On Moscow's objectives
Last week, Ukrainian leaders visited Washington D.C. The CIA and the Department of Defense gave them private briefings. They emerged deeply shaken.
Vladislav Davidzon, Paris
Yesterday, Cosmopolitan Globalist Monique Camarra wrote an overview of the crisis in Eastern Europe. I wanted to add several notes to her essay.
As she wrote, the Russian army is once again massed on the Ukrainian border and menacing a full-fledged invasion of Ukrainian territory. This is not the first escalation of tensions between Moscow and Kyiv, nor is it the first buildup of Russian forces along the Ukrainian border and contact line. But this time seems far more serious and substantive.
Russia’s activity seems to have concentrated the minds of NATO elites in a way that previous instances of Kremlin intimidation failed to do: We have seen a frenzy of activity from Western powers as they calibrate exactly how much support they can offer Kyiv without giving false promises or winding up in a war they do not want.
Last week, Ukrainian Head of Presidential Administration Andriy Yermak and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba visited Washington D.C. The CIA and the Department of Defense gave them private briefings. They emerged pale and shaken.
Upon their return to Kiev, the tone of Ukrainian government communications swiftly changed. They were reportedly given to understand that the Russian army is poised to launch a multi-pronged assault on Ukrainian territory from several directions, then occupy at least half of Ukrainian territory, including the cities of Dnipro, Kharkov, Odessa, and Nikolaev, as well as half of Kyiv.
My contacts in Kyiv with national security clearances have assured me that it is not yet time to draw up plans to get my family out of southern Ukraine. Still, I am on the verge of doing so.
No one knows for sure if Moscow is bluffing. It has done so before to extract concessions, but it has also probed for weakness, then moved when we did not expect it to.
The location and troop strength of Russian forces are particularly worrisome. The Russian army is not afraid of wintertime maneuvers. We don’t expect it to invade until January, when much of the water around Ukraine will freeze over.
The last serious advance on Ukraine was in February 2015. Russia’s next violation of the Minsk accords will likely involve a massive deployment of the Russian Air Force and Navy, along with its artillery and mechanized forces: The Ukrainian state has little capacity to respond to this.
Joe Biden has already given the Kremlin the legitimacy of a one-on-one summit with Putin. He forfeited an important deterrent by abandoning Trump-era sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The Biden Administration has long wanted a discreet reset with Moscow so better to concentrate on what it considers to be more serious issues, such as a revisionist China.
The Kremlin sees Biden as a weak opponent who is willing to make unilateral concessions. It has responded by ratcheting up the pressure on Kyiv. On Russian propaganda television, the continuous—and chortling—comparisons between Biden and Soviet gerontocrats such as Brezhnev and Andropov give us a clue what the Kremlin thinks about the American President.
People familiar with the content of talks between Russia and Europe have informed me that Merkel has signaled to Ukraine that Germany is not willing to take on Russia.
Like every Russian-speaking president of Ukraine before him, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been forced to face reality about his northern neighbor. If once he hoped to find an opening for a deal, he now understands there is none to be had; this is reflected in the tone of full-throated Ukrainian patriotism he has adopted. In turn, analysts in Russia no longer view Zelenskyy as a hopeful partner. The Kremlin is very much done talking to him.
So, what are Moscow’s objectives?
It seems intent on realigning the balance of power that has prevailed in Eastern Europe for the past seven years. Russian proxies in Washington D.C. and well-connected Russian political commentators have explicitly expressed a desire to overturn Eastern Europe’s security architecture.
Oil prices are at historic highs. The Russian state believes it has the resources to change facts on the ground while a flurry of distractions prevents the US and Europe from focusing.
The Kremlin wants to impose its will on the waterways and mark off the Black Sea as a no-go zone for NATO warships. Enhanced Turkish-Ukrainian military cooperation and Turkey’s sale of effective military drones to the Ukrainian armed forces seem to have particularly enraged the Russian military command.
The Kremlin is also keen to extract an ironclad guarantee that Kyiv will never receive a NATO Membership Action Plan. It seeks to ensure NATO will never operate on Ukrainian territory in any capacity: This would mean no NATO aircraft flyovers over Ukrainian soil, no arming of the Ukrainian armed forces, and an end to all technical assistance and training.
Putin seems be gambling that one way or another, he can impose his terms on Eastern Europe in one fell swoop—without consequences.
From Claire—Vladislav recently published From Odessa With Love: Political and Literary Essays from Post-Soviet Ukraine. Now would be an opportune time to read it. As Mark Galeotti put it,
Born in Tashkent, raised in Moscow and New York City, an editor in Odessa, a correspondent in Paris, there seems nowhere Davidzon hasn’t been, no one he hasn’t met. The result is a distinctive voice and eye, an eclectic mix of the cultural critic, the political analyst and the liberal cosmopolitan, evident from the first page of this delightful book.
You can’t be more of a natural-born Cosmopolitan Globalist than that.
For the past decade, Vladislav has been reporting on Ukraine. He and his wife founded a literary journal, The Odessa Review, which became a storied East European cultural institution. He’s introduced all the leading figures in Ukrainian politics and culture to Western audiences—and needless to say, became caught up in Donald Trump’s first impeachment. (He was a US government witness.) The book explains the real story, from an insider who knows Ukraine like the back of his hand. But it’s much wider-ranging and more interesting than just that.
Below, a selection from the book discussing Russia’s 2015 terrorist bombing campaign.
A vicious, squalid, and brutal attack
As Vladimir Putin celebrates yet another diplomatic victory by force, one element of that victory has gone largely unreported in the Western media: the terrorist bombing campaign widely ascribed to clandestine Russian intelligence services that has been carried out weekly across southern cities such as Kherson, Zaporozhye, Dnipropetrovsk. On Tuesday, on the eve of the Minsk II negotiations, the latest of these attacks targeted the home of the famous Russian-Jewish poet and clinical psychologist Boris Khersonsky in Odessa, where about a dozen similar bombings took place in the last two months. The doors, floors, and windows of Khersonsky’s apartment were blown out, and extensive damage was done to some of the rooms. (Full disclosure: I am a friend of the Khersonsky family.) The same floor of the building also housed a hostel that is currently hosting refugees from Donetsk and Luhansk.
The bomb had been hidden under a pile of garbage bags that lay between the apartment and the hostel. Khersonsky no longer lives at the apartment, but the apartment constituted the poet’s official registered address in city records. His ex-wife Tatiana Khersons’ka was present at the time of the explosion and has suffered acute hearing loss. The attack took place as Hollande, Merkel, and Poroshenko arrived in the Belarusian capital on the eve of the second round of Minsk protocol negotiations that would reward Putin for sponsoring the violence of Russian-backed separatists and for a string of similar attacks.
Stylistically a quirky classicist, Khersonsky is likely Ukraine’s best-known Russian language poet. A graphomaniacally productive writer, he is the author of over two-dozen volumes of poetry (including an excellent bestiary and the slyly heterodox Hasidic Sayings), as well as collections of essays and memoirs. Over the last year he has been exceedingly candid commentator in his defense of Ukrainian sovereignty. Now one of the numerous death threats that the outspokenly pro-Ukrainian poet had received over the last several months has been acted upon. The blast took place after Khersonsky had posted a widely read post denouncing the bombings.
In addition to being a poet, Khersonsky is often quoted in places like The New Yorker on questions relating to Odessa’s literary history and the city’s tradition of multicultural tolerance. When Odessa erupted in deadly violence last spring, Khersonsky was cited in a piece in The Wall Street Journal reminding readers that the port retains its identity as a cosmopolitan and fiercely autonomous city:
Odessa is very different from the heavily Russian Crimea and from the industrial Donetsk region with a significant Russian population. Although it is mostly a Russian-speaking city, it is a true melting pot of cultures, where no single national idea predominates. “Separatism here is inspired from the outside,” said Boris Khersonsky, a prominent Odessa poet and psychologist, who is Jewish. “Odessa would like to be independent from everyone.”
Khersonsky is also the real-life model for the character of Pasha, a stubbornly recalcitrant poet who refuses to emigrate to America with the rest of his family, in his niece Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s critically acclaimed novel, Panic in a Suitcase.
The poet’s son Michael Khersonsky is a filmmaker who has recently left war-torn Ukraine to work in documentary film production in New York City. His wife and baby son were out of the apartment at the time of the explosion. Michael informed me that the family was being helped by multitudes of people who answered a message he posted on Facebook and added, “I am very grateful to them. We are being assisted by the city authorities and by cadres of volunteers. Unfortunately no one can provide us with the main thing—a guarantee of our safety.” He said, “I am very worried about my family and loved ones.”
This vicious, squalid, and brutal attack was a targeted assassination attempt against a very great poet and his lovely family who belong to the core of Odessa’s artistic intelligentsia and cultural life. While it is certainly a case of moral senselessness, the assault’s logic however was not arbitrary. Odessa, as has become widely known over the past six months, is a critical junction for the expansion of the so-called “Novorossiya,” the fledgling state entity that the Kremlin is attempting to fashion in southern Ukraine. Along with the besieged port of Mariupol, Odessa is Ukraine’s last remaining port in the wake of the Crimean annexation. Without an exit onto the Black Sea, its export economy would quickly collapse.
The linking of the Crimean peninsula to mainland Russia across the Kerch Strait is an engineering problem of famous proportions. The costs of both of Moscow’s recently proposed bridge-and-tunnel projects are estimated to run into the tens of billions of dollars. It is widely believed that the Kremlin would instead prefer to annex a direct road linking the autonomous Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria and the Crimean peninsula that the Russians have already taken—and that the world seems prepared to let them have.
Last spring, Russian intelligence services attempted to foment a separatist rebellion in proudly Russophone Odessa, utilizing the same techniques that they had used successfully in the armed takeover of the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk. Those attempts sputtered to a halt outside of Donbass, though not before 48 citizens of Odessa lost their lives in street clashes. After the rebellion fizzled out, the Ukrainian interior ministry culled the higher ranks of the Odessa police force of pro-Russian officers and influences.
Yet the terrorist bombing campaign carried out around the large population centers of southern Ukraine has succeeded in terrorizing both its ordinary and extraordinary citizens alike. It is a craven tactic, but it looks likely to pay dividends to its Kremlin sponsors in the social flight of people like Khersonsky, who have chosen thus far not to emigrate. In his social network profile, Khersonsky wrote candidly that when he is asked what he would do if a “Donetsk-style scenario” played out in Odessa, he replies that he will “tuck the cats under my armpits and leave.” That he could “not and would not want to live under the Putinist regime. Which would be a most difficult decision—especially in relation to the cats.”
After the bombing, Boris Khersonsky struck back by publishing a poem:
explosions norm of life coming to terms with them you
stop noticing man it be your end
the sapper and demolition man arm-in-arm in the park
whisper in each other’s ear what are they saying
get the gist of the action shovel means undermine
conspiracy means undermine, underhanded means overkill
granny grew plain dill* under the rain that fell mainly
elderly lady means elderberry, God means year
you get the gist of death out of the blue avalanche
gist of vodka for mortals to handle loss
mind means undermined means over and out
black square of a mustache means till death do we part
sapper and demolition pal arm-in-arm in the alley
terminating angel beholds them holds them with love
we are unfreebirds good night sweet prints turning read
shines the black sun the no one’s rose of a shell shard
(Translated from Russian by Vladislav Davidzon and Eugene Ostashevsky.)
*Ukrop is a slang neologism that literally means “dill” in Russian. It’s a derogatory term for Ukrainians with roots in the fighting of the Donbass, which was later appropriated by Ukrainians and became something they call themselves. It now adorns patriotic T-shirts with a picture of dill and the word ukrop.
Vladislav Davidzon is a journalist who divides his time between Ukraine and France. He was the founding editor of The Odessa Review and is Tablet’s European Culture Correspondent. He is a non-resident fellow of the Atlantic Council.