Last week, while here in Kyiv, I received a phone call from a well-informed and very funny friend. The American political consultant Brian Mefford—my drinking pal, comrade in arms, and source of excellent intelligence and political gossip—was dutifully responding to the State Department’s frenetic recommendations that Americans vacate Ukraine, following days of increasing histrionics from the Biden administration as it continued to warn of an imminent Russian escalation of its eight-year-long war. The American diplomatic corps had been ordered to evacuate Kyiv, and Mefford would likewise be decamping for the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on the border with Poland in the morning. He was ringing to inform me that the State Department was in the midst of pulping and shredding the embassy files; they would also be demolishing sensitive communications equipment the next day before pulling out.
To be fair, any one of the numerous attack scenarios illustrated with shiny charts full of bright red arrows on the cable news networks—including precision strike bombings of military and infrastructure targets in Kyiv—seemed liable to commence at any moment. Another Jewish journalist already had a seat in the back of Mefford’s car, but there was one more spot available for me, his fellow American, if I desired to abandon the capital ahead of the possible blitzkrieg. “If I personally drive a pair of Jews out of the city ahead of the Russian carpet bombing,” Mefford added in his drawl, “I am definitely going to get my tree in Yad Vashem! For a Baptist boy from Arkansas, that’s harder than getting a place in heaven.”
Over the last few weeks, Kyiv has served as the stage for a rather absurd and increasingly grim production of Waiting for Godot, with perhaps a dash of Ionesco for good measure. Only in this case Godot has been less a metaphor for existentialist freedom, modernism, God, or redemption than the very nonmetaphorical Russian army. Life here in the capital has been a farcical, post-modern production that we journalists and political analysts have been at once both observing and acting in, and which only had its denouement last night when a visibly bitter and possibly mad Vladimir Putin went on Russian television to recognize the so-called “Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics,” and to send Russian “peacekeepers” into the eastern Ukrainian territories.
Indeed, by Monday night the international press corps had already spent two weeks camped out in the lobbies of Kyiv’s five-star hotels, drinking and complaining heavily. “We are all doing the same stories at this point,” an American war correspondent, who requested anonymity, ranted late one night at a bar. This journalist does not usually cover the former Soviet Union, but was nonetheless dropped into Kyiv from his Middle East bureau. “Today I wrote a ‘fantastic’ profile of President Zelensky, and everyone else is doing the same thing, which is simply ridiculous at this point—we are all literally writing the same five stories over and over. I went to the border with Belarus where nothing is happening, then I went to Odessa and Kharkiv where nothing was happening. So that’s what’s happening here—a lot of nothing.” The gentleman was visibly thrilled when he finally got a bit of shelling in his direction from the Russian proxy separatist forces next to a Ukrainian checkpoint the following week.
The situation here had turned the eternal Chekhovian idiom on its head: We kept waiting for the Russian guns (and 1,700 tanks) that were placed on the border in the first act to be going off in what now seemed like it must be the third. Yet lingering hopes that this drama would end less like a Russian tragedy than like Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came had faded by the start of the weekend.
The estimated number of Russian troops currently arrayed along three Ukrainian borders (with Belarus, Crimea, and Russia proper) has now been raised by American officials to between 160,000 and 190,000. That number represents a significant increase from the 100,000 troops reported at the end of January, though some critics have claimed that the U.S. intelligence agencies have padded the numbers by including the Russians troops who have been stationed in annexed Crimea and occupied Donbas since before the most recent crisis. The Americans had spent the previous weeks continually warning the world of an apocalyptic scenario: that Putin had already made the decision to further invade Ukraine. Russian battle groups were supposed to be in position to strike within hours. Under that scenario, the Kremlin had already calculated the costs that it would incur in reputation, blood, treasure, sanctions, and internal resistance, and in the judgment of one expert, “Putin’s cost-benefit analysis seems to favor upending the European status quo.” Yet, we kept asking ourselves, was this just an ever more convincing theatrical production from the Russian side designed to wrest concessions from Kyiv and the West, as bluff after counterbluff were being called?
The Russians have been ratcheting up the threats of violence, waiting to see who will blink first. “The Ukrainian intel guys are all saying that this is all theater, and the American intel guys are saying this is Armageddon,” Mefford informed me by phone from Lviv on Saturday. Many Ukrainian political elites and diplomats have remained discreetly unhappy with the abandonment of the capital by certain Western diplomats, however understandable it might seem. Last week, I sat down with Zelensky’s first prime minister, Oleksiy Honcharuk, a representative of a political elite that is both grateful for American support while also concerned about the possible fallout from Washington’s strategy of totally unrestrained public alarmism.
“While the global war for democracy has already begun,” Honcharuk told me, “the all-out hot war between Russia and Ukraine is not inevitable. Ukraine is indeed the main battleground in the war for liberal democracy. I do think that Washington, D.C. is trying to raise the stakes and to show the allies that the situation today is very serious, though this is a process that doubtless causes damage to Ukraine’s economy. The U.S. government should understand that their actions can create economic damage to Ukraine and thus should support it economically.” Honcharuk’s argument, forceful and poignant when he made it before the weekend, will have less impact now that some of the Biden administration’s warnings have been vindicated, if not yet its more dire predictions of a blitz of Kyiv, or attacks on other Russian-speaking cities such as Odessa, Kherson, Mariupol, or Nikolaev.
By the weekend we were living through a new peak of escalatory rhetoric as Moscow initiated artillery and disinformation attacks in the areas of occupied Donetsk and Luhansk, and renewed fighting killed several Ukrainian servicemen—saber-rattling that would lead to numerous false-flag attacks and provocations by the Russian side in the Donbas. Russian television broadcast a concerted campaign of genocide accusations against Kyiv, and over the weekend, the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic had announced full-blown mobilizations, with military-aged men in the occupied territories called up by force (many were reportedly taken out of their homes and press-ganged into service). Tens of thousands of local residents were told to evacuate into the neighboring Russian region of Rostov by bus, under pretext of threat from the Ukrainian army.
Many of those residents of the Donbas proceeded to tell local journalists that they had little interest in being evacuated to Russia; in fact they feared that the buses might be bombed by the Russians themselves as a pretext to reignite a shooting war. Russian television also spent the weekend manufacturing disinformation by claiming that the Ukrainian military was bombing posts at road blocks and invading Russia with armored vehicles. In one particularly amusing instance, a separatist commander reportedly had his Jeep blown up by the Ukrainian army, but internet sleuths pointed out that his license plates had been put on a cheaper Jeep than his own before the rocket hit it so as to save the more expensive vehicle. Such false-flag operations were so transparently faked and atrociously conceived that commentators wondered what the point could be. The Kremlin showed little interest in trying to actually convince Western viewers of anything, perhaps because it felt it didn’t need to: Over the weekend, Putin also supervised military drills including Russia’s strategic nuclear missiles.
Surreally enough, it was Kyiv and Moscow that continued to insist that war was not about to start, even as Ukraine’s Western allies continued to insist that war would begin the next day. Russian state television and the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, clearly relished the opportunity to smugly denounce American predictions when they did not come to pass.
The American strategy—with French President Emmanuel Macron seemingly deputized to carry out the unpleasant task of engaging with Putin directly in a version of shuttle diplomacy—has been somewhat successful at strengthening and fusing together the weaker links in the trans-Atlantic coalition. Yesterday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the BBC that Russia was preparing “the biggest war in Europe since 1945,” though he conspicuously neglected to mention his personal role in the crisis as the former mayor of “Londongrad,” which still serves as a safe haven for the stolen wealth of kleptocratic Russian oligarchs.
Meanwhile, Moscow and Washington continued to circle each other with half-gambits, feints of disinformation, escalatory rhetoric, precisely aimed information leaks, propaganda, and revelations of alleged plots in a symphony of psychological coercion and counterbluff. Large swaths of credulous Western media have been keen to participate in this song and dance, with American and British intelligence in particular ratcheting up real-time leaks of alleged Russian invasion schemes and hybrid operation plots to destabilize Ukraine. Some of these leaks were probably planted by Russians; others indicate plausible scenarios in which Western intelligence might have actually extracted information from Kremlin planning. But others were clearly absurd, at least to anyone who understands the way politics work in Kyiv. “We will only know what was true and what was made up in 30 years when the archives are opened and people write their memoirs,” several Western journalists and officials sighed.
In the meantime, the Ukrainian population kept up a veneer of stability and orderly stoicism. The citizens have avoided panic and hysteria. The mood here in Kyiv over the last week has been at once defiant, placid, and fatalistic, and also a bit hedonistic. “Russia’s attempts to demoralize and destabilize Ukraine’s population is failing miserably,” the Ukrainian journalist Illia Ponomarenko declared over social media. Indeed, the Ukrainian government has pointedly not declared a state of emergency. But despite the ostensible levity of the moment, the Ukrainian political class still manages to put on its usual show of madness, with a proper fist fight breaking out on a Friday night television talk show between a patriotic minister of parliament and a representative from a pro-Russian party.
By Saturday, Russian-led separatist proxies began shelling Ukrainian positions, and Russian television stepped up to help manufacture a casus belli, but the Ukrainian army was told to hold its return fire so as not provide Moscow with a pretext for further escalation. Zelensky caught flak for his decision to fly to Germany for the Munich Security Conference in the midst of a possible war. His performance at the conference, however, was a show of great statesmanship, and he delivered a spirited speech that underlined the fact that the “the security architecture in Europe is broken. It’s time for a new one,” as well as the fact that “this isn’t about war in Ukraine. This is about war in Europe.”
Zelensky requested a clarification of the status of Ukraine’s NATO application and demanded a return to the principle of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. He also dropped a bombshell when he hinted that Ukraine might consider restarting its nuclear program if the West does not offer legitimate defense guarantees: “Ukraine has received security guarantees for abandoning the world’s third nuclear capability. So we do not have that weapon and we also have no security.”
Putin’s response came on Monday as the entire Russian National Security Council was summoned for an extraordinary meeting, televised ostensibly live for the world to see. The meeting was stiff, formal, and ominous. It combined extreme displays of tedious legalistic jargon and barely repressed jingoism. Around two dozen members of the security council went around the table giving reports on whether to end the Minsk accords.
Late on Monday night, Putin delivered his answer in the form of an almost hourlong rant about the history of Ukraine and the numerous provocations from the West. It was, according to the Russia expert and director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, Sam Greene, “unbelievably dark and aggressive. I’ve watched a lot of Putin speeches, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one quite like this.”
Putin’s speech was an amalgamation of the various bits of chauvinist and revanchist historiography that he is known to harbor. It was the speech of a man who is no longer interested in biding his time. He was enraged at the “madness” of the Baltic states being let out of the Russian Empire, and of Ukrainians ever even considering themselves a people.
With his ensuing recognition of the DPR and LPR and the formal deployment of Russian “peacekeepers” into the Donbas region, a full-blown and very dirty war along the contact line with the Ukrainian army is now a distinct possibility. Those of us who decided not to flee west are still here in Kyiv, waiting.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.