The Real Russia. Today. Everyday life under Kremlin brinkmanship

Monday, January 24, 2022

The Ukraine crisis: The Naked Pravda explores how ordinary people live with looming war, evacuations at some (but not all) embassies in Kyiv, and Russia’s supposed puppet in UkraineUkraine opinions: Michael Kofman says a full-scale invasion is imminent, Jeff Hawn says no invasion is coming, Fiona Hill shares Trump anecdotes and dissects Putin, and Seva Gunitsky shares some real talk with realistsOther news: (opinion) Andrei Tsygankov pens the umpteenth obituary for Western postmodernity, (photos) hipsters behind bars, and (opinion) Mikhail Shevchuk slams Alexey Miller’s labor award

The Ukraine crisis

🎧 New podcast episode: Everyday life under Kremlin brinkmanship (40 min)

January 2022 kicked off with a flurry of tense diplomatic talks between Russian and Western officials. Moscow is seeking wide-ranging security guarantees in Europe, while simultaneously massing upwards of 100,000 troops along its Western border. The buildup has provoked international concern that Russia plans to escalate the long-simmering conflict in the Donbas into a full-fledged war, leaving the United States and NATO scrambling to deter a potential re-invasion of Ukraine. 

With both Russia and Ukraine making international headlines daily, and the conflict in the Donbas entering its eighth year, Meduza speaks to two journalists, one in Ukraine and the other in Russia, about how ordinary people in these two countries view the prospect of an all-out war.

🛫 Western countries withdraw families from Kyiv embassies and the Kremlin blames NATO for escalating tensions (5-min read)

The United States, UK, and Australia have started to withdraw the family members of embassy staff in Ukraine, as tensions between Russia and NATO countries continue to rise. On Monday, January 24, NATO confirmed that member countries had sent additional ships and jets to enhance deployments in Eastern Europe. In turn, the Kremlin’s spokesman accused the alliance of provoking “an escalation of tensions.” Meanwhile, the ruble’s exchange rate against the U.S. dollar dropped significantly, prompting Russia’s Central Bank to halt foreign currency purchases.

🤖 Who is Yevhen Murayev? The UK claims that Russia wants to impose this ex-MP as a puppet leader in Ukraine. He says that’s nonsense. (8-min read)

“The Russian Government is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine,” the UK Foreign Office said in a statement released on Saturday, January 22. The British authorities pointed to former Ukrainian lawmaker Yevhen Murayev as a “potential candidate,” while also claiming to “have information that the Russian intelligence services maintain links with numerous former Ukrainian politicians.” Commenting on this information, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab warned that there would be serious consequences should Russia try and invade Ukraine and install a puppet government. However, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declined to comment on the British intelligence report. In turn, Yevhen Murayev himself vehemently dismissed the allegations as “nonsense and stupidity.” Meduza examines what is known about Murayev and the other former Ukrainian politicians the UK Foreign Office named.

Opinions on Ukraine, Russia, and the West

🛡️ Russia will probably seize eastern Ukraine, all the way to Odesa, and ‘encircle Kyiv’

In an essay for War on the Rocks, military expert Michael Kofman says “a large war in Europe is likely in the coming weeks,” arguing that Moscow’s “classic case of coercive diplomacy” and troop mobilizations indicate that “a dramatic expansion of the war [in Ukraine] is now the most probable outcome.” Despite all we know about the buildup near the Ukrainian border, Russia “retains operational surprise and could launch an assault on short notice” (though he says it will be a few weeks more before the “requisite forces” are in place).

Kofman believes that the military operation best suited to attaining “lasting political gains” for the Kremlin is a largescale invasion that achieves either regime change or a partitioning of the state (both scenarios require “committing to some form of occupation to retain leverage”). He says it’s also possible that Russia might seize “the bulk of Ukraine’s territory” and then negotiate its eventual withdrawal in exchange for a U.S.-enforced deal that federalizes Ukraine and rolls back NATO membership promises.

Moscow’s concerns about Ukraine’s geopolitical alignment and NATO expansion more broadly, triggered by the proximate cause of the Zelensky administration’s “hard line,” have shaped the Kremlin’s timing. Also, says Kofman, Russia’s elite “may believe” that they’re in a good position to weather more Western sanctions. Additionally, “war optimism” could be deluding the Putin administration into “misjudging the socio-political dynamics and the costs of occupation.”

The West struggles to fathom the looming war, argues Kofman, because “European security remains much more unsettled than it appears [to the West].” To rise to this “defining moment,” the U.S. needs to recognize that European security is still “unfinished business.” Kofman doesn’t unpack how this reengagement should play out, but he cautions Washington that it “will have to manage China and Russia, at the same time, for the foreseeable future.”

🛡️ Russia only wants to be treated as a peer, not to invade Ukraine

In an essay for Foreign Policy, London School of Economics political science doctoral candidate Jeff Hawn writes that Russia is merely “looking toward talks, not invasion,” in Ukraine. Moscow wants “to get America to treat it as a peer,” he says, arguing that “there is a plausible argument” that Russia’s recent “movement of military assets” near the Ukrainian border “are not a serious threat to Ukraine” given that they’re “more of a concentration of equipment than of personnel” and the Air Force “has been largely absent.” The West’s reaction to these movements, says Hawn, “has created for the Kremlin an opportunity to force the peer-to-peer negotiations it has long sought.”

Hawn criticizes Western commentary on the Ukraine crisis, saying that there’s been “an over-concentration on the motives of Russian President Vladimir Putin himself,” who Hawn insists “is not a master of strategy or a maniacal Bond villain set on revenge for the fall of the Soviet Union.” What matters isn’t just what Putin wants, says Hawn, but how Putin “could achieve it and what the cost-benefit is for the regime and for Russia.” Putin may not answer to the public like in a democracy, but he is “reliant on the goodwill of [Russia’s] regional barons.”

Looking to Ukraine, a “light-footprint approach makes sense” in light of Russia’s recent military experiences in Afghanistan and Chechnya, where a “lack of clear objectives, long occupations, and indiscriminate use of violence” led to defeat in the former and a “humiliating peace deal” in the latter. This is largely why Russia never attempted “full occupation” of Georgia, Ukraine, or Moldova in past conflicts, he says.

🧠 Putin is obsessed and isolated, and America’s military presence in Europe is at stake

Fiona Hill, an intelligence officer on Russia and Eurasian affairs under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and a National Security Council member under President Trump, has weighed in on the Ukraine crisis extensively, first in an interview with Julia Ioffe at Puck News and then in an op-ed published at The New York Times. In both texts, Hill focuses intensely on Vladimir Putin’s personal motivations for pursuing Russia’s war against Ukraine. She told Ioffe that East Europeans and Ukrainians who dismiss Putin’s threats as bluffing actually increase the odds that “he’ll do something to teach them a lesson.” She also speculates that Putin’s isolation during the coronavirus pandemic has made him “more emotional, more focused” and perhaps caused him to “confront his morality” (leading him to prioritize the overdue revision of European security). Putin “could be taking steroids for inflammation” — serious health issues are “very much worth considering,” says Hill. “Putin’s just pissed,” she explained.

In her interview with Ioffe, Hill said the chaos of the Trump administration (constant personnel changes, Trump’s own lack of interest in engaging Europe, and so on) confounded and infuriated the Kremlin, which is perhaps why Moscow has decided to press its grievances in Europe with President Biden, who is weak but predictable. Hill also suggests that Ukrainian President Zelensky may have considered “getting rid” of the Donbas, “removing it as leverage” over Kyiv. She listed other proximate causes, as well: including America’s messy withdrawal from Afghanistan and the European energy crisis.

Hill told Ioffe that the U.S. “can talk about the future and NATO,” possibly even including a moratorium on enlargement, but she simultaneously insists that “we shouldn’t be offering anything on Ukraine.” When asked about Putin’s efforts to “renegotiate the terms of the surrender of 1991,” Hill said that America has “moved on” from the “geopolitical game” it used to play in past centuries. Trump, she says, “suddenly saw how Russia was like North Korea” after Putin unveiled hypersonic nuclear missiles in a demonstration video that threatened an attack against a target resembling Florida.

In her NYT op-ed, Hill says that Putin “wants to evict the United States from Europe.” She attributes the timing of the current military standoff in Ukraine to the Russian president’s “personal obsession with history and anniversaries,” arguing that he “wants the United States to suffer” like Russia in the Soviet collapse. (She says Putin believes that America “is currently in the same predicament.”) Putin is a “master of coercive inducement,” he “has no concerns about bad press or poor poll ratings,” and “his only viable opponent, Alexey Navalny,” is in prison.

Acknowledging that Russia “does have some legitimate security concerns,” Hill says European security arrangements need some “fresh thinking and refurbishment,” and Washington and Moscow should discuss conventional, nuclear, and cyber forces. If Russia attacks Ukraine again, however, it would “challenge the entire U.N. system” and “imperil” the state sovereignty that’s existed since 1945. In this event, the West should rally a “global resistance” against Russia to inflict punishment “beyond financial sanctions.” Otherwise, America’s military presence in Europe could come to an end.

🧠 Realists, you can do better on Russia and Ukraine

In an essay for Foreign Policy, University of Toronto political scientist Seva Gunitsky says a recent article by Stephen Walt presents “the revisionist side” to the “conventional Washington wisdom” on today’s Ukraine crisis, blaming Washington exclusively for the conflict and “denying the agency of everyone but U.S. policymakers.” In Walt’s telling, all other states are reduced to “simply enacting the eternal laws of history” — a particularly problematic assumption in light of Russia’s “war of choice, fabricated and pursued for reasons unknown,” in Ukraine. (In other words, Gunitsky implies, Putin’s decision to wage war against Ukraine cannot be justified on realist grounds.)

Pointing realists to comparisons between Europe in the 1990s and Bolshevik Russia between 1917 and 1924, Gunitsky says Western observers in both cases “misinterpreted the movements that sprang from this imperial collapse as democratic revolutions rather than national liberation movements,” leading to high hopes and quick disappointment.

When discussing today’s crisis in Ukraine, Gunitsky recommends the following moral honesty: “hawkish anti-Russians who dominate Washington” should acknowledge that they’re “willing to risk great-power conflict, even a devastating war, because oppression is inexcusable and aggression should be deterred,” while realists should admit to being “willing to risk the conquest and oppression of smaller states because great-power war is worse and brings much more suffering.”

In other news

(Opinion) American postmodernity’s days are numbered, sorta

In an article for Russia in Global Affairs, San Francisco State University in California political scientist Andrei Tsygankov argues that Western postmodernity has peaked, and the world is now “restoring boundaries and returning to a state of modernity.” Tsygankov defines postmodernity as an advanced form of liberalism that promotes and affirms “the selfhood of minorities” above all other worldviews, “rewriting national histories and rebuilding education systems.” In international affairs, postmodernism devalues sovereignty, spheres of influence, and the balance of power in favor of hybridity, interdependence, and integration.

This description, however, is superficial: postmodernity aspires to universalism but exists primarily in the West, but it emerged “not coincidentally” at the same time as American unipolarity. Tsygankov argues that postmodern minorities and elites who are focused on maintaining U.S. unipolarity “have a lot in common.” In the years immediately after the fall of the USSR, America expanded its “world domination” by “promising a paradise of consumerism and the triumph of individual and minority rights.”

American postmodern unipolarity produced two groups of critics who are now pulling it down: (1) “foreign particularists” in China, Russia, and other countries that are defending their distinct values and interests, and restoring “traditional systems of international relations” (namely, wars, postwar balances of power, spheres of influence, and noninterference), and (2) domestic critics in the form of populists who mobilize the social strata who “lost as a result of globalization.”

Tsygankov says the world is moving toward an “old new world,” but the West itself will retain some of its postmodern values, given that it will remain affluent, technologically advanced, and diverse (these are postmodernity’s proximate causes, he says, though he ultimately attributes the phenomenon to American unipolarity). Also, despite its retreats in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, the U.S. military is still in a position to defend American power.

🚨 One year ago, thousands of people were arrested at pro-Navalny rallies across Russia. This ‘special’ detention center became a symbol of those protests.


In the winter of 2021, Russia was rocked by large-scale protests demanding the release of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. After spending months abroad recovering from chemical nerve-agent poisoning, Navalny had returned to Russia only to be thrown in jail. During the ensuing pro-Navalny rallies, thousands of people were detained. Police in Moscow made so many arrests that the capital’s detention centers were overflowing. As a result, many detainees were sent to a migrant detention center in Sakharovo, a village just outside of Moscow. The detainees shared striking accounts of how they were held on freezing buses outside the detention center for hours on end, only to be placed in overcrowded cells without bedding and basic hygiene products. Photographs taken inside the detention center drove these experiences home. At the same time, the detainees themselves recall the special atmosphere inside those same cells. One year later, Meduza reached out to those jailed in Sakharovo and asked for photographs of what went on there. Here are their snapshots.

🎖️ (Opinion) Alexey Miller’s medal demonstrates how out of touch the Kremlin is (In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Mikhail Shevchuk says President Putin’s recent decision to award the “Hero of Labor of the Russian Federation” award to Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller demonstrates both the absence of social mobility in Russia and the Kremlin’s own incompetent public messaging, given the missed opportunity to celebrate ordinary workers. Shevchuk argues that the president gave the award to Miller to honor his work in Russia’s geopolitical exploitation of energy exports.)

Yours, Meduza


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