How will the Russia-Ukraine Crisis end?
How will the Russia-Ukraine crisis end? Speculation about what Putin really wants and how he intends to get it has been going round and round Western policy making communities for weeks without a consensus being reached but many analysts now think a moment of truth cannot be too far away. Putin is presented as facing a binary choice: he must address his many grievances through either military or diplomatic means. Both are currently being pursued, with forces still moving into positions close to the border with Ukraine (including into Belarus) while there are ongoing high-level conversations and exchanges of papers on how to ease the current tensions.
The problem for Putin is that it is not clear whether a satisfactory military or diplomatic outcome can be found. It is entirely possible therefore that the Russian leader will follow, perhaps by default, a third course, allowing the crisis to drift on for some weeks before it eventually peters out. This is not a prediction. Many serious and informed people still see a major military operation as likely and sooner rather than later. Far fewer believe that we could be on the verge of an extraordinary negotiating breakthrough. Putting so many troops into offensive positions carries its own risks of escalation. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that Putin has not as yet committed to any course of action nor set a deadline for the resolution of this crisis. He is under no obligation to go to war.
The Military Option
A Russian offensive would not of course bring the crisis to an end, however successful it might be in the first instance. It would move it to a new and dangerous stage, just as the actions taken by Russia during the early months of 2014 did not sort out their Ukrainian problem but ensured that it would continue as a running sore. The operations currently under discussion would go beyond a new and more troubled stage in Russian-Ukrainian relations. They would be overt and unambiguous, sufficiently momentous to be seen as one of those punctuation points in international affairs - equivalent to the end of the Cold War or the attacks of 11 September 2001.
Putin may not be quite ready to launch an offensive but he will be soon. Those that are convinced he means business point to the presence of field hospitals, with blood supplies, and of National Guard troops, who would move in behind the armoured battalion tactical groups, guarding prisoners and keeping an eye on unruly elements among the local population. For its part Ukraine has also moved to improve its defences and has acquired defensive equipment from Western countries, including the UK. It could cause delay and some casualties, but its forces would still be no match for a determined Russian offensive, employing both land and air forces, and possibly naval activity as well.
The problem for Russia, whether with a major or minor invasion, is how to turn a military victory into a political victory. The challenges facing an occupying force have been well documented, and Russia should appreciate them, yet a largely punitive operation seems pointless as it would invite international condemnation while leaving the Ukrainians angry and even less likely to agree to whatever Russia demanded of them.
The most plausible military action would be in the areas close to the border and in and around the separatist enclaves. Recent reports suggest that the Ukrainians are most concerned about, and believe the Russians are most ready for, this sort of action. This is the area where if the Russians planned to fabricate an incident to create a pretext for invasion, as the US government recently alleged it might, it would be easiest to do so. (Those who found the US warning of how this might be done, complete with grisly videos, a bit far-fetched should keep in mind the compelling evidence that Russian security forces were behind ‘terrorist’ attacks on four Russian apartment blocks in September 1999, used to justify the second Chechen War). It was probably a smart move by the Americans to call this out because now any Russian claims that such a provocation had taken place would be met with the appropriate scepticism. Given what Putin has said about his lack of aggressive intent, without such an incident he would struggle to explain what had changed his mind. The Ukrainians also appear to be aware that for the moment they should try to keep the border areas as calm as possible and avoid giving the Russians any excuse for action.
The war scare has certainly generated a lot of diplomatic activity, which Putin may consider to be a plus in itself. Since I last posted on this issue the diplomacy has moved forward in two key areas.
First, both NATO and the US have responded to the lists of complaints and demands drawn up by the Russian Foreign Ministry before Christmas. On the vexed issue of NATO enlargement unsurprisingly the alliance will not close the door on Ukrainian membership, or indeed anyone else’s, as a matter of principle, and will certainly not take away membership from those who have joined since the end of the Cold War. As there seems little likelihood that Ukraine would actually be offered membership in the near future some see this as a missed, cost-free opportunity to give Russia something they want in the hope they’ll then be satisfied and go away. The problem is that Moscow will then demands proof to show that de facto membership is not being provided. Any subsequent military assistance would be denounced as a breach of the promise. The result will be to leave Ukraine isolated and anxious. (And Kyiv will always note the 1994 Budapest Memorandum when it gave up its Soviet-legacy nuclear arsenal in return for security guarantees from the US, UK and Russia, which turned out to be worthless in 2014).
The responses to the Russian papers sent by NATO and the US were helpfully published a few days ago by the Spanish paper El Pais. In the NATO paper there are proposals that are unlikely to be embraced by Moscow – on the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, which Russia gave up on many years ago, and anti-satellite weapon testing. The most promising NATO suggestion is to re-establish a mutual presence in Moscow and Brussels (a victim of past diplomatic spats). The US paper offers more, including non-deployment of offensive missiles and permanent forces in Ukraine, some discussion of intermediate nuclear forces and other arms control possibilities. The paper is written with an eye to Russian concerns though it cannot go too far in meeting them. But Putin has yet to reject the idea of more conversations with the Biden Administration. This particular diplomatic path is not yet closed.
The second initiative has been led by President Macron of France. This is to revive the so-called Normandy process, which was the source of the last attempt to deal with the separatist enclaves in February 2015, when the French and German leaders met in Minsk with the Russian and Ukrainian presidents. There have been discussions since on cease-fire arrangements but on the core proposals there has been no progress on implementation. Macron has been busy talking both to Ukrainian President Zelensky and Putin, and he is going to visit both next week. German Chancellor Scholz is scheduled to make his calls not long after.
The issues being addressed in these various talks have proved to be intractable in the past and there is no reason to suppose they have suddenly become susceptible to productive compromises. Any negotiating processes now set up will not be concluded quickly. They do not promise an early end to the conflict, just its continuation by other means.
The Drift Option
What we can see from the recent diplomacy is Putin much more to the fore. During the first weeks of this year the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and his deputies did most of the talking. They communicated a hard line and no obvious way out. When they said Russia was not going to launch any military offensives little notice was taken because it was not clear that they would know if one was. When Putin says, as he did in a meeting last week with Hungary’s Victor Orban, that the US and NATO are trying to draw Russia into a damaging war, then more notice is taken. This is not least because this hints at a way out: a lack of war could be presented by Moscow not so much as a climb down but instead as peace-loving resistance to the West’s provocations. It was always one of the least convincing propositions about the inevitability of war that Putin would embark on such an adventure because of the alternative of a humiliating retreat after achieving diplomatically so little.
It remains the case that this is the most curious of war scares, with the Russians letting an unexplained but substantial military build-up prompt a flurry of conjectures in the West, including intense debates about what to do if there is a war and what needs to be offered to stop one. Other than vague references to ‘military-technical’ responses and serious consequences, there have been no dark threats, and no ultimatums.
While it is not hard to identify differences of opinion among NATO members, Putin is probably disappointed that the fractures are not deeper. Ukraine has obviously been bothered by the war scare most, not least because it raises a fearful prospect but also because continual mobilisation is draining both socially and economically. This is why Zelensky tried to encourage the US and the UK not to push their more alarmist scenarios too hard.
Even though Putin would have preferred more disarray on NATO’s side he has put some added stress on Ukraine; reminded everybody that Russia is a great power with a significant military clout; got more diplomatic attention than he has enjoyed for a while, with Western leaders paying court, and the possibility might of some modest improvements in Russian security; agreed a verbose communiqué with President Xi of China at the Olympics, which condemns NATO enlargement, along with ‘colour revolutions’; and has been able to use the build-up to cement a developing alliance with Belarus. The Belarusian dictator President Lukashenko once wished to keep his independence from Russia but lost that last year when Russia helped him clamp down on the opposition. He is now hosting exercises with Russian troops close to the Ukrainian border.
If Putin breaks off all diplomacy now then that would be the clearest sign that war was close. If he continues to explore possibilities with Biden and Macron and others then in the event of an offensive it would be hard to explain why he is embarking on a war he has said he does not want. It is therefore at least possible that he will carry on developing a mixture of options, seeing if anything changes, taking what he can from the situation, until it is time to start bringing his troops back home. Some crises do just fade away.
If you're new to our site you can sign up to be a free or paid subscriber here.