The Eye of the Storm Why Does Kyiv Seem So Strangely Calm?

Russian troops have amassed near Ukraine’s borders, but the government in Kyiv seems oddly calm and detached. Why are President Volodymyr Zelensky and other top politicians playing down the threat?
By Christian Esch in Kyiv, Ukraine
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the opening ceremony for a new bridge over the Dnieper River in Kyiv

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the opening ceremony for a new bridge over the Dnieper River in Kyiv

Foto: Ukrainian Presidency

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is currently fighting a confusing battle. The actual enemy is in the east, where Russia has amassed tanks, heavy artillery and troops. But the noise of war seems to be coming from the West. The warnings there of a Russian attack on Ukraine are so frequent and loud that Zelensky and his team currently don’t know what to fear more: the Russian troops or those who are warning about them. The enemy or the friend? The war that could break out, or the war of nerves that has long since begun and is already doing damage?

DER SPIEGEL 5/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 5/2022 (January 29th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

This week’s events offered a vivid example of this conundrum. First, the United States Embassy in Kyiv asked the family members of its diplomats in the Ukrainian capital to leave the country and "urged" all U.S. citizens to consider leaving as well. The news baffled people in Kyiv. It isn’t Kabul, after all. Everyday life is going on as usual, and the city seems as bustling and peaceful as it normally does.

"Safer than Los Angeles"

It’s possible the warning had to do with the fact that the diplomatic struggle between Moscow and Washington reached a new point this week: Russia received the written response it had demanded to its ultimatum for an end to NATO’s eastward expansion, but the letter from Washington does not provide the guarantee that Ukraine would be permanently excluded from the military alliance. Moscow had vaguely threatened that a rejection of Russia’s wishes would entail a "military-technical response."

Either way, Zelensky’s team resented the call for Americans to leave Ukraine. "Quite frankly, these Americans are safer in Kyiv than they are in Los Angeles … or any other crime-ridden city in the U.S.," a source close to Zelensky told the American website BuzzFeed. Zelensky himself described the situation as a "complex diplomatic game."

"There aren’t even indications that an attack is being prepared," said David Arakhamia, who, as head of the parliamentary group of Zelensky’s party, called Servant of the People, is one of the most powerful people in parliament. "But every morning, we wake up and see in some international media outlet a new report from Ukraine with maps and arrows. Doesn’t that seem strange to you?"

What has become clear in these gruelling weeks, more than anything else, is the deep divide that separates Kyiv and the West, particularly the United States, when it comes to assessing the military threat. If President Zelensky and his team are to be believed, the threat of a new Russian invasion is hopelessly overestimated. The risks "are not new, and they have not increased," Zelensky said last week. He even spoke of the "hype" surrounding the troop deployment.

Oleksiy Danilov is the secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council – and essentially Zelensky’s top security advisor. If Ukraine was threatened with an imminent attack from the Russian side, he should be the one to know. Danilov isn’t a typical representative of Zelensky’s team. He’s not a media-savvy young consultant from the television industry in a well-fitting suit like some of his associates. Instead, he has a crew cut and has a direct manner of speaking. Decades ago, Danilov served as mayor and later as head of the regional administration in Luhansk, a city that is now under the control of separatists loyal to Moscow. He has drawn attention to himself in Ukraine for some rather odd patriotic proposals, such as switching from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin one.

Security adviser Oleksiy Danilov: "We don't see a large buildup of troops directly threatening us today."

Security adviser Oleksiy Danilov: "We don't see a large buildup of troops directly threatening us today."

Foto: Julia Kochetovaa / DER SPIEGEL

"We don't see a large buildup of troops directly threatening us today" Danilov says tersely. He says the situation is exactly the same as it has been for eight years, since the annexation of the Crimea and the de facto occupation of the Donbas by Russia. Business as usual, really? "For all practical purposes, yes. Except that the media around the world picked it up and started talking about it."

"Deliberate Disinformation"

According to Danilov, Russia has assembled 52 tactical battalion groups near the borders in the north, east and south of Ukraine – that’s the name given to units of about 800 soldiers each that are being assembled for combat operations. There have also, of course, been numerous troop movements undertaken by the Russians, he allows. "But the situation is not as threatening to us as is being reported," he says. "The mass media are blowing this out of proportion," And that, he says, is in Russia’s interest. But the reporting didn’t originate in Russia or in Ukraine, he says. Rather, it started with an article in the Washington Post at the end of October, which for the first time described the recent Russian troop build ups near Ukraine. Danilov dismissed the article as "deliberate disinformation" at the time.

"As recently as December, Zelensky didn't believe in the threat from Russia," says Oleksandr Danylyuk, Danilov’s predecessor as Security Council secretary. "He thought it was a game being played by the West to up the ante," he says. And in the beginning, our military intelligence saw it that way, too." But Zelensky does now consider the threat to be real, says Danylyuk.

Another source close to the president’s office says, "Zelensky believes that there is a serious threat, but he doesn't want to completely rule out the possibility that the whole thing is a game. I know that he is being briefed by people who think the military situation is serious." Zelensky’s doubts are understandable, the source says, as the overreaction of the U.S. Embassy shows.

There may also be another reason for Zelensky to distrust not only the Russians, but also the Americans. Right in the early days of his presidency, he got to know the political establishment in Washington from its most unpleasant side. At the beginning of the U.S. election campaign in 2019, then-President Donald Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani tried in vain to extract incriminating statements of any kind against Joe Biden and the Democrats from the leadership in Kyiv. "We really went through hell," says Ihor Novikov, who was responsible for U.S. relations under Zelensky at the time. When Biden came into office, they hoped he would honor the fact that they had resisted the pressure. Instead, Biden abandoned American opposition to the German-Russian Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea gas pipeline, a project that reduces the value of transit pipelines through Ukraine and weakens its security situation.

Economic Fears

The greatest danger that Danilov and others on Zelensky’s team currently see isn’t military, but rather economic. Fears of war and the escalating rhetoric between East and West have already brought down government bonds and robbed investors of confidence. That also limits what Zelensky can say publicly.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser in the president’s office, speaks of "propaganda risks" that weigh on the economy, separating them from the real military risk. "I wouldn’t say that the military risks are so unacceptably high right now that you have to keep telling people about them," he says. In between, Podolyak has to interrupt the interview to see the president.

Ukraine has been in a state of a more or less hot war for almost eight years now. Despite the cease-fire, Ukrainian soldiers are regularly killed on the contact line, as the border with separatist areas in the Donbas is called. During those eight years, many have grown numb to military threats. At the same time, a poor country like Ukraine tends to be more sensitive to economic arguments. The first concern of many Ukrainians is how the country will get through this winter. Coal and gas stocks are low, and the only thing that has prevented an emergency so far are the unusually mild temperatures for this time of year.

"The question is what to fear more: Russian tanks or the Ukrainian cold?" says Novikov, the former Zelensky adviser. Zelensky appears to have made a clear decision: The tanks are the lesser of the issues.

As such, he keeps his messages simple and acts according to the principle: Everything is fine, there’s no need to panic. That isn’t to the liking of everyone in the country. After Zelensky's first appearance, his former interior minister complained that the president was speaking to Ukrainians as if they were small children.

Spreading good cheer is actually one of Zelensky’s strengths – he was the country’s most successful entertainer and a TV comedian before moving into politics, after all. Instead of warnings, the people are getting a lot of warm words from him and occasionally some corny jokes, too. "Don’t be afraid of the internet,” he said this week as he warned against disinformation campaigns. "The internet should be afraid of us." But then he'll horrify his countrymen by speaking about the possibility of a Russian occupation of Kharkiv, as he did in an interview with the Washington Post.

U.S. military aid arrives in Kyiv on January 25th.

U.S. military aid arrives in Kyiv on January 25th.

Foto: Gleb Garanich / REUTERS

"People are scared," says Pavlo Klimkin, who served as Ukraine’s foreign minister from 2014 to 2019. "Here in Kyiv, the situation is still in order. But in Mykolaiv, Kherson and Odessa, some already have a packed suitcase in the car just in case. The people expect the president to appear before them and say: Yes, there is a threat, but we are not afraid. I’m not afraid." Klimkin also says that Zelensky ought to be visiting the army every few days and telling them that there is more money.

Does the government in Kyiv really not believe there’s a threat, or is it just downplaying the danger to avoid panic? "They simply don’t know what to do," Klimkin says. "Of course, you can buy or make more weapons, but they don’t know what that would change about the situation. So, they would rather keep spending money on road-building programs." That’s Zelensky’s favorite topic – he just inaugurated a large bridge over the Dnieper River. Klimkin says that Zelensky’s team is also at a loss in terms of foreign policy.

One source close to the president’s office describes the team's approach as "infantile." He says there’s simply a lack of expertise. Most of Zelensky’s team, like the president himself, come from the entertainment industry or they are media lawyers or film producers. "The most important selection criteria for Zelensky is loyalty," the man says. "Brains, experience and professionalism come second." That would also explain the strange calmness at the center of the government, which to date has not found a middle ground between admitting and ignoring the new military threat. "After all, there would be a whole spectrum of possible messages. Instead, they think they have to choose from two variants: Either we say, like the Americans, that there’s a threat, but then our economy collapses. Or we tell the Americans: No, there’s no threat at all."

Limited Maneuvering Room

And so the Ukrainian government seems oddly detached – an inexperienced newcomer to politics who wanted to deliver peace in the Donbas, digitize government agencies and resurface national highways, has instead been caught in a maelstrom of global politics. Now, he and his team don’t know where it is taking them.

At the same time, Zelensky’s room for maneuver in foreign policy is seriously limited: Russia has made clear to him that it no longer views him as a negotiating partner to be taken seriously. Even his foreign minister has been sanctioned by Moscow and is no longer able to communicate with Ukraine’s most important neighbor. Zelensky’s chief of staff traveled to Paris for a meeting with representatives of Russia, Germany and France this week to resume the Normandy Format talks to end the Donbas conflict and the implementation of the Minsk Agreement. But in Moscow’s eyes, any progress requires concessions from the Ukrainian side – ones for which the government in Kyiv will not get the backing of parliament or voters, not even with Russian troops deployed on the border of Ukraine.

On the other side, it has also been clear to Zelensky, even before the most recent escalation, that Ukraine’s path to NATO has already essentially been blocked for the long term, even though he repeatedly asked publicly when Ukraine would finally be admitted. Raising the issue so loudly and clearly wasn't very prudent, Moscow saw it as a provocation. "It was an attempt to point out the West’s hypocrisy," says a source close to the president’s office. If that was Zelensky’s intention, though, it would be an almost naive strategy. NATO had promised Ukraine membership back in 2008, but it denied it any time frame for accession.

"Perhaps NATO chose the wrong strategy in the early 2000s when Russia was looking for a closer partner," says presidential adviser Podolyak, with a tone of resignation. "Now, Russia is trying to compensate for this mistake by acting aggressively in the region and stepping up its role as the counterpart to NATO. And we in Ukraine are the ones on whose territory all sides want to achieve their ambition."

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.