It’s hard to watch the current saber-rattling between U.S. and Russian officials without cursing, loudly and inappropriately, at the increasingly stern warnings and feverish talk of war.
Weeks of escalating tensions and brazen fuckery by Russia resulted in U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken engaging in a polite staredown in Stockholm on Thursday with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov. It was the first high-level meeting between the two sides since Moscow began to amass up to 90,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, setting off alarm bells in the West about a possible invasion that only got louder as Russia deliberately stoked fears about military action.
Ahead of the meeting, the pressure was on the U.S. to push back.
It’s no coincidence that the Kremlin began to up the stakes just before Thursday’s meeting. First, there was the claim—refuted by Ukraine—that Ukrainian spies were caught red-handed as they prepared to set bombs off throughout Russia. Then, of course, came the predictable gaslighting by Vladimir Putin’s mustachioed mouthpiece, Dmitry Peskov, who told reporters that “the risk of military action in Ukraine is still high” due to the “aggressive” rhetoric of Ukrainian authorities and “provocative actions” on the frontline.
After Blinken’s threat on Wednesday to “impose severe costs” on Moscow in case of any “large scale military operations” in Ukraine, it’s hard not to view Peskov’s comments and the Kremlin’s latest claim of Ukrainian spies as Russia simply pushing the U.S. to see how hard Washington will push back.
But we have been here before—too many times to count, and thousands of Ukrainian lives later.
While the armchair experts fall all over themselves on social media to (perhaps a little too excitedly?) yell about what they are sure is most definitely, absolutely, an any-minute-now-guys Russian invasion, I can’t help but recall my conversations with Ukrainian soldiers in the trenches of Mariynka back in 2015, when a similar massing of Russian troops at the border had spurred invasion fears. A bizarre attack on the town by pro-Russian fighters had led many to believe it was a test run for a takeover.
It was the strangest thing, those Ukrainian soldiers said. The Russian-backed troops were actually laughing, as if to them it was all one great, big mindfuck.
In the end, that’s exactly what it was. And it would be my guess that that’s exactly what this is, as well.
To be clear, it is not a mindfuck without consequences, and lives lost. Pro-Russian snipers continue to wipe out Ukrainian troops on a constant basis, and infuriatingly, it goes largely unnoticed on the world stage as Moscow’s war on Ukraine approaches its eighth year.
While the U.S. appears to readily take the bait of the Kremlin’s invasion hype, let’s not forget there has been a steady drip of deaths on the frontline in Donbass for nearly eight years now.
Adding insult to injury, the Kremlin still has Nord Stream 2 after the Biden administration backed off sanctions.
And most important of all, Putin’s still getting exactly what he wants: the West on its toes and Ukraine looking more and more like it's got too much baggage to ever be able to join NATO. That has always been the point, just as much as the bloodshed.
Take a moment to examine, if only briefly, not the explicit, chest-thumping message the Kremlin has been so careful to broadcast through all its propaganda arms and diplomatic mouthpieces in recent weeks—but the quiet part Putin said out loud just before all that chest-thumping went into overdrive.
Putin, apparently referring to fresh concern spreading in the U.S. in early November about a buildup of troops and military equipment on the border with Ukraine, could barely contain his excitement that Moscow had elicited fear among NATO countries.
At an extended session of the collegium of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he said, “Our recent warnings have been felt and they produce a certain effect—a marked tension has arisen there after all. In this regard, I see two points here. First, it is necessary for this condition to last for them as long as possible, so that they don’t get it into their head to arrange for us on our Western borders some kind of unnecessary conflict, we do not need conflict.”
Is Ukraine under threat from Russia? Of course it is, and an entire generation of Ukrainians will suffer the fallout from the Kremlin’s geopolitical slaughter for decades to come.
But maybe instead of taking Putin’s bait and allowing him to relish his role as an omnipotent villain, U.S. officials should sidestep the mind-games, skip straight to new sanctions, and let the insecure, aging dictator that he is shine through.