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Russian troops concentrated near the border with Ukraine. January 2022.
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‘Geopolitical status is more important’ Why is the Kremlin constantly ratcheting up tensions over Ukraine? Meduza’s sources say it’s to avoid ‘giving in’ to Washington.

Source: Meduza
Russian troops concentrated near the border with Ukraine. January 2022.
Russian troops concentrated near the border with Ukraine. January 2022.
Maxar Technologies / AP / Scanpix / LETA

The tensions over Ukraine are becoming more and more alarming by the day. Russian troops have long been stationed near the Ukrainian border, NATO countries are sending additional forces to Eastern Europe, and politicians are swapping mutual accusations of escalating the conflict. It seems that no one really knows what’s happening — or, most importantly, what will happen in the near future. To try and gain some clarity, Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev spoke to his sources close to the Kremlin. They claim that Russia is prepared to “use force” — but the main priority is “not to give in” to the United States.

“In December I was convinced that there wouldn’t be a war. Last week, I considered this a likely scenario. This week it’s rather unlikely,” said a Meduza source close to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Executive Office (the Presidential Administration or AP). 

Indeed, the situation vis-à-vis Ukraine is in constant flux — as are the actions of Russian politicians regarding the tensions surrounding this country. For example, on January 19, the Communist Party lawmakers unexpectedly put forward a draft resolution appealing to Vladimir Putin to recognize the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” as independent states. Such a step, the Communists argued, would “create grounds for ensuring security guarantees and protecting the population from external threats.”

Meduza’s sources close to Putin’s administration believe that the Communists “didn’t coordinate” this move with the AP. Following the 2021 parliamentary elections, the AP considers the Communists a “hostile force,” one source added. 

However, the Communist Party’s initiative gained the support of the State Duma’s speaker — United Russia’s Vyacheslav Volodin, who is absolutely loyal to the Kremlin. On January 21, Volodin wrote on Telegram that the ruling party was also concerned about “protecting the lives of Russian citizens and compatriots living on the territory of the DNR and LNR.” Volodin promised that the faction leaders, and, in turn, the State Duma Council, would evaluate the draft initiative and decide when it should go to the floor. Days later, on January 24, the steering committee decided that the State Duma would consider the draft appeal in February. 

Be that as it may, the response from Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov was critical. “I would like to note that right now, when the situation is so tense and so sensitive, it’s very important to avoid any steps that could provoke an increase in this tension,” Peskov told journalists on January 21, after declining to comment on the initiative itself. 

Meduza’s sources close to the AP attributed these different stances to the fact that Volodin also allegedly neglected to clear his initiative “with anyone.” “[State Duma] speaker is a high-level position, he has autonomy. Volodin makes use of this autonomy. The latest example was the government’s bill on QR-codes, which was initially postponed until February, and then withdrawn from consideration entirely. Volodin loves high-profile topics, hype. But he doesn’t seek advice on whether to engage with them or not.” 

At the same time, Kremlin officials don’t consider Volodin’s actions “radically harmful.” According to one Meduza source, Moscow could use the parliament’s tough stance to its advantage in negotiations with the West.

“Such statements give [the top leadership] freedom to maneuver. [They can say,] look at what our lawmakers are saying and writing, we may not support them, but we could support them,” a source close to Putin’s administration told Meduza. This person underscored that regardless of the State Duma’s position, the issue of recognizing the self-proclaimed DNR and LNR will still be decided by the president. 

Yet another appeal to Putin has led to a very similar situation: on January 26, United Russia asked the country’s leadership to start supplying arms to the DNR and LNR. The idea was first expressed publicly by United Russia General Council Secretary Andrey Turchak, who claimed that NATO is “pumping” Ukraine with weapons and “pushing the Ukrainian junta towards a direct invasion of the Donbas.”

At the same time, a Meduza source close to Dmitry Kozak — Putin’s deputy chief of staff and point man on Ukraine — said that he “wouldn’t take these words too seriously.” Shortly thereafter, Kozak himself denied having anything to do with Turchak’s statements. “We have many different initiatives on this issue, and we have managed to curtail many of them, but as for what happened today, I don’t know what guided Mr. Turchak, he didn’t consult with us,” he underscored. 

Meduza’s sources close to the Kremlin assure that the initiatives put forward by United Russia and the Communist Party are “independent actions” and “scare tactics” directed at Western countries, and not part of a general strategy on the part of the authorities aimed at further exacerbating the situation. 

Is there any such thing as ‘independent actions’?

The Kremlin often disguises its initiatives as the ideas of individual lawmakers or factions: for example, high-profile bills are often put forward by lawmaker Pavel Krasheninnikov (who heads the parliament’s Committee on State Building and Legislation) or senator Andrey Klishas (who heads the Federation Council’s Committee on Legislation). 

Initiatives that are guaranteed to get adopted typically include the signatures of lawmakers from all factions (including the Communist Party). Initiatives put forward by the Communist Party specifically tend to get rejected. 

By all appearances, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin also enjoys a degree of autonomy, and he’s not the only one. For example, according to Meduza’s sources, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin and Far Eastern District presidential envoy Yury Trutnev are able to maneuver independently. 

According to Meduza’s sources, Russia’s top leadership currently concedes that any serious “use of force” is only a possibility in the event of Ukrainian troops launching an attack on the DNR and LNR. “Surrendering the Donbas is unrealistic, the president’s electorate won’t forgive this,” one source said.

Though officials in Putin’s administration understand that a war would “hit the well-being of Russian citizens hard,” they’re convinced that “the geopolitical status of the country is more important.” Refusing to help the DNR and LNR in the face of an offensive would be “perceived as giving in to America,” asserted a source. “Any designer with an iPhone or hipster in a coffee shop is still an Imperial at heart. He’ll take it badly.”

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Story by Andrey Pertsev 

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart