It’s unlikely that Zelensky seriously believed that his sharp rhetoric with Merkel and Biden would lead to the West accepting Ukraine into NATO or canceling Nord Stream 2. But his behavior strikes a chord with the public at home.
The Kremlin continues to view the breakaway republics as a buffer zone and Trojan horse inside a recalcitrant Ukraine, but allowing their inhabitants to take part in Russian domestic politics will help to score key propaganda points.
In the last two years, President Zelensky has managed to strengthen his personal power considerably. His battle against the influence of Ukraine’s oligarchs, therefore, may not be as hopeless as it might first seem.
The self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics are moving on from the wild days of economic piracy to more orderly exploitation schemes. The prospects of reintegrating the region under the Minsk accords are growing more illusory.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sees his growing popularity as proof that he chose the right course when he gave up trying to please all the disparate groups that voted for him in 2019. He is likely to continue his anti-Russian rhetoric and sanctions against domestic enemies.
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.
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