MOSCOW—Russia is fighting Ukraine on several fronts at the same time: Its trolls are waging information war and regular troops are deploying closer to Ukrainian borders. Fear of a huge war is growing here as well as in Kiev. So it was inevitable journalists hoping to understand the Kremlin’s strategy would try to ask President Vladimir Putin pointed questions during his four-hour press conference Thursday.
But Ukrainian journalist Roman Tsymbaliuk became a hero of the day by pushing the Ukraine war into Putin’s face. He asked the Russian president directly how much money Russia was spending on the rebel-controlled “occupied Donbas” in the east of the country. Several journalists from Kremlin-loyal publications began to laugh, some of them a little nervously.
Looking straight into Putin’s eyes, Tsymbaliuk, a reporter for the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN, continued to accuse Putin of turning people in the eastern regions of Ukraine into “slaves.”
Tsymbaliuk was speaking quickly. At first, Putin just nodded.
Tsymbaliuk went on: “You are afraid of a nuclear war, getting prepared for a war with NATO—but in reality, you are shooting at Ukrainian citizens, that was you, who, as a commander in chief, ordered to fire at the sailors.”
The reference was to an incident last month in the Kerch Strait, where Ukrainian gunboats were attacked by the Russian navy and their crews arrested while sailing from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov through the narrow gap between Russian-occupied Crimea and the Russian mainland. Two major Ukrainian ports are on the Sea of Azov and the waters are supposed to be shared. But since Crimea’s annexation in 2014 and the construction of a bridge across the strait, Moscow has taken measures that restrict and impede Ukraine’s vessels, especially over the last year.
The Ukrainian journalist finished his speech, which was by far the most charged we’ve heard a Ukrainian journalist deliver to the Russian leader, by saying that there would be no dialogue between Kiev and Moscow as long as Putin kept his job.
Putin grew emotional, his eyes angry: “It was Ukrainian authorities who established an economic blockade on the territory that they consider their own,” he said, referring to the situation in rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine. “They shoot at the citizens who they consider their own citizens.” As for the 24 Ukrainian crewmen, who are kept in Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina prison, Putin was not going to free them: “Not before the end of the criminal investigation,” he said.
More broadly, the Russian leader blamed external enemies for creating tensions and the West for giving Ukraine bad advice. He blamed Kiev for public calls by some radicals who said they should blow up the new bridge over the Kerch Strait. “Obviously, we cannot allow this to happen,“ he said.
Over the last few weeks, Putin repeated several times that it is unpopular Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko who needs a war with Russia in order to stay in power after elections in March.
Putin’s critics in Moscow disagreed: “It is Putin who needs the outside enemy to keep his own popularity from fading away,” Russian opposition leader Dmitry Gudkov told The Daily Beast after the press conference. “Putin’s popularity is now down to 45 percent, as low as it was before he annexed Crimea; so he needs a little victorious war again to boost his rating, or at least to keep it from fading away.”
To Ukraine, the word “war” means destroyed lives, young people dying, children losing parents and homes—the war in Donbass, which has lasted for almost five years, has killed more than 10,000 Ukrainian citizens. Since the incident in the Kerch Strait, Kiev has been on increased alert, with martial law declared in some parts of the east.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin recently told Politico that Putin “effectively has his hands around Ukraine’s throat and is tightening his grip.” Klimkin pleaded for more Western weapons. The Trump administration has supplied anti-tank missiles to Ukraine and has been talking of additional weapon systems. Meanwhile, reports in Ukraine claim that Russia reinforced its position in Crimea and sent four heavily loaded Il-76 aircraft filled with the same elite units that seized Crimea, to Novorossiysk near the Kerch Strait.
On Thursday, President Poroshenko addressed soldiers of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, the 72nd Mechanized Brigade: “We need to have an appropriate level of readiness to meet the enemy,” he said, defining Russia’s buildup as “a sign of a full-scale invasion on our territory.”
The war in Ukraine was a priority subject for debates both among Russian opposition leaders and on the Kremlin-controled TV talk shows.
“This is not the right moment for Putin to invade,” Russian opposition leader and Moscow municipal deputy Ilya Yashin told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “He surely realizes that by bombing Ukraine, he would make the Ukrainian nation unite around their president.”
Putin at his press conference showed no sign he’d be softening his position on the Kerch Strait or in the Sea of Azov to respect Ukrainian sovereignty. “We have a right and we will design our military policy the way we consider necessary,” he said. “If General Staff [of the Armed Forces], the border guard service, think we need to reinforce security on a certain territory, we are going to do it.”
Last week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told journalists in Brussels the North Atlantic alliance would be taking more of a “leadership” role in defending Ukraine. “We are also supporting Ukraine to improve its naval capabilities,” Stoltenberg said.
Pro-Kremlin officials speculate about who might start the big war first, blaming Ukraine for “provocations,” even though it is perfectly clear that Ukraine would not have a prayer standing alone in an all-out conventional war with Russia.
“Poroshenko will push until there is a serious casualty, so he can start a big fight,” predicted Sergey Markov, a non-official adviser for the presidential administration predicted. “My sources tell me that a provocation will take place on Dec. 24, when they celebrate Christmas on the West,” Markov told The Daily Beast.
A Ukraine observer, Michael Bociurkiw, was concerned about similar timing, possibly during the March elections, possibly earlier. “If something happens, it will happen during Orthodox Christmas holiday, when people are busy and looking the other way,” he speculated.