Russia-West: Continuation of a Managed Escalation

Russia’s February 17 response to the American response to Moscow’s demands for security guarantees, published on the same day, coupled with what has been happening in Russian-West relations around Ukraine over the past few days, indicate that in the near future we will see a simultaneous diplomatic marathon on two tracks at once: the political aspects of security guarantees and the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Meanwhile, there will be even more intense military muscle-flexing, both by Russia and by the US/NATO. Extreme scenarios – both Russia’s “invasion” of Ukraine and the recognition of the independence of the DPR and LPR, and the return of the situation to the October 2021 model, seem unlikely.

Both the situation around Ukraine and concerning the Russian-Western negotiations on security guarantees look contradictory.

On the one hand, the parties firmly continue to stand their ground on fundamental issues of European security, above all on NATO expansion and Russia's right to limit the boundaries of this expansion. At the same time, the United States and NATO are building up their military presence on the eastern flank of the alliance and military assistance to Ukraine (which directly opposes Russian demands), while Kiev still categorically refuses to implement the key provisions of the Minsk agreements (for example, on direct dialogue with the DPR and LPR) and insists on their revision or replacement.

On the other hand, there have been a series of talks between Vladimir Putin, Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, who clearly promoted some steps for Moscow and Kiev to implement the Minsk agreements and reduce the severity of the issue of Ukraine's accession to NATO. Putin also spoke  to with Joe Biden, with whom these proposals were certainly coordinated. Following these, Russia made a “de-escalating” statement that it would continue negotiations with the West, and announced the cessation of the active phase of military exercises near the Ukrainian borders and a partial withdrawal of troops.

However, just a few hours after these statements, more military aggravation has begun in Donbass, and the DPR authorities have started talking about Kiev preparing a “forceful seizure of Donbass”, fraught with a full-scale war between Ukraine and Russia. The United States and NATO, for their part, began to declare that Russia was not only allegedly not withdrawing its troops from the borders of Ukraine, but, on the contrary, was building them up, and that the threat of its “invasion” remained real. Russia’s State Duma called on Putin to recognise the independence of the DNR and LNR.

Finally, two days after the transmission of its response to the United States, Russia is conducting large-scale exercises of strategic deterrence forces involving the Strategic Missile Forces, the aerospace forces and the Northern and Black Sea Fleets (which means possible nuclear strikes against the United States and NATO), to which it also invited Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. It is obviously part of the "military-technical response" that Russia has spoken about many times.

Modern Diplomacy
Can Russia Deliver on Its Threats?
Andrey Sushentsov
The lack of attention to Russian proposals and objections was the result of a distorted perception in the West about the goals of Russian policy. The main assumption in such a speculative scheme was that Russia cannot behave rationally, that it is just an ever-expanding expansionist power without logic or pragmatism. Such an assessment is very comfortable, but it is inadequate even when analysing the simplest questions, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.

Three main conclusions can be drawn from all these events.

The first conclusion is that Russia does not see its demand that NATO unequivocally and permanently renounce the possibility of expanding into Ukraine as unfeasible, and negotiations will continue in this regard in the near future. These talks may be accompanied by talks on military issues (intermediate and shorter range missiles, missile defence, the Russia-NATO deconfliction mechanism), but progress on the latter will be only possible if there is some movement forward on the main political issue.

First, this Russian demand in no way violates either the principle proclaimed in the Paris Charter of a New Europe and declared by the West as “sacred”, according to which states have the right to freely choose ways to ensure their security, including joining military blocs; or the policy of NATO having “open doors”, based on Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty. The West's assertion to the contrary is hypocrisy and a deliberate interpretation of principles in its favour. None of these documents obliges NATO to include all states that have a desire to join it, and they don’t guarantee these countries the right to join. This principle is the right of countries to freely want, but not be guaranteed to get what they want. All decisions about expansion are made only by the NATO countries themselves (and above all the United States as the hegemon within the alliance) based on their own interests and how this expansion would affect their own security, and not on the basis of the foreign policy aspirations of the countries declaring their desire to join.

Second, in the current situation, the second Western argument is that the US and NATO cannot agree to give Russia de facto veto power on their ability to expand the alliance to certain countries, and that they cannot, under pressure from Moscow, back away from the promise they made to Ukraine and Georgia 14 years ago to allow them membership. In the context of a tough military-political confrontation, the adversaries (and Russia and NATO are exactly that for each other) are obliged to respect each other's red lines, even if they consider them illegitimate, and adjust their policies accordingly in order to avoid war.
Thus, the continuation of diplomatic pressure, accompanied by a demonstration of military force and readiness to use it if necessary, can still ultimately provide an acceptable result for Russia regarding the issue of NATO expansion.
The US and NATO will abandon the "open door" policy towards Ukraine only if the costs of this policy (military, geopolitical, security) obviously exceed the benefits.

In parallel, Russia, judging by the statements it has made, is ready to discuss security guarantees for Ukraine if the issue of its entry into NATO is closed once and for all. It cannot be ruled out that Moscow will also discuss more flexible and less painful options for NATO to ensure that Ukraine is never allowed to join the alliance. For example, Kiev could decide to return to neutrality, which would be confirmed by guarantees from various parties, including Russia.

The second conclusion: following the results of negotiations with Macron and Scholz, Russia is giving the West one more chance to put pressure on Ukraine to implement the Minsk agreements. They can provide for such a transformation of Ukraine that would be acceptable to Russia - its transformation into a decentralised state with a high degree of regional autonomy and special status for Donbass, which could no longer be consolidated on an anti-Russian nationalist basis or developed as “anti-Russia”. The State Duma's call to recognise the DPR and LPR is  additional leverage to put pressure on Kiev, Paris and Berlin in order to give the Minsk process urgency, to make it clear that Moscow is not ready to wait another seven years. The very recognition would be counterproductive for Moscow: Ukraine would have only become more consolidated on an anti-Russian basis, its military cooperation with the West would grow, and the problem of NATO expansion would not have been resolved.

At the same time, Moscow obviously proceeds from the fact that Kiev, which has not been able to fulfil the Minsk agreements due to internal political restrictions, is only making excuses for the ongoing sabotage on its part. Ukraine is almost existentially dependent on the West – financially, economically, and politically. According to Moscow, if the US and the EU use this resource even a little bit, Kiev will fulfil its obligations in the best possible way. After all, the alternative would be a total collapse. The problem is that the West still lacks the political will to put appropriate pressure on Ukraine. This means, as in the first case, that the United States, France and Germany will suffer more from the final collapse of the Minsk agreements than they will suffer from the difficulties that they will have to overcome in order to put more severe pressure on Kiev.

The third conclusion is that military pressure from Russia, both against NATO and against Ukraine, must be maintained. Otherwise, as the history of Russian-Western relations over the past 30 years in general and recent weeks in particular show, making progress is never a given, and one can’t even count but on being heard. In this regard, the exercises of the Russian strategic forces are logical and necessary steps, as well as the continued presence of Russian troops near the borders with Ukraine.
The main threat to the implementation of this scenario of the simultaneous continuation of negotiations and military pressure is that Kiev may decide to launch full-scale military operations against the DPR and LPR, if it is accepted.

In Ukraine, one could come to the dangerous conclusion that since the Russian “invasion” scheduled by Joe Biden for February 16 did not take place, and the West is still unable to put the necessary pressure on it (and some in the West are even encouraging Kiev to take more decisive action), then it is possible to do whatever you want without fear of military reaction from Moscow. The new escalation in Donbass may reflect this very logic. It remains to be hoped that in Washington and Western Europe they will give Ukraine a slap on the wrist on time, and the lesson of the mass evacuation of Western diplomatic personnel from Kiev with US and NATO assurances that they will not go to war with Russia at Ukraine’s expense will not be taken for granted.

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Gregory Simons
This contemporary deeply undiplomatic form of diplomacy that is being waged by the US-led West is not done so from a position of strength, but rather from a position of declining influence and power.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.