Can Russia back down in Ukraine?

“Russia presented the United States with its demands last month. It requested “legally binding security guarantees,” including a stop to eastward NATO expansion, which would exclude Ukraine from ever joining, and that NATO would not deploy troops or conduct military activities in countries that joined the alliance after 1997, which includes Poland and former Soviet states in the Baltics.

Kyiv and NATO have grown closer over the last decade-plus, and actively cooperate. But Ukraine is nowhere close to officially joining NATO, something the US openly admits, and something Russia also knows. Still, NATO says Ukrainian future membership is a possibilitybecause of its open-door policy, which says each country can freely choose its own security arrangements. To bar Ukrainian ascension would effectively give Russia a veto on NATO membership and cooperation. Removing NATO’s military presence on the alliance’s eastern flank would restore Russia’s influence over European security, remaking it into something a bit more Cold War-esque.

Russia almost certainly knew that the US and NATO would never go for this. The question is what Putin thought he had to gain by making an impossible opening bid. Some see it as a way to justify invasion, blaming the United States for the implosion of any talks. “This is a tried-and-true Russian tactic of using diplomacy to say that they’re the good guys, in spite of their maximalist demands, that [they’re] able to go to their people and say, ‘look, we tried everything. The West is a security threat, and so this is why we’re taking these actions,’” said David Salvo, deputy director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.”

“Russia might not like the responses on NATO, but there are spaces where the US and NATO could offer concessions, such as greater transparency about military maneuvers and exercises, or more discussions on arms control, including reviving a version of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or even scaling back some US naval exercises in places like the Black Sea, which Russia sees as a provocation. “There is still potentially room on those fronts,” said Alyssa Demus, senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation. “That’s entirely possible that the US and Russia or NATO and Russia could negotiate on those — and then maybe table the other issues for a later date.”

But if the US and NATO extendthose olive branches or others, that might not be enough for Putin. Neither of thesewill resolve Putin’s fundamental sticking point. He has repeatedly framed the US and NATO as a major security threat to Russia for his domestic audience, including spreading disinformation about the West being behind the real chaos in Ukraine. “Having built up this formidable force, and issued all manner of ominous warnings, he’s got to come back with something tangible,” said Rajan Menon, director of the grand strategy program at Defense Priorities.”

“really, Ukraine is already at war. In 2014, Russia illegally annexed Crimea, and exploited protests in the Donbas region, in eastern Ukraine, backing and arming pro-Russian separatists. Russia denied its direct involvement, but military units of “little green men” — soldiers in uniform but without insignia — moved into the region with equipment. More than 14,000 people have died in the conflict, which ebbs and flows, though Moscow has fueled the unrest since. Russia has also continued to destabilize and undermine Ukraine, including by launching cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and conducting disinformation campaigns.

It is possible that Moscow takes aggressive steps — escalating its proxy war, launching sweeping disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks, and applying pressure in all sorts of ways that don’t involve moving Russian troops across the border and won’t invite the most crushing consequences.

But this route looks a lot like what Russia has already been doing, and it hasn’t gotten Moscow closer to its objectives. “How much more can you destabilize? It doesn’t seem to have had a massive damaging impact on Ukraine’s pursuit of democracy, or even its tilt toward the west,” said Margarita Konaev, associate director of analysis and research fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET).

And that might prompt Moscow to see force as the solution.”

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