In 2015, while serving as Portugal’s secretary of state for European affairs, I called Victoria Nuland at the US State Department to share my concerns about developments in Ukraine. The war in the east of the country seemed about to grow in intensity. A year before, Russian troops had occupied two Ukrainian provinces and a fragile ceasefire looked close to collapsing. Nuland was assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs and Barack Obama’s point person for the Ukraine crisis.
I tried to impress on Nuland that the Kremlin seemed to be playing a game of blackmail. Despite its military superiority, Russia knew it had limited leverage over a country determined to preserve its independence. The way to influence political decisions in Kyiv was through its Western backers in Berlin, Brussels or Washington, DC. So, Russia would often threaten to end the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, hoping that the Europeans and Americans would force the government of then president Petro Poroshenko to accept a number of political concessions. There’s nothing worse in a conflict than the fear of being left alone.
I wanted Nuland to understand that by threatening to withdraw support from Ukraine, the West was engaged in its own form of blackmail, however tempting a compromise might be for governments desperate to end the crisis. She responded that if Berlin or Brussels cut off support to Kyiv there was little the US could do.
Things have not changed much in the past six years. I suspect Vladimir Putin has become tired of his own game. For a leader to be exposed as a diminished strategist before his subordinates is both painful and dangerous, so he has raised the stakes. It is now a large-scale war that the Kremlin is threatening, negotiating directly with Washington and sidelining Europe.
But the goal remains unchanged: either to destroy the Ukrainian state or to transform it into a failed one. The method is to force a constitutional reform by which the occupied provinces in eastern Ukraine would be admitted as members of a new federal structure: Ukraine would become a federation – allowing Russia to acquire a Trojan horse inside the country, and with it the ability to thwart important foreign policy decisions, such as admission to Nato or the EU. The two provinces in the east would remain under Russia’s political control and enjoy a veto power.
The method of fragmentation and control goes back to at least the early 2000s. In 2003, the so-called Kozak memorandum unsuccessfully proposed a way to end the Moldova-Transnistria conflict by granting Transnistria a veto power over Moldovan decision-making. Dmitry Kozak, who designed the plan to federalise Moldova, is now Putin’s deputy chief of staff.
This is why it was so alarming to read the leaked account of the phone call between Joe Biden and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky on 27 January. According to reports, “the phone call did not go well”. Biden told Zelensky that a Russian invasion was virtually certain once the ground freezes in February and that Kyiv would be “sacked”. “Prepare for impact,” Biden reportedly told him.
The White House denied the conversation took place, but the words sound characteristic of Biden – “sacked” is a term he would use – and also what one would say if one wanted to convince Zelensky that he risks becoming responsible for untold suffering in Ukraine. “There is a growing sentiment that the United States is exaggerating the threat for political reasons,” one Zelensky aide told the Washington Post. The newspaper speculated that Biden wants Ukraine to accept Russia’s demand to renounce any future membership of Nato, an absurd interpretation since countries do not have an automatic right to join. The real object of the blackmail was left occluded.
In a press conference the following day, Zelensky rejected the idea that an invasion was imminent. The public scuffle created evident uneasiness in Washington. Why would the Ukrainian president want to downplay the risks of a Russian invasion when he needs, and has requested, Western support, including military equipment? Some commentators have compared him to the former president of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani, wondering if he may be out of joint with political realities.
Yet if we assume Zelensky wants to shake off pressure from Washington to accept Russian demands, then his reaction makes perfect sense. He may be fully aware that an invasion is possible, perhaps even likely, but Ukraine has had to endure such threats in the past, and any suggestion of inevitable catastrophe could be used to force him to accept what no responsible leader can accept: the disappearance of a functioning Ukrainian state. From that there could be no return.
I wish I could conclude, as I did in my phone call with Nuland in 2015, that Russia’s game of blackmail will dissolve if one just stands up to the Kremlin. But Putin is tired of waiting and is determined to close the Ukrainian chapter of his foreign policy legacy. If the next two weeks don’t bring the results he wants, he may conclude that blackmailing will only work after a more concrete show of determination from Russia. He will want to keep open the possibility of a new negotiation at a later stage, but perhaps the only way to get to that negotiation is through punitive strikes against Ukraine. The game of blackmail may soon take a deadlier turn.
This article appears in the 02 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going Under