The protester stood in Old Arbat, one of Moscow’s most famous streets, with a sign that read “No war in Ukraine”. The area was crowded, but few passers-by paid attention to the middle-aged dissident amid the steadily falling snow.
Despite spiralling tensions between Russia and Nato over Ukraine, there is little sense in Moscow that war is on the horizon. Unlike in 2014, when the Kremlin seized Crimea from Ukraine, sparking a wave of nationalist sentiment, the prospect of a fresh conflict that could suck in western countries is rarely mentioned. These days, elderly Russian acquaintances who once ranted about the “junta” in Ukraine are more likely to complain about rising food prices.
State television has attempted to whip up passions, announcing recently that Russia could be on “the verge of war” with Nato, but its broadcasts are relatively tame compared with eight years ago, when Kremlin-run media falsely accused Ukrainian soldiers of crucifying a three-year-old boy and boasted that Russia had enough nuclear weapons to turn the United States into “radioactive ash”.
Notwithstanding the lone protester in Moscow, opposition is muted. In 2014, tens of thousands people marched in the Russian capital at an anti-war demonstration. Today, the fractured anti-Putin movement, whose leaders are either in prison, in exile or dead, has barely raised its voice. “There is little talk about Ukraine among the Moscow intelligentsia nowadays,” the journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan wrote.
Yet the war drums are getting louder. Talks last week between American, Nato and Russian officials on Moscow’s explosive demands for the western alliance to halt its eastwards expansion ended in a deadlock, bringing the possibility of a war a step closer.
On Friday, Washington accused Russia of preparing a “false flag” operation as a pretext for an invasion of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, where Kremlin-backed separatists control large swathes of territory. “The operatives are trained in urban warfare and in using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy forces,” the White House said.
The claim came weeks after Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, had alleged that American mercenaries were plotting a chemical weapons attack in the same region.
Russia has an estimated 100,000 troops within striking distance of Ukraine, but insists it is not planning an invasion. However, Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders have threatened an unspecified military response if Nato does not withdraw troops from central and eastern Europe and commit to keeping Ukraine out of the western military alliance. Putin says the deployment of US missiles to Ukraine would pose an unacceptable danger to Russian national security.
Less than 48 hours after Russian-Nato discussions ended without a breakthrough, there were reports of Iskander short-range missiles and T-72 tanks being moved westwards from Russia’s far eastern region, while a suspected Russian cyberattack paralysed government websites in Ukraine. Moscow also warned last week that it could deploy unspecified military hardware to Cuba or Venezuela.
There are suspicions in the West that Putin’s ratcheting up of tensions is a ploy to boost his flagging approval ratings, which have slumped to 32 per cent amid a decline in living standards triggered partly by western sanctions. After the annexation of Crimea, Putin’s popularity soared to unprecedented heights. Yet despite weeks of tensions, there are few indications that the Russian public is again preparing to rally around its “national leader”.
Millions of Russians have friends or family in Ukraine and one in two have positive feelings about the country, according to a recent opinion poll. That figure rises to 66 per cent among 18 to 24-year-olds. The Kremlin is unlikely, however, to be too concerned by the absence of a surge in Putin’s ratings: the president’s nearest nominal rival, the veteran nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is polling at only 3 per cent.
Many analysts in Russia believe Putin is determined to carry out what he is thought to see as his “historical mission” of pushing Nato back from his country’s borders. “Ukraine is [Putin’s] last stand,” Dmitri Trenin, the head of the Carnegie Moscow Centre think tank, told CNN last week. “I think he’s serious — he’s not bluffing.”
Putin and other Russian officials have spoken often about what they say was Nato’s failure to keep its promise not to expand into former Soviet and Warsaw Pact countries after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Nato says no pledge was made, but to Russia’s political elite the sense of betrayal is very real. Resentment, exacerbated by the realisation that Moscow was too weak to push back, simmered for decades.
Now, as the Kremlin prepares to deploy “invincible” hypersonic weapons that the United States is yet to successfully develop, Putin senses that Russia’s time has come. Last week’s talks on Nato expansion were the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that American officials had sat down at the negotiating table to discuss European security issues with Russian officials, a landmark event that Putin is certain to have noted with satisfaction.
Annalena Baerbock, the new German foreign minister, is due to travel to Moscow this week for talks on the crisis, and the British foreign secretary, Liz Truss, is also believed to be planning a visit. Yet as Moscow seeks to force Nato into reversing decades of policy, it is unlikely to be mollified by a flurry of high-profile diplomacy.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said on Friday that Moscow was waiting for a formal reply to its demands from Nato, but warned: “We have run out of patience.”