20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Ukraine situation remains an important factor in the relationship between Moscow and Washington, as testified to by the agenda of American diplomat Victoria Nuland’s recent visit to Russia. In defiance to that, Russian authorities openly decry the “pointlessness” of negotiations with Ukraine’s current administration.

 

April 2016: U.S. diplomat Victoria Nuland visits Kyiv. Photo: U.S. embassy in Ukraine.

 

The Kremlin continues to use gas transit as an instrument of political pressure on Kyiv and Europe, threatening the region’s energy security. On September 10, head of Gazprom Alexei Miller announced that the construction of the Nord Stream II gas pipeline (a joint project of Russia’s Gazprom, Germany’s Wintershall and Uniper, Britain’s Royal Dutch Shell, France’s Engie and Austria’s OMV, operated by Nord Stream 2 AG) had finally been completed. Now Germany’s Bundesnetzagentur, or the Federal Network Agency, the national energy regulator, must review and certify Nord Stream II’s application as an independent gas transportation operator. The verdict will be issued no later than January 8, 2022, after which the project must undergo a separate inspection by the European Commission to ensure compliance—a process that can take up to three more months. 

Against the backdrop of record-high gas prices for Russian gas in Europe, which have already shot past $1,400 per thousand cubic meters, president Vladimir Putin claimed that increasing gas transit through Ukraine would be dangerous, since its gas transportation system might just “blow out.” According to him, the deterioration of the Ukrainian pipeline system is at around 80-85 percent, and, in order to preserve the pumping volume, “it should be restored to a normal condition.” Putin also added that this year, the delivery of Russian gas through Ukraine will surpass by 10 percent the volumes agreed upon in the long-term contract between the two countries. 

In her turn, Elena Zerkal, advisor to Ukraine’s Minister of Energy, noted that the minimum contractual volume of Russian gas transit this year amounts to 40 billion cubic meters, which is 25 billion cubic meters less than in 2020. Therefore, during the first nine months of the current year, deliveries of gas through Ukraine decreased by 17 percent compared to the same period in 2020, and by nearly twice that compared to 2019 data. And, contrary to Putin’s claims about deterioration, Zerkal made the assurance that Ukraine’s gas system is ready to transport an additional 100 billion cubic meters of gas. 

Thus, Moscow is simply trying to “dry up” Europe’s gas market in order to achieve its political goals—specifically, the quickest possible certification and launch of the Nord Stream II pipeline, which bypasses Ukraine. An artificial gas deficit in Europe has already put pressure on prices, threatening the energy security of the entire region.

Aside from these “gas wars,” the Kremlin does not shy away from other methods of blackmailing Ukraine and its Western allies. On October 11, the day before the scheduled visit of the U.S. State Department’s Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland to Moscow, Kommersant published an article titled “Why contacts with the current Ukrainian administration are pointless” under the name of Dmitry Medvedev, currently the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council.

In this lengthy piece, the author harshly criticizes the Ukrainian authorities, whom he calls “vassals to the West.” He argues that “the pointlessness and even danger of relations with Ukraine’s current administration … lies in the fact that this country is led by dim, unreliable people.” (Editor’s note: author’s original use of italics is preserved.) He continues, “They are continuously changing their position in order to please their transatlantic masters and according to political conjecture.” 

In this context, the article should be viewed as a sequel to Putin’s July piece titled “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” in which the Russian president makes territorial claims against Ukraine and argues that, in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, Ukraine supposedly inherited territories that had not originally belonged to it.

The Kremlin deemed Medvedev’s extremely aggressive and tone-deaf article a “very important publication,” which “calls many things by their right name” and “goes in unison with what was voiced, in different phrasings, on many different levels (of the Russian administration).” Spokesperson to the president of Ukraine Sergei Nikiforov in turn called the piece “rude and delusional,” as well as a failed attempt by Medvedev to “remind others he still exists.” 

According to Grigory Yavlinsky, member of the Russian political opposition and founder of the Yabloko party, through such articles the Russian government is trying to show that “Russia is heading towards war.” The “chaotic departure” of U.S. troops from Afghanistan created the feeling that “[Russia’s] hands are untied,” and the results of the parliamentary elections that recently took place in Russia only strengthened the Kremlin’s aggressive intentions. “Right now, these are just words. But these words are already written in the language of war,” concluded Yavlinsky.

Medvedev’s article sent a direct message to the U.S. about the impermissibility of Ukraine’s integration with NATO and the EU. In the meantime, the White House is considering the possibility of restoring diplomatic relations with Russia: during Nuland’s visit to Moscow, the Russian side suggested that Washington lift all previous restrictions on the work of Russian diplomatic missions in the U.S. 

According to the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, since August 1, 2021, the number of employees of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow decreased to 120, which is ten times smaller than the 2016 number. This reduction is the result of President Putin’s April decree in which he prohibited diplomatic missions of “unfriendly states” in Russia, the list of which includes the United States, to employ Russian citizens, and citizens from third-party states.

Although Moscow and Washington both confirmed their adherence to the Minsk Agreements on resolving the Donbass situation, negotiations did not yield significant progress, according to the deputy head of Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, Sergei Ryabkov, who stated that “The countries’ respective positions don’t match well. The Americans are not listening to our logic, to our demands. Nonetheless, this has been a useful discussion.” In turn, Nuland described her negotiations with deputy head of the Kremlin administration Dmitry Kozak and presidential aide Yury Ushakov as “productive” and useful. 

For now, the positional strife between the two countries continues without any significant trade-offs. However, the Kremlin still hopes that the U.S. will give up the “vassal” Ukraine to the sphere of Russian interests in exchange for the latter’s non-involvement in the containment of China, as well as the easing of pressure exerted by Gazprom on the EU partners. 

During his recent visit to Kyiv, Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin confirmed the United States’ support of Ukrainian defense reform, which should facilitate the country’s eligibility for a full-fledged NATO membership. This statement is unlikely to elicit an enthusiastic response from the Kremlin, where the Ukrainian advancement toward alliance membership is considered “a worst-case scenario,” that “goes beyond the red lines of Russia’s national interests.” Hence, the stakes will continue to rise.

 

Mykola Vorobiov is a Ukrainian journalist and a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University (SAIS).

Text translation: Elizaveta Agarkova.

The rise and fall of Sputnik V

Our newsletter delivers a digest of analytical articles and op-eds published on our website, along with the latest updates on the IMR activities on a monthly basis.