This week sees an intensive period of diplomacy intended to head off the military offensive that Russia has been threatening to launch against Ukraine since late last year. After today’s bilateral in Geneva between the US and Russia, NATO countries will meet in Brussels with Russia on Wednesday, followed the next day by a gathering in Vienna of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which includes all European countries.
In addition to ostentatious military preparations for war senior Russian diplomats have contributed to the tense atmosphere by setting down demands that require a completely new European security order. They want Russia to be allowed its own sphere of influence effectively corresponding to the old Soviet Union, meaning that NATO must contract and certainly not expand further into Georgia and Ukraine. Unless all this is agreed urgently and without procrastination, they insist, a harsh Russian response should be expected.
Meanwhile, to confuse matters further, Russia with a few other former Soviet states, has sent forces into Kazakhstan to help stabilise the situation there, although the numbers involved are not large enough as yet to interfere with Moscow’s other plans. The move has, however, underlined Russia’s self-proclaimed role as the pivotal power in the region, its fear of popular movements capable of upending autocratic regimes, and its ability to act decisively when it chooses to do so.
Many well-regarded Russian analysts are convinced that Moscow really is poised to start to start a new European war. Others are more sanguine, suspecting that the Russians are using bluster to make its position look stronger than it is in the hope of extracting concessions from the US and its allies.
To assess the situation we need to consider four questions. First, how did we arrive at a position three decades after the end of the Cold War where a hot war is a credible possibility? Second, how serious is the threat and what would be the objectives of any Russian offensive? Third, how do these objectives relate to the broad Russian demands for a new security order? Fourth, what if anything might be done to head off the crisis over the next few days and in any subsequent negotiations?
How Did We Get Here?
The starting point for the crisis is the situation in Ukraine. In February 2014, after the pro-Russian President fled the country, Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea and then supported rebel groups (often led by Russian citizens) in Eastern Ukraine. The Crimean operation was effectively executed but in favourable circumstances. The territory had only been with Ukraine for 60 years, having been handed over during the Soviet years, had a pro-Russian population and a major naval base close by, while a new government in Kyiv was barely functioning.
By contrast Eastern Ukraine turned into a mess. Rebel groups seized control in Donetsk and Luhansk but then failed to demonstrate sufficient popular support and after a few months were almost defeated by Ukrainian forces. Putin intervened in the summer of 2014 with regular forces to help them consolidate their position. He then offered peace talks which led to proposals for a settlement (confirmed at a summit in February 2015 in Minsk), but this proved impossible to implement. Fighting still occasionally flares up. This conflict has already claimed more than 13,000 lives.
This situation could continue like this for some time, along the lines of the other ‘frozen’ conflicts in the region involving Russian-backed enclaves, such as Transnistria in Moldova, but Putin may well be losing patience with a situation that he regards as untenable over the long-term. In practice Donetsk and Luhansk have become more integrated into Russia – with their economies dependent upon subsidies and the residents offered Russian passports. Putin wanted them to remain part of Ukraine to gain a veto over Kyiv’s policies but without the Minsk agreement being implemented that won’t happen. Yet should he annex this territory then that would confirm the pro-Western orientation of the rest of Ukraine. Putin hoped that President Volodymyr Zelensky who came to power in 2019 would be more amenable, but over time he has become increasingly wary of Russia. Thus far the Ukraine experience could helpfully serve as a warning to the Russian President that in this part of the world it can be easier to set things in motion than to bring them to a successful conclusion.
Russia’s main demand now is that Ukraine should be prohibited from joining NATO. NATO counters that Ukraine is a sovereign state and can make its own decisions on alliances. In practice formal membership is unlikely at the moment, but the Russian fear is that in effect a de facto alliance has developed, with intelligence support and more military assistance coming Ukraine’s way. New weapons systems might be introduced that could hit targets in Russia. This concern has become bound up with an outpouring of grievances about Western behaviour since the end of the Cold War, including the steady of expansion of NATO to include the former Soviet satellites as well as the three Baltic states, and a refusal to pay it the respect due to a great power. Hence proposals for a completely new security order that rewinds all of these developments and takes Europe back to 1991. Even Sweden and Finland, not members of NATO, are being told that they must not join. Which naturally has had the effect of actively encouraging them to think of doing so.
The Threat to Ukraine
To back up its demands, late last year Russian began a major build-up of forces to spots close to the border with Ukraine. Russia moves troops in this way quite often – it did so last April – but this is on a far larger scale than before. There are issues about whether, with about 100,000 troops ready to go, it has quite enough to mount a major move into Ukraine. One sign that something truly major was planned would be if this force began to be topped up. On the other hand, it will be difficult to sustain a mobilisation at this level, which can be an expensive and demanding undertaking, much beyond March. This may explain the urgency behind the Russian demands.
When backed by Russian airpower it would be hard for Ukraine to resist such a force. Few analysts think it sufficient to occupy all of Ukraine but it might be enough to take more territory close to the current enclaves in Eastern Ukraine and perhaps set more viable long-term boundaries. This would however be an enormous gamble for Putin to take. In part this would be because of the international reaction, which would be intense, with economic sanctions already promised. Russia might be expelled from the SWIFT system, which executes global financial transactions, and Germany would come under immense pressure to cancel the NordStream 2 gas pipeline. But Putin may assess that he could ride these out (his financial reserves are currently quite healthy).
What might give the Russians more pause for thought are the pitfalls that come with any military operation that promises early triumphs and territorial gains, but lacks a clear view of what happens next and what constitutes victory. The Ukrainian aim will be to delay Russian advances and impose maximum casualties. The longer a military campaign drags on the more the inherent uncertainties of war come into play, which could leave public opinion in Russia restless. If substantial amounts of territory are acquired then holding on to it would require a large occupation force which could soon become a target for guerrilla warfare. And if the aim is more of a raid than an occupation – a quick but punitive offensive followed by an equally quick withdrawal - how does that create more favourable conditions for a negotiation?
What Can be Negotiated?
Does this mean the Russian build-up is bluff, an instrument of coercive diplomacy rather than a serious preparation for a full-blown offensive? Those who doubt this note that the force has all the enablers to sustain a substantial operation for some time. That is not, however, conclusive. Intelligence now is so good that a serious coercive effect can’t be generated by forces that patently aren’t up to the job. In practice the same evidence supports an aggressive intent as much as a coercive intent. If all Putin is doing for now is creating a rationale for decisive military action, by demonstrating the West’s unreasonableness, then it might have made sense to have acted earlier, for the element of surprise has been lost and Ukraine has stepped up its defences. He could have staged an incident (as he might yet do) to demonstrate the need for quick action.
Moreover, so far Moscow might feel that coercion is working. It has got the West’s attention, its grievances are being discussed, and policy-makers are scrambling around trying to see if they can put something on the table at this week’s talks. But Russia has set the bar very high with its demands. Perhaps, the Russians feel that President Biden has already shown in Afghanistan his readiness to limit the US’s international commitments. Perhaps too he is ready for some grand bargain that will leave him free to concentrate on the big challenges in the Indo-Pacific region posed by China.
But blatantly selling-out Ukraine would be politically catastrophic for Biden, especially as he has taken a strong public stance warning the Russians against aggression. Moreover, and this is one of the curiosities of this crisis, and despite ominous but non-specific warnings about ‘military-technical’ measures directed against NATO, Russia is mainly threatening Ukraine. Nobody expects NATO countries to send their own troops in to defend Ukraine (as British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace recently acknowledged). They will be aware of the possibilities of escalation once crises get out of control, and that Russia might try to accompany any military offensive with other measures such as cyber-attacks. But for now they are not the countries actually facing war. It is the Ukrainians who are in the firing line yet they have shown no interest in conciliating Russia and have not asked NATO to do so on their behalf.
The new security order being demanded by Russia would certainly affect Ukraine, but its repercussions would go far wider. Indeed Moscow gives the impression of only really being interested in today’s talks with the Americans, in part because it wishes to assert its status as a power equivalent to the US rather than say, France and the UK (also nuclear powers, members of the Security Council, and with much larger economies). But also because it thinks somehow, erroneously, that Biden can and will deliver the big concessions. Other than Thursday’s OSCE meeting, which will be largely an occasion for speeches, Ukraine is not actively participating in this week’s diplomacy.
What Can the West Do?
There are things that might be discussed in the realm of arms control and confidence-building measures, although if these were to be taken very far they would require reciprocity on the Russian side and they are not matters that could be sorted quickly. That would also be true of another option, which would be a commitment to finding a long-term solution to the problem of the separatist enclaves in Ukraine. The difficulty again for Moscow is it is not clear that there is a long-term solution which leaves the separatists in a better position. In general once the two sides start trading grievances the Ukrainians will have a lot to contribute, while NATO can talk about the authoritarian turn in Russian politics, and the cyber attacks and information campaigns against Western societies. They can start making their own demands for changes in Russian behaviour.
It makes good sense to have a serious conversation with the Russians and look for ways to calm down the situation and provide reassurances. We can acknowledge that we now have a better understanding of their anxieties and that we will not add to them gratuitously. But in doing so NATO should also emphasise that the current situation is the result of countries wanting to be part of the West and fearful of being stuck in a Russian sphere of influence, and that so far the current crisis has reinforced this position.
Putin’s basic problem is that his military option does not solve definitively any of his security problems, and is most likely to make them worse. Furthermore, once he has used it up it is not clear what he can do for an encore. For the moment the combination of a military build-up and uncompromising demands means that Putin has been able to play a weak hand well. But it is still a weak hand. Any military action risks setting in motion events that could do serious harm not only to the targets of the action but also Russia. There is no way that NATO is going to agree to the full Russian demands which are so far-reaching that any positive NATO response can only seem puny.
It would be unwise to predict what may happen over the next few weeks. If he fails to get satisfaction Putin can find other ways to make his point, perhaps establishing a permanent base in Belarus or moving more offensive systems of his own into Donetsk and Luhansk. For now he may have boxed himself in with a show of military strength, which isn’t quite enough, in support of a set of political demands, which go too far. The big uncertainty is about whether Putin has concluded that this is a now or never moment, that if he does not act now Ukraine will be drawn forever into NATO’s orbit and that Russia’s comparative weakness will be confirmed for the foreseeable future.