- In recent weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent aggressive messages to foes abroad.
- That messaging comes as Putin faces increasing domestic backlash at home.
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Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kiev on Thursday as part of a new push from the Biden administration to show support for Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s recent military action on the border.
Blinken met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and emphasized the US’s commitment to the country.
Washington is “actively looking at strengthening even further our security cooperation and our security assistance,” Blinken said, adding that while most of the Russian troops deployed to the border had been withdrawn, “significant forces remain.”
“We are monitoring the situation very, very closely,” Blinken said alongside Zelenskiy, according to Reuters. “And I can tell you, Mr. President, that we stand strongly with you, partners do as well. I heard the same thing when I was at NATO a couple of weeks ago and we look to Russia to cease reckless and aggressive actions.”
Blinken’s visit to Ukraine is no doubt a calculated response by the Biden administration to Russia’s deployment of nearly 100,000 troops along the shared border last month.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the military to unwind that deployment a few weeks later, it drew international rebuke and led to weeks of uncertainty and heightened tensions worldwide.
It’s this tension that led President Joe Biden to send the seasoned diplomat to Kiev.
Blinken, who was deputy national security advisor from 2013 to 2015 and deputy secretary of state from 2015 to 2017, is no stranger to Putin’s antics. He played an important role in the Obama administration’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in the aftermath of the Ukrainian Revolution in early 2014.
But putting the secretary of state on the ground also sends a clear message to Putin and the Kremlin.
Many have dismissed Russia’s moves as mere saber-rattling. But after more than two decades of autocratic rule, Putin’s political arsenal is growing thin. Growing domestic opposition led by the unwavering Alexei Navalny, a slumping economy, and a mismanaged coronavirus pandemic response has turned up the heat for Putin and his cabal of loyalists.
As a result, Putin is pulling the levers in his propaganda machine in the hopes of quelling any challenge to his grip on power.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in his State of the Union address before the Russian parliament last month.
Putin took the opportunity to spin up some of his hits, lacing his remarks with anti-Western rhetoric – including thinly veiled threats and ultimatums – in hopes of ginning up Russian distaste for Europe and the US. He warned the West not to cross Moscow’s “red lines.”
“If someone mistakes our good intentions for indifference or weakness … they should know that Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, swift, and harsh,” Putin said, according to a Reuters translation of the speech.
But glaringly absent was any mention of Navalny or the opposition, despite protests and arrests before, during, and after the speech.
According to The New York Times, Russian authorities arrested “dozens of opposition activists” prior to Putin’s speech, including Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s spokesperson, and Lyubov Sobol, a high-ranking member in his political organization.
Navalny, who ended a dramatic 24-day hunger strike in late April, is still sitting in a Russian jail, despite a massive outpouring of public support.
Several cities across Russia saw demonstrations for the imprisoned opposition leader during and after Putin’s speech. And while the opposition’s campaign has always enjoyed support from younger, progressive Russians, scattered reports show expanding support for Navalny.
That support will continue to grow as Putin exerts more pressure. The BBC reported that a prosecutor has ordered all of the support offices for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) to close.
The report also suggested that the Kremlin may designate FBK a terrorist organization, which would allow Putin to jail supporters and freeze assets with impunity.
The added pressure on Navalny is telling. His poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok in August 2020 – almost certainly carried out by Kremlin assassins – failed to kill him and backfired for Putin, putting the Russian leader in hot water internationally while inadvertently fanning the flames at home.
Since then, Putin’s footing is increasingly unstable. And like the good soldier that he is, Putin tends to go on the offensive when he’s backed into a corner.
At present, the majority of Russian military equipment from the April operation is still staged at the border. While the number of troops there has fallen sharply, it would be easy for Russia to deploy them quickly and rumble over the border.
The US has responded to Russia’s display of military strength (and Putin’s propensity to unleash it on the region).
According to the State Department, the US has sent $3.7 billion in support to Ukraine since 2014, alongside another $3 billion in sovereign loan guarantees. This support has included “technical assistance, training, and equipment to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and security services,” such as lethal weaponry, though there are restrictions on its use.
Blinken’s visit is a potent reminder to Putin that the US is heavily invested in Ukraine and will, according to Blinken, “stand strongly” with Ukraine against Russia’s “reckless and aggressive actions.”
J.W. Sotak is a defense and foreign-policy reporter who focuses on the Middle East and Africa. He is a 10-year veteran of the US Army and served as part of a Army Civil Affairs Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan. His reports have been published on SOFREP and The New York Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @JWSotak.