Donbas escalation, or Putin’s preparations for Zelensky’s summit with Biden

Donbas escalation, or Putin’s preparations for Zelensky’s summit with Biden

If the Kremlin seeks to impose on the public a subconscious feeling that the Ukrainian president "ran to Biden for protection,” Kyiv’s response should be to emphasize this even more!
The shelling of Avdiivka over the weekend, where eight Ukrainian servicemen were injured in a single day, marked a new escalation in Donbas, which a number of experts, including foreign ones, automatically linked to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to the United States.

Serhiy Garmash, a member of the Ukrainian delegation to the Trilateral Contact Group on Donbas settlement, believes that in this way, the Russians are raising the stakes, seeking to portray Ukraine as a violator of peace; otherwise, their actions may have the opposite effect and leave Biden no choice: "Afghanistan , Nord Stream 2...  he cannot afford another ‘defeat.’ Hence the latest shelling, especially of peaceful infrastructure," Garmash reflected in a Facebook post.

Garmash explained that the shelling, which "seems senseless from a military perspective," was aimed at provoking the Ukrainian military and portraying their actions as aggressive. Then, in his opinion, Putin would be able to "put pressure on the United States with signals to tame Kyiv under the threat of serious aggravation." According to Serhiy Garmash, "taming Kyiv" means, in particular, forcing Ukraine to sit down at the negotiating table with the so-called "DPR/LPR" or achieving the implementation of the so-called "Steinmeier Formula" in Ukrainian legislation.

In fact, this is not the first time in the last six months that Putin has blackmailed the West with "escalation": this spring, when he pulled massive forces to Ukrainian borders, the Kremlin chief pretty much forced Biden to negotiate in Geneva and even do a handshake for the media.

Another opinion on the issue was expressed by Gary Tabach, ex-U.S. Navy officer, former chief of NATO’s Center of Excellence - Defense against Terrorism. The purpose of the escalation in Donbas is to create a subconscious feeling that Zelensky is "running to Biden for protection" while at the same time “Putin shows that Biden won’t help you, I do what I want, I open fire whenever I want, I take hostages if I want to, and  I pull this bleeding thread every time I want to do this." This is about showing Zelensky that he is going to have a summit with someone who will do nothing for him or Ukraine, Tabach believes.

Political scientist Oleh Sahakian agrees with this assessment of the American military: "Russians play people’s feelings of despair and frustration, their very perception of the event."

But how can this be countered, first of all, in terms of information influence?

Countering this, Sahakian believes, is not to create inflated expectations, but to shape clear goals in advance. "And we need prompt communication of ‘victories’ and primacy in the interpretation of failures. (We need to – ed.) [p]redict and program responses to provocations to strengthen own position, as well as reduce response time," the political scientist said. He adds that the intensification of hostilities on the eve of international visits and negotiations is a standard type of behavior that should be expected from Russia: "This escalation and the Russian narrative can be an additional argument during meetings with the American establishment, in favor of the need for more tangible support."

"The Kremlin's style is absolutely predictable, clear, and unwavering. I absolutely agree with Harry Tabach's theses, in particular, that Putin wants to present things as if the United States does not and cannot influence the situation in Donbas,” said Taras Semeniuk, an international expert and analyst with KyivStratPro.

Another important factor is that the United States will now pay more attention to domestic policy as the implications of Afghanistan withdrawal are quite unpredictable and troublesome for the reputation and image of the United States, and first of all, of the White House. But one needs to be careful and not fall into the trap of stereotypical thinking, buying claims that, if nothing could be done with Afghanistan, a similar story can be expected in other countries that are U.S. partners." Afghanistan is a separate case. And Ukraine has its own track on cooperation with the United States. But, again, now the United States will focus more on itself, that is, on domestic policy," said Semeniuk.

Yulia Kazdobina, head of the Ukrainian Foundation for Security Studies and an ex-minister of information policy, says that the United States is now going through difficult times: “The situation in Afghanistan has quickly gone out of hand, over a million of Louisiana residents have faced blackouts amid Hurricane Ida, Chinese and Russian threats are growing, while American society and political elites remain polarized, and the COVID epidemic remains an issue for unvaccinated Americans.”

In such a situation, it is important that Ukraine communicate ahead of the visit that the Ukrainian delegation is going to the United States not as someone who’s only asking for something, but also as a strategic partner. They should be talking not only about what we expect to get from the visit, but also about the things we can offer the United States. "We must position ourselves as a country that will continue to deter Russian aggression in Europe in difficult times, although it will need some support from partners," the expert said. "It is important to expose Russia’s plot before the visit, that is, what stands behind the escalation of conflict."

Simply put, Ukraine’s spokesmen must constantly emphasize Russia's role in the conflict in the east of the country, explain to wider audiences what is really behind the latest escalation, and emphasize that the end of war does not depend on the United States or President Biden, but on Russia and Putin. "After all, it is the latter’s support for the puppet regimes that doesn’t allow us to end the war and peacefully reintegrate the temporarily uncontrolled territories of Donbas into Ukraine," Kazdobina emphasizes.

Kyiv must first acknowledge the lack of a stable truce in Donbas, says political scientist Ihor Reiterovych, because if this doesn’t happen, "the longer Russia will use this fact to its own benefit."

And this must be done by reporting information the right way.

"How? Well, for example, resuming the practice of regular reports from the front line, the way they were delivered before. A week will be enough to gather the relevant facts, and then declare that we are forced to state a unilateral termination of ceasefire by the Russian Federation. I think it will be a decent media response, it will be a positive thing for us," he said.

Paraphrasing a famous saying by Karl von Clausewitz (Prussian general, military reformer and military theorist) about the war being a continuation of politics, the expert says that, in this case, everything should be the opposite: politics, on principle, should be a continuation of war. "And if we have an escalation again, then, from a political perspective, we stop naming white black, and black – white. Instead, we call a spade a spade. And we use it as an additional means of pressure, including on our partners, and through them – on the Russian Federation," Ihor Reiterovych emphasized.

There is also another opinion on the issue. Political scientist Lilia Brudnytska ponders whether it is necessary to counter Russia's propaganda intentions in the same way: “Zelensky is indeed going to the United States to defend the country of which he is president. There is nothing humiliating in terms of Zelensky's status or Ukraine as such in the paradigm of confrontation with Russia. "


Media technologists need to remain vigilant. "There’s nothing wrong, of course, in trying to do a PR stunt off of an overseas trip. But in this case, being overly creative could do harm, first of all, to public perception of the visit within Ukraine. Besides, this approach to covering an important visit opens a wide field for the Russian propaganda machine. The best weapon against this is honesty, logic, and completeness of reports," sums up Brudnytska.

Myroslav Liskovych, Kyiv

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