Saturday, May 21, 2022

Ukrainian government views full-scale Russian invasion as unlikely

A woman points a weapon during a military training session for employees of essential city industries and services outside Lviv, Ukraine January 25, 2022. REUTERS/Roman BalukROMAN BALUK/Reuters

The Ukrainian government does not see a full-scale Russian invasion as likely, despite escalating international concern, believing it’s more plausible that Moscow will instead try to destabilize the country internally.

President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office says an all-out invasion is one of several possible scenarios – and something the Ukrainian military needs to prepare for – but it doesn’t agree with Western assessments that such an assault could be imminent. Meanwhile, subversion campaigns aimed at sowing dissent inside Ukraine are considered a more active threat.

“I wouldn’t call full-scale invasion an imminent scenario. But I do understand why these pessimistic scenarios appear in the public, because very often the Russian Federation behaves irrationally,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky’s chief of staff, said in an interview inside the Presidential Administration building in Kyiv.

Mr. Podolyak was speaking just before the President gave a televised speech in which he spoke of several Western embassies, including Canada’s, ordering the families of diplomatic staff to leave Ukraine.

On Tuesday, Canada announced it was telling spouses and children of Global Affairs staff to leave the country, a day after the United States, Britain, Germany and Australia announced similar steps.

Mr. Zelensky told Ukrainians not to be overly alarmed by this news. “There are no rose-coloured glasses, no childish illusions, everything is not simple. … But there is hope,” he said. “Protect your body from viruses, your brain from lies, your heart from panic.”

Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov delivered a similar message to Ukraine’s parliament Tuesday. “As of today, there are no grounds to believe” that Russia would attack soon, he said, adding that Russian troops were not in formations that suggested an imminent move toward the border. “Don’t worry, sleep well,” Mr. Reznikov said. “No need to have your bags packed.”

Mr. Podolyak said the government estimates there are now 127,000 Russian troops near Ukraine’s borders. But he sees the display of Russian military might – including forces inside Belarus, a close Russian ally – aimed at forcing the West to agree to the Kremlin’s security demands. Despite a flurry of high-level meetings between Russian and Western officials in recent weeks, the two sides remain far apart on Moscow’s main demand for a guarantee that Ukraine will never be allowed to join the US-led NATO military alliance.

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Mr. Podolyak said it was more likely that Russian “proxy groups” inside Ukraine would stir up unrest, potentially allowing Russian President Vladimir Putin to send troops into the country as “peacekeepers.”

“The aim is … to create chaos on the streets. For them, the ideal situation would be something like we saw at the start of January in Kazakhstan,” he said, where protests in the Central Asian state this month were quickly quelled after the arrival of a Russian-led peacekeeping mission. The origins of those demonstrations remain unclear, and Russian troops who were invited in by the country’s autocratic President have now left Kazakhstan.

Mr. Podolyak said Ukraine was already the target of an intensive propaganda campaign aimed at undermining confidence in the country’s economy and creating social tensions. “It’s to make people nervous, to get people withdrawing money from the bank, to attack the national currency.”

Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnya, has lost about 8 per cent of its value since Russia began massing troops around the country in November. It currently trades at about 23 to the Canadian dollar. Inflation is at a four-year high of just over 10 per cent.

In addition to the current crisis, Ukraine has been battered by eight years of war in its southeastern Donbas region, where Moscow supports a “separatist” militia that has declared the region’s independence. More than 14,000 people have been killed in that conflict. Russia also seized and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, a move that was condemned by the international community.

Mr. Podolyak said some of Ukraine’s oligarchs – powerful businessmen who control large chunks of the economy – share Moscow’s interest in further destabilizing the situation. They lost influence after Mr. Zelensky’s 2019 election win, he said, and “want to return to the old status quo. They want to return Ukraine to being an oligarchic state.”

Thought Mr. Podolyak did not name individuals, Mr. Zelensky announced late last year that a coup d’état was being planned, claiming that the country’s richest man, mining magnate Rinat Akhmetov, had been invited to join the plot. Mr. Zelensky is considered close to another oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, who is a long-time business rival of Mr. Akhmetov’s.

Britain’s Foreign Office warned over the weekend that Russian agents were communicating with pro-Moscow politicians in Ukraine and “looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine.” The British named several officials who had served in key posts under former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who was deposed in a 2014 revolution that the Kremlin views as Western-sponsored.

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The calming talk from Mr. Zelensky and his team is at odds with warnings from US President Joe Biden and his administration, who have suggested that Mr. Putin could “at any moment” order his forces to invade Ukraine.

Top US, Russian and European military analysts have told The Globe and Mail that they believe Russia’s military movements indicate preparations to launch a large-scale attack, most likely in February. Britain, the US and several European countries have hastened deliveries of weapons and ammunition to the Ukrainian military, and the Pentagon says it has 8,500 troops on alert for deployment to NATO allies in Eastern Europe in case the crisis deteriorates.

On Tuesday, Global Affairs issued a statement confirming the move of Canadian diplomatic families: “Due to the ongoing Russian military buildup and destabilizing activities in and around Ukraine, we have decided to temporarily withdraw Canadian embassy staff’s children under 18 years of age and family members accompanying them.”

Mr. Podolyak said it was understandable that Canada and other Western governments were sending diplomatic families home in order to minimize the risk to their citizens. But he cautioned that “alarmist” reactions to the Russian military buildup around Ukraine were damaging the country’s morale.

“We are calmly assessing the measures they take. We fully understand why they are doing this,” Mr. Podolyak said, referring specifically to the Canadian embassy announcement. “On the other hand, overreacting to what the Russian Federation has been doing … is making Ukrainian society nervous.”

Mr. Podolyak said he wished more Western governments would mix their messages of concern about Russia’s military moves with statements of support and confidence in the Ukrainian economy. He praised Canada’s announcement last week of a $120-million loan to Ukraine as an “excellent” example of how Ukraine’s friends can help it in the current situation.

A poll released Tuesday by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found Ukrainians were deeply split over whether a Russian invasion could happen. Just over 48 per cent agreed with the statement “Yes, the threat is real,” while slightly more than 39 per cent agreed that “there will be no invasion.” The rest of the 1,205 said they were unsure.

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