Russia is facing a choice – endless negotiations with the United States or a conflict with Western-backed Ukraine. The US seems to be ready for both options, but the Kremlin appears to be indecisive.
Although in December Moscow issued an “ultimatum” to Washington, demanding legally binding guarantees that Ukraine and Georgia will never join NATO, to this day the Kremlin has not taken any practical steps to prevent its neighbors from developing close ties with the US-led Alliance. Russia has been deploying troops and military equipment to its Western regions, and also to Belarus, but such actions do not seem to worry Ukraine and its Western backers.
Political leaders in the West have already learned how to deal with the Kremlin’s bluffs. Despite Russia’s harsh rhetoric, the United States and its allies have started to supply Ukraine with sophisticated weapons. Reports suggest that NATO instructors are already in the Eastern European country training Ukrainian Armed Forces. The West is clearly demonstrating that it does not take Russia’s “red lines” and (empty) threats seriously.
The Kremlin, on the other hand, continues to demonstrate its impotence by asking Western powers to stop selling arms to Ukraine. Moreover, Russia’s frequent calls on the West to force Kyiv to implement the Minsk Agreement clearly illustrate all the powerlessness of the Russian Federation. In international relations, might makes right. Although Russia certainly has a powerful army, it does not seem to be willing to use its armed forces against Ukraine. Or at least not yet.
On January 21 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held another round of talks in Geneva, Switzerland, but the two diplomats did not reach a deal over Ukraine. Instead, they agreed to “keep working to ease tensions over Ukraine”. Blinken reportedly told Lavrov that the US would provide written responses to all of Russia’s security proposals next week. It is almost certain that the United States will not make any compromises with Russia over Ukraine. Policy makers in Moscow are quite aware of that. Yet, the two sides keep simulating negotiations.
According to Lavrov, Russia’s security demands include not just guarantees that Ukraine and Georgia will never join NATO, but also the removal of NATO forces and equipment from Bulgaria and Romania. Such a maximalist demand suggests that Moscow is trying its best to reach a compromise: if the US agrees to provide guarantees that there will be no NATO expansion eastward, Russia will give up its demands regarding Romania and Bulgaria. But Washington does not seem to ready to make any concessions to the Kremlin. Instead, US officials insist that Russia should prove that it does not plan to invade Ukraine. Lavrov, for his part, told Blinken that Russia does not intend to attack the Eastern European country. The very fact that the Russian Foreign Minister has to justify the Kremlin’s actions to his American colleague means that it is Washington that has the upper hand over Moscow.
The United States continues to accuse Russia of building up troops near the Ukrainian border, allegedly in order to eventually launch an invasion, capture Kyiv and overthrow the government of Ukraine. Although Russian military is capable of seizing the Ukrainian capital, it is more probable that the Kremlin has deployed troops to Belarus to prevent a potential Ukrainian military offensive in the Donbass. In case Kyiv, backed by the West, starts a large-scale campaign in the coal-rich region in Eastern Ukraine, Russia would be forced to respond. Next week, the lower chamber in the Federal Assembly of Russia is expected to discuss a potential recognition of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic – a move that could be another Russian attempt to pressure the US to make certain concessions. Still, unless Kyiv tries to restore its sovereignty over the Donbass by force, the Kremlin is unlikely to recognize the two self-proclaimed republics.
From the Russian perspective, a formal recognition of entities that are already de facto integrated into the Russian Federation would not resolve the Ukrainian crisis, nor would it end the Donbass war that erupted in 2014. Capturing Kyiv, and destroying Ukrainian military infrastructure, could create a new geopolitical reality, and potentially force the United States to agree to make another redistribution of spheres of influence. That is almost certainly something that Joseph Stalin would do. But what about Vladimir Putin? The coming weeks will show if Putin’s strategy regarding Ukraine is just another bluff, or if he is serious in preventing NATO from using the Eastern European nation as an instrument against Russia.
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