“Calm Down and Breathe” - Ukraine Downplays Russian Invasion

Experts say that Zelensky fears the impact on the country’s economy and his chances of winning a second term.

“Calm Down and Breathe” - Ukraine Downplays Russian Invasion

Experts say that Zelensky fears the impact on the country’s economy and his chances of winning a second term.

Members of the Kyiv Territorial Defense Unit are trained in an industrial area outside the capital Kyiv. US intelligence stated that a Russian miliary invasion of Ukraine is "imminent", but Ukrainian authorities have called the statement as exaggerated.
Members of the Kyiv Territorial Defense Unit are trained in an industrial area outside the capital Kyiv. US intelligence stated that a Russian miliary invasion of Ukraine is "imminent", but Ukrainian authorities have called the statement as exaggerated. © Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Thursday, 10 February, 2022

A colourful stream of flags flooded Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti - Independence Square – on January 30, when hundreds of Ukranians gathered to express gratitude to the countries offering Ukraine statements of support and military aid amid what US intelligence called the threat of “an imminent” invasion.

The #ThanksFriends crowd congregated after President Volodymyr Zelensky called Western allies’ statements exaggerated. In an address to the nation, he called for people “to calm down and breathe” and “not run for emergency supplies of buckwheat and matches.” Experts noted that Zelensky fears the impact of alarming statements on the country’s economy and his chances to win second term.

The president did not downplay that there was a threat from Russia’s military mobilisation, telling a press briefing that “I can see the 100,000 soldiers” on the Ukrainian border. But he reminded both Ukrainians and foreign officials that the country had lived with the threat of Russian aggression for years. He acknowledged that while US intelligence was excellent, “[it is] far away… our knowledge of some things about our state is a little bit deeper”.

This push back followed Washington’s decision to pull the family members of diplomatic staff out of the country, a measure that the Ukrainian leadership warned could feed panic and be counterproductive.

“Diplomats are like captains,” Zelensky told foreign media. "They should be the last to leave a sinking ship. And Ukraine is not the Titanic."

Not everyone agrees with the President’s stance, but insiders note that a common line is needed.

Liubov Tsybulska, former head of the Ukrainian government’s Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security, said that officials needed to follow the leadership’s example when talking about the chance of open conflict.

“It is forbidden to voice an opinion about the high probability of hostilities,” she continued. “Either shut up or quit.”

The opposition has been vocal in its criticism of the head of state. European Solidarity, the party founded by former president Petro Poroshenko, maintains that it is the current Russian threat that has brought the issue of Ukraine onto the global agenda.

“This is a unique window of opportunity… Zelensky is not just failing [it]… but trying to close it,” lawmaker and Poroshenko ally Oleksiy Honcharenko told IWPR.

“We could count not only on [more] Javelins and Stingers, but also on obtaining NATO MAP [membership action plan], the status of a special ally of the United States or writing off part of the public debt,” he said. “We could get guarantees that in case of Russian aggression, NATO will provide an unmanned air defence zone over Ukraine, since this is our weakest point right now. After his statements about the absence of significant threats to Ukraine, Western partners may simply ask, ‘why are we helping you then?’”

While Western leaders have reiterated their statements of support, but some have not hidden their surprise at Zelensky’s stance. While referring to Germany’s historic responsibility towards Ukraine, member of the European parliament Viola von Cramon-Taubadel reacted to statements of Zelensky’s allies that western intelligence is “sowing panic” tweeting “Do they all take drugs in Ukraine or what’s going on here?”

Critics also warn that Russian propaganda may spin Zelensky’s statement to feed the Kremlin’s claim that Moscow is not planning a military incursion.

Russian ambassador to the US Vasily Nebenzya told the UN security council that Ukraine’s president himself had asked “Western countries not to whip up baseless hysteria around the presence of Russian troops on the border, since all this noise only harms the Ukrainian economy”.

A poll conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations in late January across seven countries showed that 62 per cent thought that NATO have a duty to defend Ukraine in case of an invasion; 43 per cent think their own country should come to Ukraine’s defence.

Zelensky’s supporters note that Ukrainians have become inured to the Kremlin’s tactics and threats. Since 2014, Russia has illegally annexed the Crimea peninsula and been backing militias in the conflict that still devastates eastern Ukraine.

Other high-ranking officials have echoed Zelensky’s call for calm. Alexei Danilov, secretary of the national security and defence council stated that “the situation is under control” and defence minister Alexey Reznikov noted that “there are risks… but they have been there since 2014”.

The Kremlin appears more likely to engage in a hybrid war to sow panic among the public. Cyberattacks that security experts attribute to Russia are on the rise, as are fake bomb threats against schools and institutions across the country.

Presidential adviser Oleg Ustenko told IWPR that continuous references to invasion would indeed create more panic and hit the economy, giving a helping hand to the Kremlin.

“We would lose financial stability, the banking sector, the stock market and much more. And as a result, in such a scenario, Ukraine would become much easier target for the aggressor,” he said.

The leadership’s call for calm had managed to steer the country from such a scenario, he continued, avoiding the hoarding of food and maintaining a relatively stable exchange rate for the national currency.

“Thanks to the balanced position of the president, as well as the joint efforts of the Ukrainian and Western diplomats, we have avoided panic and collapse,” Ustenko said.

He warned that a risk remained in the economic impact that potentially freezing investment would have.

“If the situation finally stabilises in a few weeks, then the appetite for investments will return to business. And then, it will be possible to say that we survived this crisis without significant losses,” he concluded.

Some analysts, however, see Zelensky’s political survival at the heart of his policy. Galina Zelenko, a political scientist and a member of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, believes that the president has fallen victim to election promises that positioned him as the “president of peace” versus his rival, then-President Petro Poroshenko, as “the president of war”.

But since assuming office in May 2019, Zelensky’s ratings have dived and the wide gap between him and Poroshenko has narrowed to up two per cent.  

“Zelensky promised a speedy peace. If he acknowledged the threat of military escalation, he would be forced to admit that his key campaign promise was simply impossible to fulfill. In light of his declining popularity, this would be very dangerous,” Zelenko said.

“It looks like, political expediency [prevailed] over the security of the state. And this led to a situation where the President refuses to see the risks that our allies have been warning us about for several months now.”

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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