Biden’s call to Putin confirmed that unchecked escalation is not part of the new U.S. administration’s plans. Tough rhetoric, preemptive escalation, and the announcement of new sanctions were necessary for Biden to start the inevitable conversation with Russia.
Perhaps the most important thing for the Russian leadership in this episode was to prevent the need to actually go to war against Ukraine in the future. Going overkill in terms of military maneuvers on the Ukrainian border now may avoid the need to do terrible things at a later point.
With Moscow massing its troops on Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea, Kyiv has little chance of standing its ground if the standoff deteriorates into a military confrontation. Yet there are reasons to believe that neither side intends to unleash a war.
Donbas should brace itself for a long time in the role of a Russian military protectorate like Transnistria or South Ossetia. Local elites will have to deal with Moscow’s efforts to optimize the region’s administration, while the people there will see the creeping integration of the republics with Russia.
For Russia, renewal of the war—let alone the annexation of the self-proclaimed republics—would be a costly undertaking with unclear benefits. It is bound to be highly unpopular with Russian society, which is fatigued by foreign policy adventurism, and would further complicate Russia’s relations with European countries.
For Zelensky’s team, used to winning landslide victories, the outcome of the upcoming local elections will be dispiriting and will fan the flames of internal strife.
A further fall in President Zelensky’s ratings could become a serious demotivating factor for the former TV star. His transformation from the “people’s president” into yet another Ukrainian politician with broken promises, a state dacha, and a dodgy entourage will primarily weigh on the president himself.
The coronavirus pandemic has turned the mounting tension between the center and the regions into an open conflict. Now threats loom of revenge by the old elites and a new wave of populism exploiting the idea of regional independence.
Struggling to hold on to his party’s majority, President Zelensky is increasingly forced to take heed of the influential national-patriotic minority in parliament. Zelensky finds himself held hostage by the old elite, from whom he is buying the last chances for reform at the cost of his own political future.
In Ukraine, the chaos caused by the coronavirus pandemic combined with the country’s existing political problems could sharpen the appetite for authoritarianism in Ukrainian society.