At a meeting of Ukraine’s security council in the early hours of Tuesday, President Volodymyr Zelensky responded with calm defiance to Moscow’s recognition of two breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine and the decision to send in Russian troops.
“We are not afraid of anything or anyone,” Zelensky said. “We owe nothing to anyone and we will not give anything to anyone.”
Yet Kyiv has few ways to respond beyond bolstering its defences and spurring its population to prepare for conflict, at a time when Ukrainians are looking to their leader to strike a more assertive stance.
Any military response to Russia’s latest aggression risks pitching Ukraine into a full-blown war. Ukrainian leaders have repeatedly vowed to exercise restraint in the face of Russian provocations to avoid falling into the trap of providing a pretext for the Kremlin to engage the up to 190,000 troops it has massed around Ukraine.
The danger has been heightened by Russia’s deployment of “peacekeepers” to the breakaway regions, which would bring them face to face with Ukrainian troops along the militarized “line of contact” that has divided separatist and Ukrainian forces since the conflict began in 2014.
Zelensky struck a cool tone on Tuesday, saying “we do not believe there will be an intense war against Ukraine [or] that Russia will escalate further ”. But he also spoke of the need to prepare, including the option to introduce martial law.
Tensions ratcheted up further later on Tuesday when Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow would recognize the separatists’ claim to the entire Donbas region in eastern Ukraine – far beyond the contact line.
Ukrainians steeled themselves for conflict, canvassing for donations for military charities online and discussing just how far into Ukraine Moscow planned to deploy its troops.
Zelensky would focus on defense, asserting a “no retreat” policy on the contact line, said Mykhailo Gonchar, president of Ukraine’s Center for Global Studies Strategy XXI. This will be harder to maintain if Putin decides to use force to expand separatist states to incorporate the wider Donbas region.
Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, said the focus was on “strengthening defense” while warning of “difficult challenges” and “losses” ahead.
“We will have to go through pain, overcome fear and despair,” he said. “But we will definitely win. . . our strength is in unity and confidence. ”
Ukrainians have reacted without panic to the latest threats. For many, it did not mark the start of a potential new conflict, but an escalation in a war that has been ongoing since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and supported the eastern separatist rebellion.
“This has been going on for eight years,” Gonchar said, adding that he saw unease but no signs of fear among his friends and colleagues.
Alongside a focus on its defenses, Kyiv has called for western sanctions to act as a deterrent to future Russian aggression.
Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president from 2014-2019, told the Financial Times that Russia’s action “pushes the world to the brink of a new world war”. He urged the west to “immediately impose sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his entourage”, including Russia’s Security Council, its oligarchs and members of both houses of parliament.
The US, UK and EU imposed fresh sanctions on Russia on Tuesday in response to its move into the Donbas, including the suspension of the approval process for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that meant transporting Russian gas to Europe.
But some observers have said these measures, which stop short of the toughest economic curbs available, do not go far enough.
“Putin is acting fast. But we do not yet see a quick and comprehensive western reaction, ”said Mikhail Podolyak, a close adviser to Zelensky. Stopping Moscow “depends directly on how and when the west will respond to Russia’s actions”, he added.
He also called for western economic support for Ukraine. “We are suffering such economic losses every day as if a massive invasion had already fled. What will be the response of the west to this as well? We have no clarity, ”Podolyak said in written comments to the FT.
The options for Zelensky may also be hemmed in by a public mood that is hardening amid ever more brazen aggression from Russia.
“Zelensky spent many times that as president he was committed to peace and negotiations. He never initiated any military assault, ”said Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the New Europe Center think-tank in Kyiv.
Now there is “growing appetite in society for him to prove that he could be an effective commander-in-chief since belief in diplomacy is fading,” she added. Getmanchuk also said she expected increased public pressure on Zelensky to apply martial law in areas bordering Russia and in the east of Ukraine.
Another Zelensky adviser said Ukrainians had rallied around their leader in recent days following Russian escalation and a heartfelt speech by the Ukrainian president at the Munich Security Conference, which struck a chord with her criticism of Moscow’s western appearances.
But further aggression from Russia, such as the seizure of the wider Donbas region beyond that held by the separatists, would place enormous pressure on Zelensky to hit back.
“If the Russians take [the city of] Mariupol, they will be on the Maidan, ”the adviser said, referring to the Kyiv square at the center of the 2014 protests.
Concessions to Russia were fast becoming a thing of the past, said Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Kyiv-based Penta think-tank. “Most Ukrainians would not accept this,” he added.