GP Insights # 507, 25 April 2021
On 21 April, during his state-of-the-nation address, President Vladimir Putin issued a warning regarding Russia's "swift" and "severe" response to hostile foreign actions. He told both houses of Parliament: "We want good relations...and really don't want to burn bridges." While referring to the West, he said: "I hope that nobody would decide to cross the so-called red line in relations with Russia, and we will define those [red lines] on our own in every individual case." He also discussed the issues of Covid in Russia, protests in favour of Navalny, and domestic economic hardships.
On 22 April, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the withdrawal of its military forces from the Ukrainian border. The announcement comes after weeks of military buildup at the Russia-Ukraine border, causing concerns of renewed conditions for a clash between Ukraine and Russia. The announcement states that the troops will withdraw from the region between 23 April and 1 May.
What is the background?
First, Putin's Redlines. While referring to the US, NATO and the EU, he said: "like a kind of sport, they have developed a 'highly unseemly habit' of picking on Russia for any reason, and most often for no reason at all." In recent weeks, there was a series of threats between the West and Russia, which Putin says targets their "core security interests." However, there is no mention of what the 'red lines' actually mean. Analysts like Sam Greene, the director of Russia Institute at King's College, called it an intentional policy paralysis, a deliberate move by Putin to keep everyone guessing what the redlines would mean.
Second, the growing international concerns about Russia and the US sanctions. First should be the recent legislation allowing Putin to contest till 2036. He is also seen preparing for the parliamentary elections in September 2021. A recent provocation also is the assassination attempt against the Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. Russia's border tensions with Ukraine is another issue. Two sets of sanctions have been placed on Russia, one for the jailed opposition leader Navalny and the other over the solar-winds cyber attacks, since Biden took office in January. Biden, while stating that the Russians were involved in the 2020 US elections, has threatened to place more sanctions. Domestically, people took to the streets in demand of medical care and protested against the treatment of Alexy Navalny in jail. There is also a sense of dissatisfaction among the people over stagnant incomes and the rising inflation.
Third, the withdrawal of troops from the Ukraine border. During the recent weeks, despite fears of escalation, Russia maintained that the movement of troops in the borders was only part of their military exercises. Russian military blocked flights and closed navigation in the Black Sea and parts of Crimea for 'winter period control checks' throughout April. The withdrawal announcement could be unrelated. Or, it could indicate political balancing after a strong statement earlier by Putin to ensure the tensions do not escalate beyond control.
What does it mean?
During the recent weeks, there is international pressure on Putin. The redline statement by Putin is an effort to respond. Both Biden and Putin seem to be testing waters and see who blinks first.
With the Parliamentary elections in Russia six months away, Putin's statement could be catering to a local audience. Though the redline statement can be a political grandstanding, it was timely and carefully balanced with troops' removal from the borders.