Letter From the Editors

Why is Ukrainian President Zelensky so angry with the Biden administration? A recent article in Politico chalks it up to translation. High-ranking US diplomats like Jen Psaki have been saying for weeks that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is “imminent,” which (authors Alexander Ward and Quint Forgey assure us) has no direct equivalent in the Ukrainian language. The closest match is neminuche (inevitable): “So when Biden’s team might genuinely mean ‘soon,’ Zelensky hears U.S. officials effectively say ‘there will be an invasion regardless of what we do.’ ”

The Politico commentators do raise an interesting point – that despite its dramatic ring, he word “imminent” carries an implicit component of “unless”: In other words, if you follow our recommendations, the dire outcome will be avoided. Given that there are ways to express this thought in Ukrainian, and that Zelensky also knows Russian and English, he probably grasps nuances of Washington’s message. What might be making him angry instead is the bigger picture: the sense of being a pawn in a great geopolitical game between superpowers. In fact, he expressed this annoyance quite directly: “I can’t be like other politicians who are grateful to the United States just for being the United States.”

Speaking of the bigger picture, the Kremlin is also quite annoyed with the Biden team after a series of meetings on global security that involved the European Union and NATO. Fyodor Lukyanov explains the difference in perspective: “The US perceives the matter as a discussion about Ukraine; thus, the purpose of the meetings is to prevent the allegedly imminent Russian invasion of the country. . . . In other words, the US is insisting on discussing a particular, though serious, problem. For Russia, the purpose of the process is not the Ukraine issue, but the very principles of European security, and the revision of what was once accepted, namely NATO’s unrestricted right to extend its influence. Ukraine is a vital issue for Russia, but it is only one manifestation of the system of principles that arose as a result of the standoff in the second half of the 20th century.”

For Moscow, then, the discussion is about the West’s imminent (if you’ll pardon the expression) takeover of a crucial part of the post-Soviet space. And it has reason to be nervous. After all, NATO’s eastern counterpart organization, the CSTO, just had to rush in to prevent another post-Soviet government from collapsing – the one in Kazakhstan, which for decades has been a crucial partner for the Kremlin in establishing and maintaining post-Soviet institutions like the Eurasian Economic Union. Many political experts were stunned when this seemingly stable regime was rocked by popular protests.

Dmitry Kolezev writes that one lesson to be learned from this series of events is “that a state that seemed relatively stable can end up on the verge of collapse in a matter of days despite the ruling authorities’ supposedly solid electoral support. . . . Of course, the easiest option would be to chalk up any protests to the malicious schemes of the insidious Americans. But that means ignoring the real threats and risks.”

Andrei Kolesnikov expands upon the latter point, portraying the unrest in Kazakhstan as part of a trend of civil disobedience in the Russian neighborhood: “One unifying feature of such protest phenomena as Khabarovsk-2020, Belarus-2020, Moscow-St. Petersburg-2021, and Kazakhstan-2022 is that it’s difficult to explain them away with the primitive Kremlin-chekist [security official – Trans.]narrative about behind-the-scenes conspiracies. Of course, that narrative emerges immediately, but it looks absurd: It wasn’t Uncle Sam who was behind the events in Zhanaozen, but rather Her Eminence Social Inequality, the direct result of Kazakh-style authoritarian modernization losing touch [with the people]. If this is a revolution, then it’s a colorless one.”

We wonder what the next events are on Moscow’s horizon, and whether the Kremlin’s immanent strategic maneuvering will prevent what’s imminent from becoming inevitable.