Ukraine Urges the West To Chill Out

With one eye on the economy, and the other on Russia’s troop buildup, Ukrainian officials call for cooler heads.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , an intern at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrives a press conference with NATO Secretary General after their bilateral meeting at the European Union headquarters in Brussels on December 16, 2021.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrives a press conference with NATO Secretary General after their bilateral meeting at the European Union headquarters in Brussels on December 16, 2021.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrives a press conference with NATO Secretary General after their bilateral meeting at the European Union headquarters in Brussels on December 16, 2021. John Thys/ AFP/Getty Images

Putin’s War

As Russia continues to build up its military presence near the borders of Ukraine, U.S. officials have warned that a Russian attack on the country could be “imminent,” but officials in Ukraine have struck a starkly different tone as they seek to avoid panic and shield the country’s emerging economy.

Speaking to journalists on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky voiced his frustration with foreign leaders who warn that Russia could attack any day now. “This means panic on the market, panic in the financial sector,” Zelensky said.

With limited budget deficit and high reserves, the Ukrainian economy is much better placed to weather the shockwaves of a Russian attack than it was when Moscow invaded in 2014. But the looming threat has already started to take a toll, as the Ukrainian hryvnia has fallen around 8 percent against the dollar since this past November. On Friday, Zelensky said the country had lost almost half a million dollars in investment since the Russian buildup began and would require an injection of $4 billion to $5 billion to stabilize the economy. 

As Russia continues to build up its military presence near the borders of Ukraine, U.S. officials have warned that a Russian attack on the country could be “imminent,” but officials in Ukraine have struck a starkly different tone as they seek to avoid panic and shield the country’s emerging economy.

Speaking to journalists on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky voiced his frustration with foreign leaders who warn that Russia could attack any day now. “This means panic on the market, panic in the financial sector,” Zelensky said.

With limited budget deficit and high reserves, the Ukrainian economy is much better placed to weather the shockwaves of a Russian attack than it was when Moscow invaded in 2014. But the looming threat has already started to take a toll, as the Ukrainian hryvnia has fallen around 8 percent against the dollar since this past November. On Friday, Zelensky said the country had lost almost half a million dollars in investment since the Russian buildup began and would require an injection of $4 billion to $5 billion to stabilize the economy. 

Having waged war with Russia and its proxies in the Donbass for almost eight years, costing over 14,000 lives, Ukrainians have no illusions about Moscow’s capabilities, and the Ukrainian military is preparing for the worst. Ukrainian politicians and the public are no strangers to living under threat from Russian. Zelensky said as much on Friday. “We are very grateful for the assistance, but we have learned to live with this and develop with this,” he said. “We have learned to protect ourselves, to defend ourselves, and those are our lives to lead.”

The disconnect in rhetoric has been jarring as the United States has sought to rally a united front in the face of a potential Russian attack, while officials in Ukraine, which faces over 100,000 Russian troops on its border, have cautioned against alarmism. On Monday, after the U.S. State Department announced plans to evacuate the families of American diplomats serving in Kyiv, Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, described the step as “premature” and an instance of “excessive caution.” 

Some experts wonder whether Ukrainian officials may have misread the political environment as Moscow seeks to force major concessions from the United States and NATO on the post-Cold War security arrangements in Europe. “I don’t exclude that some Ukrainian decision-makers sincerely don’t see the difference between current buildup and some previous ones from a military point of view, without taking into consideration political context, which, in my view, is different this time,” said Alyona Getmanchuk, the director of the New Europe Center, a think tank based in Kyiv. 

In early November 2021, as videos on social media and publicly available satellite imagery showed unexplained movements of Russian military equipment and materiel near the Ukrainian border, Washington was quick to begin sharing intelligence with allies and partners in Europe and NATO to alert them to Moscow’s plans, and it has been unusually candid in calling out the Kremlin publicly. 

“Washington is really worried that it’s going to get caught flat-footed again like it did in 2014, so the Biden administration did a great job of rallying Europe and getting everyone on board to say, ‘We’re going to throw the meanest, nastiest package of sanctions at Russia that we’ve ever seen,’” said Melinda Haring, the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

Intelligence sharing by the United States and European allies was instrumental in alerting Ukraine to the possibility of a renewed invasion and efforts to destabilize the country internally, Zelensky’s chief of staff Andriy Yermak told Foreign Policy last month. While Washington has read Kyiv in on its intelligence assessments about the Russian threat, there may be limits to how much it can share without leaving its sources and methods of intelligence collection exposed.

“Analytically, you can look at the same picture and come up with different interpretations of it,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military with the think tank CNA. “I think that Ukrainian political leadership has made a call that they believe that this is a bluff, and that they believe that this is a campaign of coercion largely designed to hurt their economy and to pressure them to concessions on Minsk,” Kofman added, referring to a peace deal struck in the Belarusian capital in 2015. 

Ukrainian officials have tried to walk a fine line between preparing for a Russian assault without sparking mass panic. 

“The West certainly hit the panic button well before the Ukrainians did,” said Julia Friedrich, an expert on security dynamics in Russia and Ukraine currently with Kyiv-based Razumkov Centre. “Ukrainians are very used to facing a potential invasion.” But she said that as a result of Ukraine’s history, especially recent history with the annexation of Crimea, people are resorting to a “we’ll see what happens” attitude. 

A former comedian, Zelensky had never held elected office before becoming president in 2019, and close members of his team are relatively new to the high-stakes world of politics and diplomacy. The neophyte president was given a baptism by fire in 2019 when he was inadvertently dragged into the impeachment of former U.S. President Donald Trump, who was accused of seeking to leverage military aid to Ukraine for personal political favors. 

“There is some skepticism about the United States after everything that happened with Trump. I don’t think that relationship has been fully repaired,” Haring said. 

U.S. President Joe Biden and senior members of his team are deeply familiar with the challenges faced by Ukraine, with many having been in office during Russia’s 2014 invasion. But tensions over Washington’s decision not to use sanctions to stop Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline—explicitly meant to bypass Ukraine while keeping Russian energy flows to Europe intact—have strained ties. 

A congressional aide speaking on background on condition of anonymity said that the extent of Ukraine’s requests for military aid was indicative that Kyiv takes the threat seriously. But there are only so many times you can cry wolf, the aide said. 

“They have a population that has been long used to this, and they take it very seriously that if they are going to raise concern within the population that that does have knock-on effects and consequences of its own, notwithstanding the economy,” they said. 

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Mary Yang is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MaryRanYang

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Putin and Guterres sit facing each other across an exceptionally long table.
Putin and Guterres sit facing each other across an exceptionally long table.

The West vs. the Rest

Welcome to the 21st-century Cold War.

A column of Russia's Topol intercontinental ballistic missile launchers at Red Square in Moscow, on May 9, 2012, during a Victory Day parade.
A column of Russia's Topol intercontinental ballistic missile launchers at Red Square in Moscow, on May 9, 2012, during a Victory Day parade.

Why Washington Should Take Russian Nuclear Threats Seriously

Historically, states have escalated when facing the prospect of imminent defeat—and Putin has a track record of following through on his threats.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, listens during the daily coronavirus briefing at the White House in Washington on April 9, 2020.
Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, listens during the daily coronavirus briefing at the White House in Washington on April 9, 2020.

Fauci: China’s COVID-19 Situation a ‘Disaster’

The White House’s chief medical advisor assesses the world’s response to the pandemic.

Chinese President Xi Jinping takes his tea cup during the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People on March 11, in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi Jinping takes his tea cup during the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People on March 11, in Beijing, China.

Xi Jinping Is Fighting a War for China’s History

Fear of “historical nihilism” has haunted China’s leadership for years.