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Zelensky’s Game of Chicken Kyiv

As Biden bumbles, Macron stumbles, and Putin makes rape jokes, the Ukrainian president stalls for time

Vladislav Davidzon
February 11, 2022
Thibault Camus/POOL/AFP via Getty Image
Volodymyr Zelensky gives a joint press conference with Emmanuel Macron following their meeting in Kyiv on Feb. 8, 2022Thibault Camus/POOL/AFP via Getty Image
Thibault Camus/POOL/AFP via Getty Image
Volodymyr Zelensky gives a joint press conference with Emmanuel Macron following their meeting in Kyiv on Feb. 8, 2022Thibault Camus/POOL/AFP via Getty Image

The long-running diplomatic crisis between Kyiv and Moscow threatens to erupt into any number of military scenarios, including a full-scale conflict, after the relevant parties engaged in a possible final bout of diplomacy last week. Earlier in the week, the Kremlin announced that it would pull nonessential diplomatic staff from the Ukrainian capital. Moscow has initiated large-scale war games and maneuvers on the Ukraine-Belarus border, involving half of all Russian combat troops, by some estimates. The Ukrainian armed forces have followed suit with their own exercises, while the Russian fleet has announced that it will hold live-fire exercises off the Ukrainian coasts of the Black and Azov seas.

It is also starting to look like the Biden administration—which doubtless views this crisis as a serious irritant and liability—is putting discreet pressure on the recalcitrant Ukrainians to make concessions to Moscow by implementing the Minsk II protocols, and by forever closing the door on future accession to NATO, to say nothing of deeper integration with the European Union—the Kremlin’s biggest fear.

The White House, wary of another foreign policy catastrophe in the wake of Afghanistan, has tried to make up for the appearance of appeasement with a frenzied show of concern for the Ukrainians. But in the process, Washington has publicly insisted that the military situation could escalate very quickly, provoking the furious Ukrainians to ask the Americans to tone down the panicked rhetoric and cease preempting diplomatic efforts by using the word “imminent.” In a situation this tense, “imminent” is a fighting word; it struck terror into the hearts of bond and currency traders, who have been pummeling the Ukrainian markets and recently (but temporarily) brought the currency to a seven-year low. The Ukrainian president and security services, for their part, are terrified of U.S. rhetoric causing economic damage to the country, and so continue to insist that while the situation is serious, it is fundamentally unchanged since Russia’s military buildup in December.

It is in many ways an anxiety-ridden time to be here in Kyiv, but the burgeoning conflict has led to numerous amusing moments of farce. Yesterday, during the negotiations in Minsk, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov posited that the 1994 Budapest Memorandum (which guaranteed Ukrainian sovereignty in exchange for Ukraine giving up its portion of the post-Soviet nuclear arsenal) never really applied because the “Maidan revolution was neo-Nazi fascist” and the agreement had stipulated that “Ukraine would show respect for national minorities.” Though Lavrov ended Thursday’s negotiations with his British counterpart by publicly stating that his “British colleagues” were “unprepared,” “ignorant of President Putin’s comments,” and that the dialogue resembled “speaking to the deaf,” he still has much to learn from his boss about the art of trolling.

Last Monday, two months out from the presidential elections in France, Emmanuel Macron had arrived in Moscow to take part in last ditch personal negotiations with Putin to prevent a war. A six-hour one-on-one negotiation took place, during which Macron seems to have been browbeaten by the Russian leader, who reportedly turned the conversation into a lecture. Whether he did or didn’t invoke the Cold War specter of “Finlandization” as a solution to the crisis to reporters remains in dispute (Paris has since denied it), but Macron’s conciliatory approach seemed to be part of a broader Western policy of pressuring the Ukrainians to in some way stand down. At the conclusion of the meeting, while standing next to Macron, Putin dropped a reference to a song by the 1990s Russian punk band Red Mold, “So That the Guest Won’t Leave,” about necrophilia and rape: “Like it or not, you have to bear it, my beauty,” Putin intoned about Ukraine.

The Ukrainian riposte came the following day during a press conference that Macron held with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv. Switching into Russian, Zelensky offered a smirking response to Putin: “Yes, Ukraine is indeed a beauty, but she is not yours.” He turned to Macron and with a mischievous smile implied that the two heads of state needed a good rest after their long conversation, intimating that the French and Russian presidents must have had a lot to drink to spout such nonsense.

At this point, the ability of Washington, Berlin, and Paris to impose the controversial Minsk II protocols on a reluctant Kyiv seems very limited. The various sides do not share an interpretation of how exactly the agreement would be implemented, with some expecting the Ukrainians to move first and others insisting on waiting until the Russians withdraw from the Donbas. Further, I’ve been told by several Ukrainians, there are simply not enough votes in the parliament to pass it. And even if the Zelensky administration agreed, leaders of the Ukrainian veterans association told me, various volunteer battalions would act as a failsafe against the implementation of Minsk by ensuring a full-scale insurrection. Nor would the reintegration of the Russian-occupied Donbas region into Ukraine under any plan acceptable to Moscow have broad support among the Ukrainian population. Zelensky’s options are thus unenviable.

“Russia has distributed between 600,000 and a million passports in the occupied territories,” Ukrainian journalist Olga Tokariuk informed me. “They are de facto Russian citizens, and in the context of the Minsk accords they would be amnestied and have the right to take part in Ukrainian political life and in the police as well as the security services—which of course begs many questions: How can Russian citizens be allowed to take part in Ukrainian decision-making processes? The question of an amnesty for the leaders and members of these Russian-backed groupings, who killed people and took part in large-scale human rights violations is also controversial for many Ukrainians in terms of the issue of fairness and justice”.

Kyiv these days is gloomy and somewhat depressed; it is hard to tell if people are just staying home, or have left town in fear of a possible invasion, or have gone into the country to avoid the most recent COVID wave cutting a swath through the population.

The cozy Spanish restaurant Arbequina, which plays upbeat salsa music and is owned by family friends, is conveniently nestled on a side street behind Maidan Square. I arranged to see Brian Mefford, an American political consultant, for some tapas and a few glasses of wine.

Arbequina is where I arrange many of my Kyiv meetings. The affable Sergei Vinokour, a professional cortador and one of the very few butchers in Ukraine who specializes in Spanish jamón greeted me and showed me to my customary table when I arrived. He had his black leather apron stretched across his ample frame and was brandishing a pair of improbably long skewering knives. I declined an offer of a generously sized cut from one of the glistening legs of dry cured Barcelona Duroc that he was delicately slicing. Vinokour, a native of Kyiv whose father was Jewish and whose mother was an ethnic German, comes from a long line of Kyiv cooks and butchers. The family has been rooted in the city long enough that his grandmother Sofia had once seen Nicholas II in person when the last czar of the Russian Empire had paid a visit to the city. Vinokour would not be keen to see the current absolutist ruler of Russia touring the Ukrainian capital.

“There is a deep sense of uncertainty coupled with foreboding here,” he told me, “and just take a look around—the capital city is half empty. People don’t believe that something will happen but many have taken precautions anyway, and you will have noticed that there is almost no traffic. One gets the sense that a lot of people have taken off to their dacha or to see their relatives in the West, and the city is frozen, waiting for the end of the Olympics.”

The idea that the Russians would not move their troops—whose own morale is doubtless melting faster than the snow as they sit in frozen tents and hastily erected barracks along the Ukrainian-Belarus border—until the conclusion of the Olympics in China has become a commonly held article of faith in Kyiv. The window for diplomacy seems to be nearly shut. “This week began with a bit of excitement as the Putin-Macron meeting was ‘not bad,’” Mefford told me, “and when something is ‘not bad’ in this situation, that is something to be excited about. Of course we all remember that in August 2008 there was a different French president—Sarkozy—negotiating with Putin. But that process ultimately did bring a ceasefire … so what will happen here? We’ll find out soon.”

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian-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.