The fears of war, a year in prison and the assault on Omicron

A flurry of diplomacy continued, along with a build-up of the Russian military near Ukraine’s borders, amid grim signs that Moscow’s talks with the West over its demands for sweeping concessions that would set back post-Cold War developments in Europe may soon be superseded by the use of Oblige.

Meanwhile, Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny entered his second year behind bars and the official daily number of new COVID-19 cases more than doubled in two weeks as the omicron took hold – stark reminders of the situation in Russia as attention focuses on President Vladimir Putin. Drawings on Ukraine.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways for the future.

“Absolute non-runners”

When Russia presented its proposals for agreements with the United States and NATO last month that it said would address its security concerns, a big question immediately arose: the most dramatic demands of Moscow were they meant to be a kick-off in a negotiation process – or were they designed to fail, creating a pretext for the Kremlin to seek to get what it wants from Kiev and the West by launching a new offensive against Ukraine?

This question is still relevant.

But after a series of talks from January 9 to 13 involving Russia, the United States, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and a phone call between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on January 18, there is no indication that Moscow is prepared to back down from a request that US officials have clearly declared unacceptable: a guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO.

If anything, quite the opposite: when asked on January 19 whether a commitment to keep Ukraine and Georgia out of NATO for a long but limited period would satisfy Moscow, the Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said it would not be — and he said earlier that they should “never, ever” join the alliance.

In fact, Moscow’s demands go far beyond that. If Russia gets its way, NATO would be forever barred from admitting new members. It would also be prohibited from deploying arms and troops to countries that joined the alliance after May 1997 – in other words, all NATO members in Central and Eastern Europe – and required to cancel all deployments of this type that have taken place since then.

Focusing on Ukraine, Russian officials have called the demand for no NATO expansion an “absolute imperative”, appearing to leave no room for compromise and fueling suspicions that the proposals are designed to fail. , giving Putin a pretext – at least in his own mind – for a new offensive against Ukraine.

In Kiev on January 19, ahead of talks with German, French and British officials in Berlin the next day, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said some of Russia’s demands were “absolutely irrelevant”. This, he suggested, made it difficult to determine what Moscow thinks it can achieve through the talks.

“Russia’s central demand is unclear,” Blinken said, adding, “I think we’ll have a better idea, maybe, after Friday” — a reference to a scheduled meeting with Lavrov in Geneva on the 21st. January.

May be.

Lavrov and other Russian officials have said they don’t want the United States and the West to drag out diplomacy, but some analysts suspect that’s actually what Russia wants: a place in talks that , she hopes, could eventually change Europe’s security architecture, even if its greatest demands go unmet.

Russian officials have repeatedly stated that they have No project to invade Ukraine — although, for the most part, these statements left the door open to what Moscow might claim to be a response to aggression. This means they have little currency in the West, which has accused Russia of lay the foundation to create a pretext for an offensive.

The Belarusian factor

And despite those assurances, fears that Russia could launch a new offensive have intensified since the January 9-13 talks ended without a positive outcome. Russia has positioned some 127,000 troops near its border with Ukraine, according to Kiev’s latest estimate, and started send units to Belarus – Ukraine’s northern neighbor, whose border is about 150 kilometers from Kiev – ahead of what the countries say will be joint military exercises in February.

And on Jan. 20, imposing sanctions on four Ukrainians accused of participating in “Russian government-directed influence activities to destabilize Ukraine,” the US Treasury Department issued a statement. striking claim on these alleged efforts.

“Russia has ordered its intelligence services to recruit current and former Ukrainian government officials to prepare to seize power and control Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with a Russian occupation force,” he said. he declares.

In Moscow, the lower Kremlin-controlled parliament has been gearing up for talks next week on a bill that would call on Putin to recognize territories in eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists as as Independent States, another form of pressure on Kiev and the West.

Tensions have even risen in Ukraine, where the nearly eight-year war against Moscow-backed forces in the Donbas region has hardened many in the persistent Russian threat and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy downplayed the possibility of another Russian invasion, including in an address January 19.

Zelenskiy’s words contrast sharply with warnings from Western officials, and particularly the United States, that another Russian attack could be imminent.

Speaking on January 19, US President Joe Biden said Putin may not have decided to launch an offensive against Ukraine, but added: “I guess he will move in.”

The United States and its European allies have warned that they will impose strong sanctions on Russia if it launches a new offensive against Ukraine.

“So we’ve clearly laid out the consequences for Russia, but also the far preferable route of resolving disputes diplomatically,” Blinken told Voice of America in an interview in Kyiv January 19. “And we will see which path President Putin decides to take.”

For Russian observers, if not for most Russians, the tension over Moscow’s military build-up and its jaw-dropping demands on the West have diverted attention from domestic issues.

“This is our country”

The government’s crackdown on political opponents, civil society, independent media and dissent persisted as one step was taken: Aleksei Navalny, the anti-corruption crusader who has been Putin’s most prominent enemy during more than a decade, entered his second year behind bars.

Navalny was arrested at a Moscow airport on his return to Russia on January 17, 2021, after being treated in Germany for near-fatal nerve agent poisoning he blames on Putin. He was sentenced to 2½ years in prison two weeks later on a parole violation charge he dismiss as absurd.

Navalny’s arrest marked the start of an escalation in government repression, and 2021 ended with another momentous step in what some see as a transformation of authoritarian to totalitarian rule: the closure of Memorial, a human rights and historical research group that has worked hard to denounce state crimes past and present.

Navalny was defiant on the anniversary of his arrest, urging Russians not to fear authorities.

“Having served my first year in prison, I want to tell everyone exactly what I shouted to those gathered outside the courthouse when a motorcade drove me to a police van: don’t be afraid.” , said a post on his Instagram account noted.

“This is our country and we have no other,” he added.

Meanwhile, coronavirus cases have soared as the spread of the omicron variant among Russians, less than half of whom are fully vaccinated following what Kremlin critics call a botched response to the pandemic some estimates suggest has killed more than a million people since it first hit the country nearly two years ago.

The official number of new COVID-19 cases rose to 38,850 on January 20 more than double the number 10 days earlier, approaching records – more than 40,000 cases – fixed in early November.

At a meeting on Jan. 11, amid what the World Health Organization called a “tidal wave from west to eastof omicron infections, members of the government’s coronavirus task force have warned that Russia could soon top 100,000 new cases a day if social distancing and other precautionary measures are not followed.