Russia has been massing troops near Ukraine’s borders for months. Over 100,000 Russian troops have been reported lately, including ballistic missile systems and other military equipment. Units from Siberia as well as from Southern and Western Russia have been mobilized. Military cooperation between Russia and Byelorussia is deepening as troop movements and military exercises intensify, directly menacing Kyiv. U.S. Secretary of State Blinken is expected to provide a written answer addressing some of Russia’s demands soon and putting “new ideas on the table.”
Experts and former diplomats believe America will need to concede something substantial, whether before or after an invasion. Russia must choose between two unpleasant options: humiliation or war. Putin made his intransigent demands public. Severe credibility costs are pending if he does not obtain at least one of his demands.
For experts like Anatol Lieven and Paul Robinson, the goal is to go beyond Ukraine’s proposal of half-provisional, temporary autonomy for separatist regions and to grant them full autonomy in exchange for a peace agreement and the withdrawal of Russian troops from the conflictual areas. They also suggest relying on an international military deployment to ensure effective demilitarization of the Donbas region.
Solidifying NATO’s deterrence posture by increasing incursions in the Black Sea or boosting material support to Ukraine merely solidifies Putin’s belief that it is only possible to secure his objectives militarily. An alternative solution would require NATO to declare a moratorium on all new memberships and pressure Ukraine to implement the Minsk II agreement. NATO members are divided concerning Ukraine’s integration in the Alliance, making its membership highly unlikely. Thus, it would not be a significant strategic loss since NATO has no severe intentions to accept Ukraine anyway.
Western Support to Ukraine
Russian current tenseness is in direct reaction to continuous Western support of Ukraine forces fighting Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions – collectively known as the Donbas. NATO’s support to Kyiv is channeled through the Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine. Since 2014 and the Russian annexation of Crimea and destabilization in Eastern Ukraine, NATO’s goal has been to increase capacity building and provide military training to allow Ukrainian forces to resist Russian-backed militias in the Donbas.
The Biden administration has equipped Ukraine with arms and military equipment totaling $650 million in the last fiscal year alone. The U.K. signed a Memorandum of Implementation on naval contracts with Kyiv in 2021, while the U.S. signed a Strategic Defense Framework and a Charter on Strategic Partnership with Ukraine. 200 Canadian soldiers are deployed in Ukraine as part of Operation Unifier, and Ottawa has provided $700 million worth of aid to Ukrainian forces since 2014. As part of broader efforts to augment its deterrence posture following the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, NATO has increased its deployments in the Black Sea (naval and air patrols) and reinforced the Alliance’s forward presence in Eastern and Southern Europe. More recently, France has declared it would send troops to Romania as part of NATO’s “Enhanced Advanced Presence” missions. A strengthening of NATO’s military posture can also be seen in the Baltic countries and Eastern Europe.
Russia’s Grievances and Resolve
All of this triggers great security concerns in Russia. Putin is suspicious of NATO’s defensive rhetoric, notably because of NATO’s interventions in Kosovo and Libya and its post-Cold War Eastern European expansion. For Russia, U.S. support to Ukraine equates to a de facto integration of Ukraine – short of the article 5 provision – in NATO. U.S.’ stated willingness to increase interoperability between Ukraine and NATO is unacceptable for Moscow, for security and ideological reasons. Ukraine’s insistence on joining NATO and NATO’s firm support of its Open-Door policy (article 10) is at the core of Russian grievances against the West. There is no way the Kremlin will ever allow Ukraine to move forward with its ambition of joining NATO, nor will NATO ever fight to help Ukraine do so.
In contrast with its previous military build-up in April 2021, Russia has this time been limpid in its public demands. The Kremlin wants to roll back NATO’s expansion in Europe to a 1997-type European security architecture, obtain written guarantees that NATO will not expand in the post-Soviet sphere, and stop NATO’s military assistance to former Soviet states. The urgency of Russia’s public demands and the threat of meeting non-compliance with “retaliatory military-technical measures” expresses Moscow’s determination. Russia cannot just back down after its multiple failed attempts at deterring NATO-Ukraine cooperation, because its credibility is at stake.
During recent talks between Blinken and Lavrov, the U.S. agreed to provide a written answer to address Russia’s demands and express its own concerns. More talks are scheduled, but they won’t be many more if Russia does not get something substantial soon. Experts believe a military intervention – if one must happen – will most likely take place after February 20th (the date of the end of the Russian-Byelorussian exercise and China’s Olympics). The pressure could significantly decrease if the U.S.’ expected written response goes beyond risk-reduction measures related to military activities and arms control.
Concessions on missile deployments or maneuvers in Europe would not restrain Russia from attacking Ukraine. Confidence-building measures and other subterfuges of the sort will not lure Russia into forgetting about the steady advancement of “American intelligence structures into key branches of the Ukrainian government, and the deployment of America’s military infrastructure [in Ukraine].”
Capacity Building and Deterrence
Russia-backed militias in Donbas are meant to prevent NATO’s local progression. Sending more aid and arms to Kyiv pushes Putin to rely on force to counter the solidification of a trend that he sees as increasingly threatening. Putin believes Ukraine is inevitably drifting westward and that only force can stop this bascule.
Ukraine’s intention of ameliorating its military equipment could soon result – particularly if the U.S. decides to speed up the process – in Kyiv having capabilities to impose painful costs on Russia. If Ukraine obtains arms that can alter the balance of power, a Russian attack to alleviate Moscow’s costs of inaction (reduced military leverage/increased vulnerability) becomes rational.
It is indeed a risk for Russia that Ukraine’s military modernization ultimately alters Russian capacity to coerce Kyiv at reasonable costs if the latter obtain long-range missiles or defence missile systems. The longer Russia waits to stop NATO’s progression in Ukraine by force, the higher the costs of military intervention are. That is why increasing arms transfers to Ukraine is a dangerous slippery slope.
On the other hand, one might suggest that Washington’s expected written response could better prevent further Russian aggression by clearly specifying countermeasures addressing various scenarios. These countermeasures do not include sending troops, as a direct military intervention has been ruled out by the United States. The maximum-pressure options, short of war that the West could threaten Russia with, are threefold:
First, Germany could suspend the certification of Nord Stream 2 (NS2) as a retaliatory measure either for the current massive Russian build-up or in the case of further aggression. Second, the United States could impose more sanctions on Russian oligarchs and even ban all American-made technologies that Russia heavily relies on. Third, all Russian financial institutions could be banned from the SWIFT banking system, isolating Russia from the global economy. The third option is unrealistic: it implies energy-related severe logistical and economic costs for many actors other than Russia.
It is clear that Russia anticipates these countermeasures. They are painful and constitute NATO’s central deterrence, although using any of these measures before a Russian attack would likely precipitate it. Implementing any of these measures must be in retaliation for an unsuccessful attempt at stopping a Russian intervention.
The West Has No Interest in War
If Western countries decided to implement harsh sanctions to respond to a massive Russian intervention, such sanctions would not be costless for them. America needs Russia to hedge between it and Beijing, not wholly align on its systemic rival. This would inevitably happen if America gave the necessary impulse to effectively ban Russian financial institutions from the SWIFT banking system. China would indeed most likely not comply with ultra-strict sanctions that would seriously damage its economy. This situation would accelerate the development of currency alternatives – “dedolarization” – circumventing the U.S. dollar for commercial activities at the expense of its influence worldwide.
Germany is going through an energy crisis and needs Russian gas for its energy transition, while Russia needs Germany for its technology. The European Union is significantly dependent on Russia for its energy imports: 41% of its natural gas, 27% of its oil, and 47% of its solid fossil fuels. If German Foreign Minister Baerbock has declared that NS2 is at stake depending on the Ukrainian crisis escalation, Berlin is not willing to send arms to Ukraine. Moreover, NS2 is a contentious issue. Many have been reluctant to politicize the pipeline.
Macron recently declared he wants to initiate talks with Russia independently of the U.S.-Russia diplomatic consultation. If Macron is serious about that, he should coordinate with Germany to offer Russia peace terms that reflect Europe’s voice and interests. Giving hope to Russia that it is still possible to get Ukraine to concede a special status to the Donbas is the best way to avoid an intensification of the conflict. By taking this path, the EU, under Macron’s leadership, could have a more significant say in Europe’s security under the Minsk II agreement and prove that the E. U’s geopolitical ambitions are serious.
On the other hand, it might be uneasy for countries like Canada to make a foreign policy U-turn regarding Ukraine. The Canadian-Ukrainian diaspora, and its main lobby, would undoubtedly oppose such a move. Upholding Ukraine’s sovereignty is fundamental to Canada for many reasons. But what’s also very important for Canada is the prospect of averting a war between Russia and Ukraine that would aggravate international polarization and make the world more volatile and less stable.
What would be Russia’s next steps if NATO accommodates it in Eastern Ukraine? It is unlikely that Russia would keep expanding if the Ukrainian crisis were resolved on terms that Moscow could live with. First, because Russia’s economy would endure massive costs to sustain the war effort just to hold Kyiv, not to mention other holds in Russia’s near-abroad. The maximum-pressure scenario – Russia’s exclusion from the global economy – would make it near impossible for Russia to finance expansionist policies in the long run, not to mention the local resistance Russia would face.
Furthermore, Russia has high stakes in protecting the status of the Russian minority in Eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainization of Russian minority areas in Ukraine, and Kyiv’s indigenous law excluding Russian minorities (as well as Ukrainian), directly affects Russia’s identity as the protector of Russian minorities. This Russian emotional involvement favors Russian irredentism in Eastern Ukraine and militates against the idea that Russia contemplates expansionist aims. Ukraine’s ideational importance to Russia plays a significant part in motivating Russia’s revisionist policy towards Ukraine. Moscow ideational interests elsewhere in the post-Soviet sphere are not as salient as they are in Ukraine. Therefore, Russian expansion is unlikely, as not all land is equally valuable from an emotional (and security) standpoint.
America’s One-Time Pressure Card
As briefly mentioned, implementing harsh sanctions against Russia and asking everybody to comply would exacerbate tensions within NATO. While the Baltic and other Eastern European states might be pleased to impose severe sanctions on Russia, getting other European countries happily on board seems more complicated. Increasing costs on Russia would probably require America to use a pressure card to obtain Western coordination.
The 2011 Pivot to Asia and the redirection of major resources to the Indo-Pacific indicate Washington’s main strategic focus. If America were to pressure the Europeans to do something, it would seem strategically unwise to do so over the conflict in Ukraine. After the Afghan retreat and AUKUS, America needs to preserve the already damaged cohesiveness of its primary NATO allies. America’s reckless and unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan to free its hands from an unwinnable war reinforces that point. To declare massive sanctions against Russia or to seriously strengthen military support for Ukraine, and ask everyone to respect this course of action, would be to waste a useful “pressure card” for U.S. interests that are ultimately non-strategic.
In order for America not to be in a position where it has to choose whether or not to pressure the Europeans over Ukraine, it is necessary to prevent a Russian invasion, as this would force the West to react. By giving Russia hope that a legal solution to secure autonomy and amnesty in Donbas is achievable, that a moratorium on all NATO new memberships is reachable, and that arms transfers can stop, one could hold off what seems to be an imminent Russian intervention.
Conclusion: NATO’s New Strategy
Defusing a Russian intervention and getting out of this crisis implies pressuring Ukraine to implement the constitutional reforms necessary to grant autonomy and amnesty to the Donbas republics. These separatist republics have significant support from the local population and are backed by a major power. They have thousands of civil servants, especially soldiers, who are more determined to fight – and die – than NATO.
Ultimately, the main driver of Russian-Western tensions is Ukraine. Kyiv’s desire to join NATO is in direct opposition to Russia’s conception of national and territorial security. Russia is ready to fight to secure its interests, as are the Ukrainians. However, Ukrainians have no real chance of winning against Russia without Western support. The Atlantic Alliance lacks the cohesion and interest to pay the costs associated with real support for Ukraine. The current half-support is insufficient to deter Russia, and it even encourages a Russian intervention to stop Ukraine’s steady military modernization. To truly deter Russia, NATO would have to provide assets and endure costs that its members do not want to bear. This is why implementing a strategy that corresponds to NATO’s accurate means and interests would help to avoid crisis escalation. And such strategy entails convincing Moscow that a legal way out exists in the Donbas by reorienting Western pressure from Moscow to Kyiv.