Today, any move by the Kremlin will have negative consequences for Russia. A further incursion into Ukraine will not be a walk in the park and can undermine Russia’s image as a military power, especially in the eyes of the Chinese leaders. In addition, Russia’s economy could suffer irreparable loss, and the Kremlin will find itself in complete political isolation,
Yet, retreating for the second time in a year will tarnish Putin’s reputation, because who will still believe that he is capable of carrying out his threats?
Russia’s aggressive actions raise several important questions about a major war with Ukraine, the Kremlin’s goals, reasons, and potential actions.
It’s high time to consider
- why the escalation is happening now;
- whether there are grounds for fears about hidden agreements between the West and Russia;
- why the differences in perception between President Joe Biden and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy?
Why is Russia escalating now?
There are four factors that explain why, in the eighth year of Russia’s undeclared war against Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has threatened Ukraine with a further invasion, which would have catastrophic consequences for Ukrainian statehood and a disastrous impact on all of Europe.
Factor #1: the United States
Despite the amiable, but disturbing statements voiced by former US President Donald Trump in favor of his Russian vis-à-vis, Putin not only failed to gain what he wanted — to become a key player in a weakened Europe and, thus, gain more influence in post-Soviet space — but he also suffered several major setbacks.
Today, Washington has acknowledged the Russian threat in its strategic documents and redefined its security and defense goals and objectives. Moscow was hit with painful sanctions; Kyiv received lethal weapons and tangible aid, and other European capitals strengthened their military presence and new defense capabilities.
It is likely that Moscow saw Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House as a chance to make up for lost time, because it was during his vice presidency that the Kremlin easily occupied the Crimean peninsula. However,
Hoping for a change in Moscow’s behavior, in June 2021, Biden gave Putin several months to assess the benefits of a “stable and predictable relationship” with the United States in exchange for a constructive solution to the growing problems.
The Kremlin was not happy with the role, and the time factor was becoming increasingly critical, as congressional mid-term elections are scheduled for November, where Republicans are likely to regain a majority.
One should not expect concessions from the Republicans, as they sharply criticize the President and the Democrats in Congress for their weak position on Russia. Senator Ted Cruz has blocked the defense budget bill and several nominations for government and military positions, demanding approval of an initiative to impose immediate sanctions on Nord Stream-2.
Republican bills on “Guaranteeing Ukraine’s autonomy by reinforcing its defense act” are currently registered in both chambers, providing for increased support for Ukraine and increased pressure on Russia. Therefore, the Kremlin had to seize the opportunity as long as Biden was still in control of Congress and would be able to enforce hypothetical agreements with Putin.
Factor #2: key European NATO allies are vulnerable
The Kremlin views Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany as a weak individual, who is also a member of the traditionally Moscow-friendly SPD party.
In addition, the new German coalition government does not prioritize foreign policy issues and does not present a united front.
Scholz is likely to limit the scope of manoeuvre for Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, member of the rival Green Party, which has nevertheless voiced its commitment to a more critical approach to Moscow.
France, which has never been hostile to Russia and is looking for a third, non-transatlantic path to strategic autonomy, is absorbed in domestic problems and is also getting ready for a presidential election in April 2022.
Factor #3: Ukraine
The Kremlin has no illusions about political newcomer Volodymyr Zelenskyy implementing a Russian interpretation of the Minsk Agreements.
Putin and his acolytes have expressed outrage over the law on indigenous peoples and the transitional period in the Donbas, as well as the launch of the Crimean Platform. Ukraine’s restriction of pro-Russian channels and prosecution of pro-Russian ally Viktor Medvedchuk have reduced Moscow’s leverage over Ukrainian politics and society.
By developing defense capabilities on its own and with the help of its partners, Ukraine is becoming less and less vulnerable to Russian military threats. Ukraine was granted the Enhanced Opportunities Partner status on 12 June 2020, has progressed towards interoperability, and is gaining important experience in numerous and large-scale exercises with NATO partners.
US assistance and contracts with the United Kingdom and Türkiye to build missile boats and corvettes for the Ukrainian Navy are changing the scenario in the Black Sea, where Ukraine is most vulnerable. The Javelins obtained from the United States have become a deterrent in the Donbas war, while the Bayraktars acquired in Türkiye have the potential to change the status quo.
Factor #4: the Russian Federation
Not only are the prospects for lifting sanctions, which have frozen Russia’s growth and development, not on the table, but the likelihood of new ones is increasing.
Although Russia has almost overcome the negative effects of COVID-19 statistically, the economic and business communities, as well as the regions are far from satisfied with either the government’s actions or the standard of living.
Confrontations with the West have led to the complete curtailment of the rights and freedoms of Russians, so the potential for protest is accumulating. But, Russia has nowhere else to go; and a peaceful change of government cannot be decided in a democratic way.
As they are less influenced by TV, young Russians are increasingly rejecting Putin’s regime, which is isolating them from political and cultural spheres, depriving them of the future they would like to choose for themselves.
Thus, as he lacks a real external enemy, a concrete victory, and a sense of greatness, Putin’s personal power is under threat.
Given that changes to the Constitution have put Putin in power indefinitely, a radical change in the country’s situation depends solely on Putin’s life expectancy.
The pressure of time, Putin’s perception of western decline as a reality, and the belief in his own power — albeit considerably less than that of the collective powers of the West, but more skillfully applied – pushed the Russian president to take immediate, active action.
A secret agreement between the West and Russia?
Ukraine has no allies who are legally obliged to provide effective ways to guarantee a halt to a Russian attack.
For example, the following suppositions on the Kremlin aims should not be ignored:
- introducing a Trojan horse – the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” into Ukraine’s legal and political field, which would influence domestic and foreign policy in the interests of its Moscow curators;
- manipulating the Constitution and thus, preventing Ukraine from escaping Russia’s influence (EU and NATO membership, as well as general integration into Western civilization space).
Despite the fact that for eight years there these fears have not become reality, they cannot be forgotten, removed, or denied.
Prior to the Russian Foreign Ministry’s publication of private Normandy Four correspondence (France and Germany) in November 2021, Ukrainian civil society suspected that something was going on behind the scenes.
However, the correspondence of our German and French partners shows that their key positions do not differ at all from Ukraine’s. In fact, Berlin and Paris have constantly informed Kyiv about their intentions and measures aimed at resolving security, humanitarian, political and economic issues in the occupied territories.
In point of fact, frustrated by the Normandy Four’s refusal to impose the Russian narrative of a “civil war in the Donbas” and rejection of Moscow’s “solutions” to end the conflict, the Kremlin decided to take an unprecedented step and publish this diplomatic correspondence.
There is no doubt that the Germans and the French would be relieved if Ukrainians started talking about changing voting procedures in the occupied territories or launched an “advisory council” to discuss changes to the Constitution, etc.
But, this has not happened, because Ukrainian civil society and Ukraine’s political community rejected these ideas, and not because of pressure from their European partners.
So, will anything change now? Has the Ukrainian government actually forgotten the violent clashes between protesters and riot police on 31 August 2015, caused by the Verkhovna Rada’s decentralization bill, granting more powers to occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, and thus implementing the Minsk Agreements in the Ukrainian legal sphere?
As it is, in the beginning, the United States wanted to appease Russia as quickly as possible and focus on a more strategically dangerous adversary, China.
However, the Kremlin unexpectedly whipped up tensions, announcing an ultimatum in the form of draft agreements on Russian security guarantees from the United States and NATO, increased militant propaganda and, to prove it was deadly serious, continued to build up forces and resources in the occupied territories, along Ukraine’s borders and in Belarus, which is losing what remains of its sovereignty and independence.
While Washington sounded the alarm, Kyiv remained calm, as Ukrainian intelligence data did not show sufficient forces and resources for a large-scale invasion. However, they also did not rule out the possibility that the situation might change.
- Some people began interpreting the warning signals as a sign that American intelligence had reliable data on Russia’s plans, if not from Putin’s immediate entourage, then from the General Staff.
- Others saw an imminent threat that could be averted only if Ukraine swallowed the bitter Minsk pill, which probably would satisfy Moscow’s demands to block Ukraine’s NATO membership and return Ukraine to Russia’s sphere of influence.
However, attributing such intentions to the Biden Administration shows a complete misunderstanding of the radically changed situation in Europe and within the United States.
Putin made a mistake when he turned the low-intensity conflict in the Donbas, where there are no Russian soldiers, as he says, into a European security crisis. His actions have united Europeans and Americans, at least for a while. This was evident at the Strategic Stability Dialogue meetings between Russia, the US, NATO, and the OSCE in January 2022.
Although so many Russian combat forces are currently deployed all along Ukraine’s borders and are also a direct threat to NATO member states, Europeans tend to look skeptically at Ukraine’s assertion that Ukraine is the eastern outpost of European civilization and that Russia is destroying the world order built after the collapse of the Evil Empire.
But, Blinken heard these statements, so the “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine” principle has become a cornerstone of Washington’s dialogue with Moscow.
Washington talks with Kyiv before and after each conversation with Moscow. Blinken made an unscheduled visit to Kyiv on 19 January 2022 before meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov only because he wanted to confirm the “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine” principle.
Any concessions to Russia at the expense of Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence will be a devastating blow to NATO because the Kremlin will next target the eastern European countries, which are all NATO members. The security situation will deteriorate not only for the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania, but also for Sweden and Finland.
Russia has challenged the European security system and thus threatens all the countries on the European continent
In the meantime, China is watching the West’s response, especially that of the United States. In all likelihood, this will define Beijing’s plan to expand its influence in the region and take over the “rebellious province of Taiwan” that Washington has a legal obligation to defend, including with nuclear weapons. This brings the security of other allies to the forefront — Japan, South Korea, and Australia.
Moscow and Beijing view the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as a symbol of America’s decline. To prove them wrong, Washington must not waiver or fail in Ukraine.
In addition, Ukraine remains an important factor in America’s domestic policy.
The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) signed into law by President Donald Trump on August 2, 2017, imposed sanctions on Iran, North Korea, and Russia and also limited the president’s actions against Ukraine.
The Ukrainian factor also played a key role in Trumps’s impeachment, when he was accused of putting pressure on Ukraine and making it vulnerable before Russia.
Republicans maintain that Joe Biden is too lenient with Russia. It is hard to imagine what will happen if they discover that Biden may have played along with Moscow and put pressure on Kyiv.
Why is the United States ratcheting up its rhetoric while Ukraine is toning it down?
If we ignore the emotional reactions of people who approve of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s calming statements and those who do not accept his emotional words and criticism of Washington during the recent press conference, the following conclusions can be drawn.
First, the President of Ukraine is aware of the state of Ukraine’s economy better than any foreign leader. A meeting of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine was held on January 24, and both the Russian military threat and Ukraine’s plummeting economy were discussed.
Despite the reassuring words of Ukrainian government officials, it is clear that the threat of a major war frightens foreign investors and pushes Ukrainians to take certain measures to protect themselves during an unprecedented crisis, a situation that does not at all contribute to economic stability.
Having learned their lesson from the Soviet past and different crises, Ukrainians are converting their hryvnias into foreign currency and stockpiling provisions. Even worse, entrepreneurs are starting to search for safer havens for conducting business. Thus, panic and an economic crisis can have a devastating effect even if Russia does not push further into Ukraine.
Second, the careless rhetoric of President Zelenskyy and some of his party members can damage relations with Ukraine’s key partner, on which so much depends. Obviously, this is not the best time to accuse Washington of not doing enough to support Ukraine.
One can argue that Washington misjudged Moscow, both in 2014 under Barack Obama and in 2021 at the beginning of Joe Biden’s term, but politics is the art of the possible, so we must proceed from existing truths and realities.
The fact that President Zelenskyy’s statements have been used against Ukraine does not add anything positive to the general picture. The Russian Embassy in Great Britain published a tweet quoting, albeit manipulatively, the president’s real statement that “Western talks about the irreversibility of the war are harmful to Ukraine’s economy. But the situation at the border is no more tense than a year ago.”
Many of Zelenskyy’s statements were so poorly worded that they were actually noted by the Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzia at the UNSC Emergency session on January 31.
Third, no one but Putin knows whether there will be a large-scale war or local escalation. In the event of de-escalation, some will argue that everything was a bluff from the beginning, others – that deterrence has worked.
We can speculate that after realizing the Kremlin was actually ready to escalate even after the first US-Russian summit in Geneva in June 2021, the White House decided it was better to react instantly.
Indeed, the Americans have managed to unite all the European countries, including Putin’s advocates, and to reject any unacceptable compromises with the Kremlin.
Today, any move by the Kremlin will have negative consequences for Russia. A further incursion into Ukraine will not be a walk in the park. Casualties in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, territorial defense and resistance forces, and among civilians can undermine Russia’s image as a military power, especially in the eyes of the Chinese leaders.Today, any move by the Kremlin will have negative consequences for Russia. A further incursion into Ukraine will not be a walk in the park, and can undermine Russia's image as a military power. Click To Tweet
Moreover, it is difficult to imagine what effect thousands and thousands of coffins carrying Russian soldiers (cargo 200) will have on Russian civil society.
Be that as it may, in the coming weeks, the Kremlin should choose the lesser evil for its people.
In this way, Washington will have the opportunity to finally stabilize relations with Moscow, in order to continue a dialogue on European security and return to its business with China. This would be a reasonable strategy that could wrap up the present tense situation.
Oleksandr Khara is a diplomat and expert at the Center for Defence Strategies.
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