The gradual gas squeeze is accompanied by notable restraint in cyber “special operations”, except for the sudden but singular cyberattack on Ukrainian government websites earlier this month (Grani.ru, January 14). Moscow is even showing readiness to cooperate in punishing ransomware criminal activity, and several hackers involved in the REvil gang have been detained at Washington’s request (RBC, January 16).
This moderation stands in contrast with the vicious Russian propaganda campaign, which portrays NATO as a “cancer” and accuses the West of spreading “toxic lies” (Argumenty i Fakty, January 18; RIA Novosti, January 22; see EDM, January 21) . Seeking to undermine Transatlantic unity, Moscow asserts that only direct talks with the US can yield results because the European states have no influence on managing the Ukraine crisis and merely follow the course set in Washington (Izvestia, January 21). At the same time, the Russian media eagerly amplifies opinions regarding Germany’s reluctance to allow exports of armaments to Ukraine (Russiancouncil.ru, January 22).
Every hint regarding possible disagreements among allies in Biden’s statements and every reference to the need for setting a European channel of dialogue with Russia in French President Emmanuel Macron’s discourse is presented as evidence of discord inside NATO (Svoboda.org, January 18).
The main address of these messages may be Putin himself, who wants to believe in Western disunity and, by sustaining military pressure on Ukraine, aims to aggravate the reluctance of many European countries to face extra burdens or risks (The Insider, January 18). Constant troop movements and exercises produce a daily flow of news that alarm the Europeans about the inevitability of war, while ordinary Russians remain largely unaware of this buildup and so tend to see the situation as just another quarrel (Riddle, January 18). Russian experts refrain from speculating about the “military-technical measures” promised by Putin a month ago (Kremlin.ru, December 21).
The re-deployment of heavy military hardware from Siberia closer to the Western theater adds to the capacity of the assembled grouping of forces to conduct a deep offensive operation (see EDM, January 20), but it seemingly falls shy of meeting Putin’s ominous promise ( Novaya Gazeta, January 20). Nuclear saber rattling has so far been mostly kept in reserve, but the Kremlin leader may sooner or later resort to some tangible reminders about Russia’s superior might, for instance by ordering a test of a nuclear-capable weapons system.
The need to climb up another step on the proverbial escalation ladder is accentuated by the fact that Putin’s blackmail-war has so far been manifestly unsuccessful. With every passing week, NATO’s outward resolve grows to firmly and collectively counter every possible Russian move into Ukrainian territory; several allies have been delivering planeloads of military aid to Ukraine, defying Moscow’s demand to curtail such ties.
A new round of strategic arms control talks could be opened with Washington, but this would hardly suffice for the Kremlin to save face after having pompously declared that its maximalist demands are non-negotiable. Putin cannot pin the blame on the diplomats, who followed his orders to the letter, or on the top brass, who refrained from war-mongering but ensured the combat readiness of the battalions deployed in inclement winter conditions.
The responsibility for delivering Russia into a no-win position is his alone. And while starting a full-blown and high-risk war is surely against his better judgment (clouded by delusions and fears as it may be), a humiliating back-pedaling is a non-option. What the beleaguered autocrat needs is a lucky break in the stand-off — or perhaps some kind of nuclear surprise to turn the tables on the US and NATO.