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Tensions at the Russia-Ukraine border: but what is Vladimir Putin playing?

Vladimir Putin loves to show off his muscles. Literally, when, all pectorals out, he invites the cameras to film him shirtless, on horseback in the tundra … as figuratively, when he massages 100,000 soldiers on the Ukrainian border, letting the threat of war hover open between the two countries.

“The nightmare scenario of military confrontation” does exist, affirmed, on 2 December, the head of Russian diplomacy, Sergey Lavrov at the platform of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in Stockholm. And the culprit is not in Moscow, according to the minister. In his sights: Kiev and its Western partners, NATO in the lead, accused, also on December 2, of “bringing its military infrastructure closer to the Russian borders”. One-on-one with his US counterpart Antony Blinken, who urged him to “de-escalate” Lavrov responded by demanding security guarantees on Russia’s western flank. Otherwise Moscow threatens to “restore the military-strategic balance”. Translation: hit Ukraine.

Bluff or real threat? “A Russian invasion seems unlikely,” said Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) from the start. “For Moscow, it involves enormous risks – new sanctions, increased tensions with the West and a colossal cost – for uncertain gains.Russia controls, in effect, the separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, distributes passports there, sends funding, gives businesses in the region access to its market. In short, she already has control over these territories, there is no need to invade them. ”

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But Vladimir Putin hates the status quo. Seven years have passed since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, followed by the signing of the Minsk agreements with Ukraine. Largely favorable to the Russians, these notably provided for the organization of local elections in pro-Russian separatist territories. These commitments have remained a dead letter.

Worse, the Kremlin sees Kiev beefing up its army at high speed, thanks to the cooperation of prominent NATO members. In addition to the contracts signed with Paris to manufacture high seas patrol vessels, there is the purchase of Turkish attack drones and British military equipment, not to mention the millions of dollars paid each year by the Americans to train Ukrainian troops.

The besieged fortress syndrome

“The Kremlin notes that even without belonging to NATO, Ukraine becomes a place of arms where we pour instructors, equipment, and why not, tomorrow, troops”, analyzes Igor Delanoë, deputy director of the Franco-Russian Observatory, in Moscow. As much to say a nightmare for Vladimir Poutine struck, like his predecessors, of the “syndrome of the besieged fortress”, which is explained by geography. “Russia is landlocked and deprived of natural borders to the west – neither great rivers nor mountains to deter the enemy, continues Delanoë. So much so that, since the days of the tsars, an obsession has guided Russian foreign policy: form a defensive belt around its borders. The post-Soviet space plays that role. ”

For Moscow, it is therefore out of the question to let anyone threaten this protective glacis. Even if it means risking the spark at the border. “Putin’s show of force consists of putting pressure on Kiev and its allies. Not only to implement the Minsk agreements, but also to obtain guarantees against any rapprochement of Ukraine with NATO”, adds the researcher. .

To be sure, he relies on the weight of his American rival to influence Kiev. Last spring, the Russian president tried a similar push, by dispatching tens of thousands of troops to the border. He had obtained, two months later, a summit with Joe Biden. The same scenario could well occur. At the end of his face-to-face with Lavrov, in Stockholm, the head of American diplomacy assured that a new meeting would “probably” be organized “in the near future”.

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“The Russians are also trying to exist in the eyes of the Americans, because the Biden administration seems more and more concentrated on China, which, de facto, marginalizes Russia”, underlines Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean. But Putin has no intention of being relegated to the status of a regional power at all. “As in the days of the Czars and the Soviet Union, he intends to play with the big boys. of the great powers, what could be more effective than the good old methods of the Cold War?


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