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The "Déjà vu at the Russian-Ukrainian border?" Edition

The "Déjà vu at the Russian-Ukrainian border?" Edition
By Weekly Focus by n-ost • Issue #2 • View online
Hi and welcome to the second official issue of the Weekly Focus!
It’s been an exciting week since the launch of our newsletter: We got new readers from Estonia, Greece, Russia, Denmark, UK, and other European countries – thank you for subscribing and making this newsletter truly European!

We all know what déjà vu is, but have you ever heard of its opposite, “jamais vu”? This psychology term, meaning “never seen”, describes the feeling of experiencing something for the first time, despite rationally knowing that you’ve been in the same situation before. 
Since reports surfaced of a build-up of Russian troops in Crimea and along the Ukrainian border in early April, it’s causing déjà vu for many: Weren’t we in the same situation seven years ago when Russia cold-bloodedly annexed the Ukrainian peninsula and fuelled the war in Donbas? Others are on the “jamais vu” side – and just can’t imagine the situation will be the same. 
So then, what is still the same, and what has changed?
This week’s editorial discussions also elicited a familiar feeling about how difficult it is to approach this sensitive topic. It’s definitely easier to avoid showing different perspectives and instead dance around the manifold traps of disinformation and polarization which arise when covering this war. Since this newsletter is all about widening our focus, we had to give it a try, keeping in mind that the situation of war is a trap itself. It extends into all spheres of life, casting doubt on closely-held beliefs and diminishing the value as well as the quality of people’s lives — and sometimes ending them.
Stefan Schocher & Christian-Zsolt Varga, this week’s coordinating editors
This week’s author team: Tatiana Kozak (Kyiv), Anastasia Sedukhina (Moscow), Vytautas Bruveris (Vilnius), Leonid Ragozin (Riga), Ingrid Steiner-Gashi (Brussels), Gulliver Cragg (Kyiv)
This week’s author team: Tatiana Kozak (Kyiv), Anastasia Sedukhina (Moscow), Vytautas Bruveris (Vilnius), Leonid Ragozin (Riga), Ingrid Steiner-Gashi (Brussels), Gulliver Cragg (Kyiv)
🇺🇦 Viral: How Ukrainians prepare for the worst
Ukrainian Facebook is buzzing with posts by citizens, activists and non-profits educating and preparing each other for a potential war escalation. Photo: Collage / fb.com.
Ukrainian Facebook is buzzing with posts by citizens, activists and non-profits educating and preparing each other for a potential war escalation. Photo: Collage / fb.com.
Earlier this month, we Ukrainians felt an eerily familiar chill at the back of our necks that recalled the frightening early days of 2014. But this time, after seven years of war in the Ukrainian Donbas, we don’t feel panic or perplexity anymore. Instead, we are on guard, watching carefully for signs of something more serious than Putin simply flexing his muscle.
Since 2014, Ukrainians have learned not to wait for their government to tell them what to do: They have started to mobilize independently. My Facebook timeline is flooded with to-do lists to help prepare for war, like purchasing water-purifying tablets and stocking up on non-perishable foods. The Facebook algorithm is also showing me photos of civilians in military training of an army reserve unit.
A group of volunteer paramedics working on the frontline is urging the public to participate in first aid training to stave off anxiety and has posted lists of medications citizens can donate to medical workers. 
Also, Ukrainians are more aware of Kremlin-produced fake news. Warnings like the one from popular blogger and political activist Viktor Tregubov, in which he educates his followers about the dangers of disinformation, are going viral: “Please do not spread unverified information on any military action. No matter how emotional it is. Especially if it is emotional. No, the information shared by your neighbour or acquaintance has not been verified.” 
For those living on the frontline, the war has been an everyday reality for the past seven years, and despite the ceasefire, shelling continues and soldiers are regularly wounded and killed. Ukrainians all over the country feel they have to get ready for the worst, and that’s just what they’re doing this spring.
Tatiana Kozak is a Ukrainian journalist and editor at graty.me, a media focused on criminal justice reporting. If she’s not scrolling through her Facebook timeline, you’ll probably find her in courtrooms across Ukraine, reporting on war trials.
Tatiana Kozak is a Ukrainian journalist and editor at graty.me, a media focused on criminal justice reporting. If she’s not scrolling through her Facebook timeline, you’ll probably find her in courtrooms across Ukraine, reporting on war trials.
🇷🇺 Number of the week: 12%
Only 12% of Russians are in favour of the government “focusing its efforts on building up its military power,” according to recent polling by the Levada Center, an independent research organization. The new findings confirm a trend that already kicked-off in 2019 when the number dropped below 20% for the first time in the poll’s history.
Instead, 83% are now in favour of focusing on economic well-being. Russians, who have got poorer since 2014, expected more help from the state, but instead got military bravado and a tough pension reform in 2019, effectively meaning that citizens footed the long bill for Putin’s wars in Ukraine and Syria. Thousands of pensioners across the country took to the streets in protest, demanding a correction, without success.  
One of the ways Putin hoped to calm the growing discontent especially among the older generation, who are most prone to USSR nostalgia, was by staging a grandiose celebration of Russian military glory on the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII last year. But Covid-19 thwarted the president’s plans. Most of the festivities had to be cancelled and the economic situation worsened once again: Russian businesses received almost no help from the government during the 2020 lockdown. Later on, the referendum on the new Constitution, Navalny’s poisoning and his big investigations into corruption led to record-breaking protests.
Today, five months before the parliamentary elections, Navalny is suffering in jail and protests have stopped, but the discontent remains. That’s why many observers assume that the current military build-up at the Ukrainian border is another of Putin’s “old school” diversion tactics: planting an external enemy into the minds of Russians once again. 
If that’s really the idea, it probably won’t work anymore. Russian citizens are irritated by the recent mobilization and war-time rhetoric, and most of them are tired of aggressive foreign policies and militarism. The upcoming Duma elections are a chance for them to show how they really feel about the war with Ukraine. 
Anastasia Sedukhina is a freelance journalist for Russian and French media with a focus on economics, politics and gender issues.
Anastasia Sedukhina is a freelance journalist for Russian and French media with a focus on economics, politics and gender issues.
🇱🇹 Opinion: All quiet on the Eastern Front? It’s burning freely again
A mannequin called "Billy" used for tricking Russian snipers, on the Ukrainian side near Gorlovka, one of the hottest places on the frontline right now. Photo: Vytautas Bruveris.
A mannequin called "Billy" used for tricking Russian snipers, on the Ukrainian side near Gorlovka, one of the hottest places on the frontline right now. Photo: Vytautas Bruveris.
“Kremlin master Vladimir Putin can’t be crazy! He’s not going to go too far and set everything on fire – Or will he?”
Hope in Putin’s sanity is the cornerstone of Western policy towards Russia – or rather, the fig leaf, obscuring the absence of any policy.
There are several motives and aims (including domestic ones) behind Putin’s current saber-rattling above Ukraine’s head, but the main ones are absolutely clear: intimidation and blackmail — not of Kyiv, which the Kremlin doesn’t see as the main subject in the process, but of Paris and Berlin.
Both are being pressured to force Kyiv to do what the Kremlin has wanted for Donbas since 2014: unconditionally legalize and accept the occupied parts into Ukraine’s political body. It’s the Kremlin’s main way of destroying Ukraine as a state.
If Paris and Berlin fail to force Kyiv, then what?
The Kremlin is short of military strength to launch a full-scale invasion and takeover — at least, quickly, and without suffering major losses. However, air campaigns, missile strikes, and even some local land offensives are entirely possible. As is the annexation of the occupied parts of Donbas, or sending ‘peace-keeping’ forces there and recognizing them as ‘states.’
Why is this possible?
Again, we are coming to the mother of all problems: the absence of unanimous and proactive – not only reactive – Western policy to exhaust and immobilize the Russian dictatorship by means of complex and persistent sanctions. These should target not only the main representatives of the ruling kleptocracy and their money, stolen in Russia and laundered in the West, but also the main sectors of the economy, which are owned and controlled by them. 
But underpinning such efforts must be an understanding that the current Russian dictatorship is essentially closed to any kind of negotiations and dialogue. It’s fundamentally incapable of any transformations by itself and will only sink deeper into autocracy and violence.
Of course, there is almost no possibility of such a policy in the foreseeable future. This makes new escalations even larger than the current ones feel inevitable.
Vytautas Bruveris is a journalist and political commentator of the Lithuanian newspaper "Lietuvos rytas” and the online portals lrytas.lt and delfi.lt. Lithuania and the world, especially Russia and Ukraine – that's what he’s up to.
Vytautas Bruveris is a journalist and political commentator of the Lithuanian newspaper "Lietuvos rytas” and the online portals lrytas.lt and delfi.lt. Lithuania and the world, especially Russia and Ukraine – that's what he’s up to.
🇷🇺🇺🇦 Opinion: Confronting the forces of nature
The Arch of Friendship in Kyiv symbolizes the friendship between Ukrainians and Russians. It was supposed to be demolished as part of decommunisation, but it hasn’t happened yet. In 2018, some activists pasted a sticker resembling a crack onto it. Photo: Kateryna Butko.
The Arch of Friendship in Kyiv symbolizes the friendship between Ukrainians and Russians. It was supposed to be demolished as part of decommunisation, but it hasn’t happened yet. In 2018, some activists pasted a sticker resembling a crack onto it. Photo: Kateryna Butko.
It’s been seven years since Russia annexed Crimea and fomented a war in Donbas, but some paradoxical aspects of this conflict remain unchanged. The two countries haven’t broken diplomatic relations and refrained from introducing visas for those who continue to cross the border. Up to three million Ukrainian nationals reside in Russia. In Ukraine, a pro-Russian party took the lead in the polls last December.
The war has significantly altered but hasn’t fundamentally changed the way Ukrainians imagine an ideal framework for future relations with Russia. According to a joint Ukrainian-Russian poll (by KMIS and Levada) conducted in February, 49% of Ukrainians favour a visa- and customs-free border versus 39% who want a hard border, while another 6% want the two countries to be a single state. The poll even excludes the overwhelmingly pro-Russian population living in Crimea and occupied parts of Donbas – roughly 10% of the total. 
The favouring of a soft border (which those in eastern Ukraine resoundingly support) reflects the natural fabric of post-Soviet society, namely, millions of cross-border family links. A poll conducted in the united pre-Maidan Ukraine in 2011 showed that 49% of Ukrainians had close or distant relatives living in Russia.
This social reality clashes with the goal of Ukraine’s EU and NATO membership, both of which presume a hard border with Russia. The problem is not the Euroatlantic integration per se, which a plurality of Ukrainians favour and Russian citizens wouldn’t be averse to either, if ever offered the chance. It’s the selective nature of this integration, which many interpret as the West’s divide-and-rule strategy of alienating Russia while simultaneously absorbing its neighbours. 
This is the weakest link in Ukraine’s “Westernization” project, which Vladimir Putin successfully exploited in 2014 to buy another few years for his monopoly rule. 
Russian society is not inherently imperialist and belligerent, as xenophobic commentators portray it. Only 17% of Russians favour re-unification with Ukraine, while 80% want it to be an independent country, according to the same KMIS-Levada poll.
But Russians’ attitude toward Ukraine is very personal and therefore highly emotional, which makes it all too easy for Kremlin spin doctors to play on people’s perceptions of injustice and insecurity, as happened in 2014. Western hawks and Ukrainian ethno-nationalists who ignore this natural fabric of post-Soviet society in both countries are essentially teaming up with Putin in fuelling the conflict.
Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe.
Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe.
🇪🇺 Analysis: Progressing signs of paralysis
EU scrabble. Photo: Jeff Djevdet (flickr.com, CC BY 2.0)
EU scrabble. Photo: Jeff Djevdet (flickr.com, CC BY 2.0)
What can be expected from Ukraine’s European allies in view of the Russian troop deployment along the Ukrainian border? From Brussels to Berlin to Paris, politicians have followed with almost incredulous amazement how many troops Moscow has set in motion. Since then, “severe concern” has prevailed. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Josep Borrell unanimously demanded that Russia withdraw its troop reinforcements and “de-escalate”. 
This should hardly impress the Kremlin. So far, there have been no threats or serious warnings from Europe. New sanctions against Russia? For the time being, the 27 EU member states are not expected to impose any.
There are several reasons why the EU, unlike in 2014, is not stepping in to help Ukraine. First, there is Brexit. The UK has always been critical of Russia and the driving force behind sanctions against Moscow. Now, with the UK out of the game, Moscow has the opportunity to show the EU what it thinks of the Union: very little. 
In any case, the Kremlin sees only France, and above all Germany, as European counterparts to be taken seriously. Merkel, however, is not expected to take any major initiative before she leaves office this fall. The German leader was largely responsible for initiating the Minsk Process, which was supposed to bring about peace in eastern Ukraine. But the hoped-for peace did not come about, and the Chancellor has not provided any new impetus since then. Only recently Kyiv announced it does not consider Minsk neutral ground for consultations anymore, as Putin tightens control over Belarus.
What has come out of Europe since then has been a strategic lack of ideas and the hope that somehow Putin has been slowed down by the economic sanctions, which have been extended repeatedly since 2014. That strategy may have worked — until now. In the absence of a concrete response to the Russian troop build-up, decision-makers in the EU are crossing their fingers that Putin is not going to launch an invasion. What if he does? Brussels, Paris and Berlin have no prepared answer.
Ingrid Steiner-Gashi has been Brussels correspondent for the Austrian daily Kurier since 2017. Here, in the EU’s centre of power, her interests include the formation of political parties, lobbying and the creation of policies that influence all our daily lives in Europe.
Ingrid Steiner-Gashi has been Brussels correspondent for the Austrian daily Kurier since 2017. Here, in the EU’s centre of power, her interests include the formation of political parties, lobbying and the creation of policies that influence all our daily lives in Europe.
🇺🇦 Reflection: Just Don’t Call Them Rebels
Google screenshot
Google screenshot
The floodlights are back on Ukraine and colleagues I hadn’t heard from since 2014 are getting in touch again: “What do you think will happen? How do I get accreditation?” Understandably, since events here suddenly seem central again to broader world developments.  
With the renewed attention, familiar complaints about coverage are resurfacing. A Twitter user recently asked why Jonah Fisher’s BBC report from the trenches did not say who arms the so-called ‘separatists’. “Because we all know,” Jonah replied. Good answer… But many Ukrainians feel foreign media don’t hammer the point hard enough when it comes to Russia’s role in this war.
Angry tweeters also slammed the BBC for using the word ‘separatists’. Some argue the term reflects a false Russian narrative of a spontaneous uprising in Donbas, to whose aid Russia gallantly came. Lately I’ve opted for ‘Russian-controlled forces’ instead. I think it’s accurate, though it runs to six whole syllables.
The irony though, is that it’s not Jonah who calls them ‘separatists’ in the report, but a Ukrainian soldier, speaking English. That’s the word they use when they’re not thinking about how foreigners might interpret it. After all, you can’t just call the enemy fighters ‘Russians’: many are local. They are paid with Russian money, but some no doubt believe in the ‘separatist’ cause: pro-Russian views are common in Donbas.
Just not in a way that would ever have led to war, had Putin not wanted it.
I remember in 2014 the sheer outrage felt in Donetsk as Russians, aided by local bandits, whipped up an insurrection against a Kyiv government they brazenly dubbed ‘Nazi’, and the anxiety that foreign media should not mistake this for grassroots unrest. The Russians did find some local support and Ukraine’s response was hardly perfect, so things aren’t quite so simple… Ukrainians today often use that phrase in jest, mocking those who question Russia’s guilt.
But when thinking about audiences who only hear about Donbas when it makes top headlines, it seems to me that such nuances should not obscure the fundamental truth, which is simple: Russia did this. The Ukrainians are right to ask us to watch our words.
Gulliver Cragg is correspondent for France 24 TV, based in Kyiv since the start of Maidan in 2013 and has been doing this job for more than ten years, also covering Poland, Hungary, and Belarus. He’s actually English though, not French.
Gulliver Cragg is correspondent for France 24 TV, based in Kyiv since the start of Maidan in 2013 and has been doing this job for more than ten years, also covering Poland, Hungary, and Belarus. He’s actually English though, not French.
Authors’ picks: What we were reading and watching
Russia-Ukraine War Alert: What’s Behind It and What Lies Ahead?
Garry Kasparov: Why Would Biden Want a Summit With Putin, Whom He Calls a ‘Killer’?
There Hasn't Been Such a Concentration of Russian Troops Near Ukraine's Borders Since 2015 (in Russian)
Ukraine in Histories and Stories: Essays by Ukrainian Intellectuals
Whether to Expect an Open Conflict in Eastern Ukraine... (in Russian)
Push Back, Contain, and Engage: How the EU Should Approach Relations With Russia
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This week's editorial team: Lucy Papachristou, Stefan Schocher, Christian-Zsolt Varga
This week's editorial team: Lucy Papachristou, Stefan Schocher, Christian-Zsolt Varga
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