russia’s truly great and growing power over Europe’s energy supplies as green laws send both prices and demand for natural gas spiralling. Nor does he want or need more chunks of Ukraine — there’s no strategic, political or economic upside in fighting an attritional war over open country. Falling standards of living have eroded Putin’s once-astronomic poll ratings to a worst-ever low of 32 per cent. A short, victorious war like Crimea might, theoretically, fix his popularity problem. Rather than an occupation, he could opt for a lightning strike to show up the weaknesses of Ukraine’s armed forces and the powerlessness of Nato to help. But even the briefest and most limited invasion of Ukraine would risk bringing Russia’s economy crashing down, and Putin’s regime with it.

But why should Putin fight a real war when simply moving heavy military kit around his own country is already doing so well? Macron is talking about reviving an EU-Russia summit. Biden has signalled that he is ready for another personal meeting, a piece of superpower theatre in which Putin revels and excels. Washington, which last year was obsessed with the new administration’s pivot away from Europe to concentrate on China, is again abuzz with talk of the Kremlin threat. Britain’s Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has been invited to Moscow.

Which brings us back to Johnson. It’s right and proper that he should have reiterated Britain’s commitment to Ukraine’s independence and integrity (though his predecessor David Cameron did nothing to actually defend it in 2014). But the truth is that Britain is not really a player in this game — not quite a bystander, but certainly not much more than a messenger. Putin’s message is directed at Washington (keenest of all to push Ukrainian membership of Nato), at Berlin and Paris (the most cautious about Nato expansion) and, indirectly, at Kiev, to warn them how dire the consequences of pursuing the course of membership could be.

Ultimately, phoney war suits everyone — above all, those leaders with electoral problems at home. Talk is cheap. In the theatre of international grandstanding, the boldest bluff gets the biggest applause. Talking tough allows politicians to fight wars of words and claim victory when actual war doesn’t happen. Biden and (in the event he survives party-gate) Johnson will soon be claiming that they faced down Russian aggression and won. Putin’s propagandists will doubtless also concoct a formula that allows him to claim victory too.

What could that victory be? The Russian senator Oleg Morozov, who until his retirement last year was close to Putin’s inner circle, recently gave a crucial insight into the Kremlin’s hopes for its talks with Washington. ‘The [Americans] could have said no a long time ago,’ Morozov told Rossiya One on 21 January. ‘This means that negotiations are ongoing… part of these talks does not appear in the public sphere.’ Both sides will come away with an off-the-record understanding held in their ‘clenched fists’, Morozov predicted — and that would be about ‘the very point that scares everyone so much — Ukraine and Nato’. In other words, Putin’s team believe that a private understanding with Washington that Russia’s red line has been noted and will be respected is more achievable than a public deal where Nato renounces Ukraine.

Fantasy? Probably. But it’s the way that the Putin circle thinks things are done in great power politics — rattling sabres to demand respect, not working constructively to earn it. Russia has no real allies, and few ways of projecting power that aren’t military or illegal. Some of the options being discussed by TV pundits for retaliation against the intransigent West include moving new missile systems close to Nato member states, deploying Russian forces and rockets close to the United States in Cuba and Venezuela, upping the activities of Russia-affiliated private military companies in Africa, deepening military co-operation with China, and of course the old favourite, cyber attacks.

To be sure, Putin has in the past not hesitated to draw that sabre to take hacks at small, vulnerable neighbours in crisis. If no face-saving formula can be found in the coming months of talks, he may consider wielding it again. But attacking Ukraine with 60 battle groups is not an opportunistic hack, it’s an act of economic suicide. And happily for Ukraine — though perhaps not so happily for Boris Johnson — that’s a consequence that Putin is, for the moment, nowhere near desperate enough to risk.