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RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – February 23, 2022

Today in Russia/CIS: Ukraine calls up reservists; Levada Center Director Volkov on public opinion in Russia; Erdogan says Turkey won’t accept Russian moves in Ukraine; EU and US latest sanctions; Russia-Ukraine crisis as viewed Uzbekistan; Israel walks a tightrope on its Ukraine position

Call up the reservists. Ukraine on Wednesday began calling up military reservists and urged its citizens to leave Russia immediately as the pro-Western country braced for a possible invasion. AFP wrote, “The call was issued a day after Russia’s upper house of parliament gave President Vladimir Putin permission to send “peacekeepers” into two breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine.” Reservists between the ages of 18 and 60 would be called up for a period of up to one year. Ukraine also declared a state of emergency across the country, with the exception of Donetsk and Lugansk (where the government, of course, does not have control of much of these regions). It will last for 30 days and can be extended a further 30 days. Reuters wrote that “Introducing a state of emergency gives powers to the authorities, who can choose which ones to implement. These could include restrictions on transport, extra protection for critical infrastructure and a ban on strikes.”

No consensus this time, says Levada director. Denis Volkov, the director of Russia’s beleaguered independent polling agency Levada Center, said that unlike in 2014, when a “Crimean consensus” emerged after Russia’s annexation of that peninsula, this time there may be no such consensus. Volkov said,

“Over the last seven years we’ve regularly asked people [in Russia] how they see the fate of these republics. A portion — a little more than quarter [of respondents] — said that these republics need to be independent; a quarter said that they should be incorporated into Russia. About the same number said that they should remain part of Ukraine. The rest were at a loss,” Volkov says. “In other words, there is no general opinion.”

However, Volkov added, if they pose the question, ‘if these republics ask to be incorporated into Russia, should they be annexed?’, 70 percent of Russian respondents say yes. “Therefore, I think that now, when the decision has been made and, moreover, framed as in 2014 as a Russian-speaking, fraternal population under threat — not even a fraternal [population] but the same people — then yes, the majority are inclined to support it.”

Erdogan condemns Russian actions in Ukraine. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone today, telling the Russian leader that Ankara will  “not recognize any step against Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The Turkish President added that, “a military conflict would not bring benefit to anyone.”

Tougher sanctions. The European Union unveiled new sanctions against Russia for its aggressive moves in Ukraine. The New York Times noted that the bloc placed “new sanctions on Russia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu; Mr. Putin’s chief of staff, Anton Vaino; and high-profile Russians from the media world. The White House announced another round of sanctions as well, on the company building the gas pipeline connecting Russia to Germany.

On Tuesday, US President Joe Biden unveiled new sanctions against Russia as well, although their severity leaves something to be desired (Biden called them “the first tranche” of punitive measures). Biden singled out VEB and PSB bank, the former acting as Russia’s state development corporation, with most of its funding coming from the country’s National Wealth Fund, and the latter a military-controlled bank. As FT Moscow bureau chief Max Seddon noted, “VEB isn’t even really a bank – it’s basically a slush fund financed by the state,” and “Promsvyazbank [PSB] was nationalized with the specific goal of getting it sanctioned to protect other banks from the US.”

The sanctions also went after a few oligarchs and their family members, as well as targeting Russian ruble-denominated government debt known as OFZ, which notably include banning participation in secondary bond markets issued after March 1. While this is a major step, Moscow has long anticipated the specter of secondary bond market sanctions (and dollar-denominated government bonds have been sanctioned since 2014). For starters, Russia runs a considerable surplus. It has also recently instructed state banks to buy up more of these bonds in a show of strength. The head of state-owned VTB bank said previously that sanctions of this nature will likely not be a “serious threat.” At the moment, some 18 percent of OFZ bonds are held by foreigners.

Donbas as viewed from Tashkent. We have read plenty about Russia’s aggression against Ukraine from Moscow’s, the West, and sometimes (but not as much as we should) from Kyiv’s perspectives. But what about from other parts of the CIS? Analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj writes about how Uzbekistan views the situation, noting that the latest moves may prompt a rethink on the part of Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev as to how he approaches his country’s relations with Russia. It also serves as something of a vindication for the late dictator Islam Karimov, who famously said “Moscow’s vision for Central Asia was to keep it as a colonial backwater.” Batmanghelidj wrote,

Last week, Uzbekistan marked Ukraine’s “Day of Unity,” a Ukrainian national holiday. The façade of the historic Hotel Uzbekistan, overlooking Tashkent’s main square, was lit in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. Beyond shared affinities, Uzbekistan and Ukraine are both confronted by the challenge that is Putin. For Uzbekistan, the events unfolding in Ukraine validate a decades-long effort to hedge relations with Russia. But they also raise the spectre that Putin will no longer tolerate divided loyalties among the former Soviet republics.

Israel’s tight rope. Israel faces a very fine line in formulating a policy towards Russia and Ukraine in the current crisis. Intelligence Online wrote that the potential repatriation of 15,000-20,000 Israeli citizens in Ukraine, as well as a further possible 200,000 Jews who might want to exercise their right under the Right of Return, has become an area of great focus. Furthermore, Israel must tread carefully in balancing its delicate relationship with Russia – especially in Syria, where Moscow controls much of the airspace where Israel conducts regular airstrikes, and appearing to be on-side with the US and the West and supporting its ally and partner Ukraine.

PHOTO: The European Union unveiled new sanctions against key individuals in Russia, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, RT head Margarita Simonyan, and Putin’s Chief of Staff Anton Vaino (New York Times).