Letter From the Editors

It’s clear the invasion of Ukraine has changed the functioning of the global order – it’s just not clear why, how or to whose benefit. Weeks after the Feb. 24 launch of Russia’s “special operation” in Ukraine, journalists and government officials alike are still racing to keep up – not only with the changing facts on the ground, but with Putin’s intentions for the campaign. Straying from the official line now means more than professional embarrassment: Ekho Moskvy, which had weathered every crisis of Russian liberalism from the 1991 August putsch to accusations of “traitorous” coverage of the 2008 war in Georgia, has finally been forced to shut down. It is entirely probable that by the time you read this issue, several articles in it will have been removed from their home domains to avoid stiff punishments for “publishing false information.”

Putin played his cards so close to his chest that many of Russia’s power players were left flat-footed. As economist Sergei Guriyev points out, Putin managed to get his own yacht back to Russia by Feb. 24, but close confidant Igor Sechin and Security Council chairman Dmitry Medvedev (!) were apparently out of the loop, since they lost theirs to foreign confiscation. More importantly, Guriyev continues, “the Central Bank was not prepared for war,” and has lost access to as much as 50% of its hard currency and gold reserves.

It is one thing to launch a surprise attack, but Putin outdid himself by keeping even the specific war aims under wraps. As Vasily Kashin tells RBC, “The only thing we know is Putin’s words about denazification and demilitarization, but in practice it is not clear how far the Russian troops are going to go and what exactly they want to do with Ukraine.” He puts forward the possible aim of neutralizing Ukraine’s Armed Forces within an open time frame. By contrast, RBC cites American expert Michael Kofman, who believes Russian forces sought to capture Kiev in the first days of the war and failed, as a representative of Western opinion.

Kashin concedes that Moscow has failed on the propaganda front, and he is not alone in seeing this. Nezavisimaya gazeta’s editorial staff observes, “Kiev is still able to feed its narrative to the rest of the world, almost as if there is no war.”

Whether correct or not, the view that Ukrainian forces have repelled the Russians from the capital and other major cities is boosting the defenders’ morale and stiffening Kiev’s negotiating position. Zelensky has expressed an openness to compromise, but as the State Duma’s CIS committee chairman Leonid Kalashnikov puts it, “Ukrainian society is not prepared for territorial losses” – including, presumably, recognizing the loss of the Crimea.

Even Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovich came out of the woodwork with an appeal to Zelensky: “You personally are obligated to stop the bloodshed and reach a peace treaty at any cost.” So, at what cost? Putin offered some clarification in a March 3 call with Macron: “demilitarization and a neutral status for Ukraine, so that no threats to Russia originate from its territory.” He continued, “The tasks of the special military operation will be fulfilled in any event, and attempts to gain time by dragging out the negotiations will only lead to additional demands on Kiev in our negotiating position.” In other words, he will take all he wants and, if refused, he will want more.

We can infer how much more from a “Manifesto on the Formation of the Federative Republic of Ukraine,” which has been circulating online. Ostensibly written by local Ukrainian administrations, it declares that “these provinces are and by right must be free and independent; that they are free from any dependence on the Kiev government and that all political ties between them and the Ukrainian state must be completely severed.”

Nezavisimaya gazeta sums it up rather neatly: “Given the total lack of information and of an articulated official position, all these plans seem very questionable.”