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We play chess while Russia plays kick arse

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Cannes, 22 February 2022

Mark Porter

In the streets of Moscow locals watch the rouble falling rapidly against the dollar. Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty

The headline is a Polish saying, and events are moving fast in a way that seems to be proving it correct. Another aphorism, this time from butcher Stalin: “When thrusting with your bayonet, if you encounter mush you carry on pushing. If you encounter steel, you withdraw.” On another page we publish Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash’s analysis of a vacillating West confronting a focused Russia, first printed in the Canadian Globe and Mail. Will Russian President Vladimir Putin find steel under the mush? 

On Tuesday night Putin took the two countries ever closer to full blown war  when he gave his full support to Russian-backed separatists to absorb the entire Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, despite some serious western sanctions.

Immediately after Russia’s Federal Council, the upper house of parliament, unanimously approved his “peacekeeping” mission in Eastern Ukraine, Putin claimed the only solution to the crisis would be for Ukraine to demilitarise, swear neutrality, and forget about ever joining Nato.

Map courtesy of the FT.

This came a few hours after German Chancellor Olaf Scholz halted the approval of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which provides a direct link between Russia and Germany, though he fell short of pledging weapons to the Ukrainians. This has put an end – at least for the time being – to the most controversial energy project ever embarked upon.

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council and former president, tweeted that European consumers will pay a high price for this unexpectedly tough sanction. “Welcome to the brave new world where Europeans are very soon going to pay €2,000 for 1,000 cubic metres of natural gas!” 

The government in Kyiv is unlikely to cave in to any of the demands, which would involve endorsing the annexation of Crimea and handing over further swathes of Ukraine, including Luhansk. 

Before Putin addressed the Russian nation, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had addressed the country saying: “We will give nothing away, we fear nothing and nobody.”

The foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, responded indirectly to Putin’s evening speech, underlining Ukraine’s ties to the west by revealing that he had renewed requests to the European Union for a path to membership.

At a memorial service for a soldier killed on the frontline, the Ukrainian minister of defence, Oleksii Reznikov, accused Putin of trying to rebuild the Soviet empire: “The Kremlin has made yet another step towards resurrection of the Soviet Union, with a new Warsaw Pact and Berlin Wall. The only thing that stands in between is Ukraine and its army.”

Meanwhile financial markets and the value of the rouble were plummeting last night. Reporters on the ground said the news was greeted in the streets of Moscow with muted support, with some people openly saying it is a bad idea.

According to Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst and senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, there was no expectation that Russians “would rally around the flag” after Putin’s speech in the same manner as when the country annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014, after which Putin’s approval ratings reached heights of 89%, according to The Guardian.

He pointed to recent data collected by the independent Levada Center pollster, indicating that 53% of Russians would want the two regions recognised as independent or as part of Russia, while 26% saw the future of the region with Ukraine. The remainder of those polled, 21%, were undecided on the issue.

The latest chapter opened around 07h00 this morning when President Putin recognised the independence Donetsk and Luhansk, the two Russian-controlled territories in east Ukraine. They call themselves the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Both areas have been armed, financed and controlled by Russia since 2014 but until this week Russia still recognised them as part of Ukraine.

Formal occupation of sovereign Ukrainian territory began when Putin sent his military on a “peacekeeping mission” to Ukraine.  In 2014 Russia annexed Crimea. But in this case, Russia has not annexed the territories. A document signed by Putin on Monday also allows him to establish military bases or place missiles in the territories.

President Joe Biden tonight said the U.S. will be sanctioning Russian oligarchs and their families, as well as Russian sovereign debt in retaliation for the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Speaking at the White House Biden said those sanctions were just the “first tranche” of what the U.S. and its allies are ready to impose if Russia launches a larger invasion of Ukraine. “He’s setting up a rationale to take more territory by force,” Biden said of recent comments by the Russian President. “This is the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

The UK has just imposed sanctions on five Russian banks while Germany appears to have cancelled the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Western resolve is fast being whipped up in a last ditch attempt to persuade Putin to pull back.

We will publish a regular update of events as they unfold feeding links to the best reports from the world’s media, plus commentary.

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