From Novaya gazeta, Dec. 10, 2021, p. 6. Condensed text:
. . . The world is being rocked by the latest fears (after last spring’s buildup) [see Vol. 73, No. 16, pp. 8‑11] that we are on the verge of an open military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine that is no longer hybrid in nature. Putin and Biden’s online talk, during which the presidents warned each other against taking various rash actions and continued to draw “red lines,” did not dispel these fears completely. But what is at the bottom of this latest flare-up in tensions? Instead of simply echoing many analysts, including authors at Novaya, that no party to the conflict wants war, I want to dig deeper and try to understand what all the hype is about.
The short answer is simple: This is the latest edition of “forced negotiations.” If we start with Russia, we know that this method has been used repeatedly by the Russian government, which has no convincing mechanisms for geopolitical influence other than military force or the threat of military force: It does not have any economic, ideological or coalitional mechanisms in its arsenal, or a domestic sociopolitical model that is enticing [to other states]. Russia has used this method, which has helped partially overcome its post-Crimean isolation and restore interrupted contacts with Western “partners” several times, and quite successfully at that. Two examples occurred when Russia became involved in the war in Syria (at the time, senior Russian and US military officials established contacts to avoid unforeseen incidents and clashes) and last spring, when Russia’s concentration of forces on the border with Ukraine, which was taken as a real threat of invasion, ended in a meeting between the US and Russian presidents in Geneva in June.
So what has now forced the Kremlin to resort to this costly and risky maneuver? The causes lie in the deep impasse of the Minsk agreements, the breakdown of Normandy format talks and, most importantly, the renewal of the topic of Ukraine’s admission to NATO, which the Kremlin has started to view as a very real danger after ignoring the possibility for several years. It thought that NATO wouldn’t take that step because of the territorial problems between Ukraine and Russia (the Crimea, the Donetsk Basin), and wouldn’t encumber itself with the obligation of using its military forces to protect its ally Ukraine on the basis of Art. 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.
And it’s quite possible that, even today, the West is not truly prepared for Ukraine to join NATO in the near future because it believes that Ukraine itself is not prepared to do so. But conversations about Ukraine’s right to join NATO have become more confident in tone. This includes NATO’s latest explanations to Russia that it does not intentionally lure anyone into its ranks, but that it cannot refuse countries that want to join and that it has no obligation to respond to protests by “outsiders” complaining that the alliance cannot be extended to the east, the drawing of “red lines” and demands for legal guarantees.
The Kremlin’s shift to yet another round of troop maneuvers and the “threat of invasion” were triggered by heightened political and propaganda activities on the part of Ukraine, as evidenced by the speeches of politicians and experts and in materials published by the Ukrainian media in recent months. These include latest accusations against Moscow of failure to comply with the Minsk agreements (which led to even sharper accusations against Kiev of ignoring the political component of these agreements); statements about the need to “update” this format, since Kiev has no intention of implementing the Minsk Protocol in its current form; the Ukrainian establishment’s criticism of the Steinmeier Formula for holding elections in the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics (DPR/LPR); and persistent attempts to assemble the Normandy format at any cost (in response, Moscow has pointed to Kiev’s failure to implement the decisions of the last Normandy summit [see Vol. 71, No. 50, pp. 3‑7]. Then, of course, [there is the factor of Ukrainian officials’] increasingly frequent calls to admit Ukraine into NATO as the only guarantee of security, as well as public discussions about strengthening the Ukrainian Army’s combat readiness, coupled with calls for Western allies to help reinforce this might more robustly and consistently.
It’s completely understandable that the Russian propaganda machine could not let this opportunity slip by and started a counteroffensive titled “Kiev’s disruption of the peace talks” and “Kiev’s preparations for a military solution to the problem of the Donetsk Basin.” And then it started its own game with “troop movements,” either in preparation to protect the DPR/LPR, to conduct its own invasion, or just to move troops around the country, whichever you’d like – the main thing is to persuade Ukraine to make concessions and get the West to negotiate.
After a brief pause, all the hype about a “Russian invasion” that started appearing in the US press in October was embraced and enhanced in Kiev. This was both a way to demonstrate the resolve of the Ukrainian president, who has apparently decided to run for a second term, and as part of the campaign “Admit Ukraine into NATO already!”
A separate question is what role the Americans had in stirring up the crisis mood. Readers will recall that it was the American press that put this topic into circulation by being the first to float the idea of a Russian invasion. It’s clear that the problem of Ukraine is embedded in the broader context of US-Russia relations and that the topic of Russian aggressiveness apparently provides Washington with additional arguments in its tense dialogue on security and arms limitation. It also helps keep its European allies in NATO on their toes. Beyond this, as the main force in NATO, the US naturally cannot ignore Russian troop movements. In fact, Russia is after the exact same thing when it makes statements about NATO forces approaching the Russian border or about the deployment of new types of weapons there. Some experts also believe that the US’s sharp reaction reflects the position of groups that have influence in the official establishment and are dissatisfied with Biden’s “June” course [i.e., policy adopted after the Geneva summit – Trans.] toward more balanced and pragmatic relations with Russia amid growing challenges from China.
So, no one is ready to fight. But the Kremlin demonstrated the seriousness of its intentions, once again scaring Ukraine and the world community, and persuading the US president to hold talks. And that’s not all: The Kremlin has again managed to get Western politicians, including American ones, to publicly recognize the Minsk agreements as the basis for settlement of the Donetsk Basin crisis. It pointed to the need to take Russia’s security interests into account and expressed its extreme disapproval of NATO membership for its closest neighbor, which is fraught with unpredictable consequences. The Kremlin also indicated its desire to involve the US (Kiev’s main “puppeteer,” according to the Kremlin) in the process of settling the conflict in the Donetsk Basin, all the way up to a possible restoration of the institution of US and Russian special representatives for Ukraine (something along the lines of [Vladislav] Surkov and [Kurt] Volker [the Russian and US special representatives on Ukraine – Trans.]).
By hyping up the idea of a “Russian threat,” Kiev has demonstrated the urgent need for its membership in NATO as a guarantee of its security, and as a way to strengthen its military and technical cooperation with the West.
The US has reaffirmed its position as the main guarantor of the West’s interests and as the most important participant (even though it’s not part of the Normandy format) in efforts to settle the conflict surrounding the Donetsk Basin – which, incidentally, was noted by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
This would all be fine if these exercises regarding “forced negotiations” were not held with the help of armed forces and aggressive propaganda in an electrified atmosphere of mutual distrust and insufficient understanding of the other party’s true intentions. There are too many sparks to tell where the fire will flare up.