Russian leaders are doing the same thing repeatedly, and expecting different results. After the Unites States rejected Russia’s demands of an end to NATO expansion and retreat from Eastern Europe, the Kremlin continued to hold bilateral talks with Western officials, reportedly hoping that some of them might be willing to make concessions to Moscow.
Even though Russian President Vladimir Putin said the US had ignored Moscow’s security demands, to this day he did not fulfill his promise and consider a variety of options, including a military response. Instead, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke with the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken one week after Washington delivered its written response to Moscow’s “ultimatum”. Which part of the American no didn’t “the inscrutable face of Russian diplomacy” understand?
The Ukraine charade goes on. On February 10 Lavrov met with the British Foreign Minister Liz Truss in Moscow, and he got an additional conformation the West will not back down in Ukraine. Three days earlier Putin met with the French President Emmanuel Macron, and he emphasized Russia is ready for compromise with the West over Ukraine.
“We will do everything to find compromises that suit everyone”, Putin stressed.
Such a statement annuls his previous threats of an armed conflict if the US does not provide written guarantees that there will be no NATO expansion eastward. In other words, his “ultimatum” seems to have been nothing but an empty threat. The West, for its part, pressures Russia to de-escalate tensions and withdraw its troops from Belarus. Following the summit between Putin and Macron, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed Russian troops will not stay in the Eastern European country after military drills in Belarus are over. The US and its allies insist that Russia should make an additional unilateral concession and withdraw its troops from Western Russian regions near the Ukrainian border to their permanent bases. If Putin meets the requirement, he will look weak in the eyes of Russian voters, although there is no doubt the Kremlin propagandists would attempt to portray such a move as another geopolitical victory. The bigger problem, however, is that Western-backed Ukraine could wait until Russian units are back to Siberia and the Far East, and launch a military offensive in the Donbass.
Quite aware the West still has an enormous leverage over Moscow, former Russian general Leonid Ivashov called on Putin to resign over the “artificial conflict he had manufactured as a distraction tactic from mounting domestic problems.” It is worth remembering that in October 2016, Ivashov explained in Russian state-owned Channel One the Kremlin’s engagement in the Syrian conflict was “critical to prevent the construction of the Quatar-Turkey pipeline, which would be catastrophic for Gazprom”. Given that the interests of energy giants such as Gazprom, Rosneft, Lukoil, Rosatom and Zarubezhneft are the major drivers of the Russian foreign policy, potential American sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is something that the Kremlin aims to avoid almost by all means.
“If Russia invades, that means tanks or troops crossing the border of Ukraine again, there will no longer be a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it”, said the US President Joe Biden.
From the Western perspective, Russia’s intervention in the Donbass – in the case of a Ukrainian military offensive in the coal-rich region – will be considered as an act of aggression, and will likely result in severe sanctions that could hit the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Thus, it remains highly uncertain if the Kremlin can have both Nord Stream 2 and the Donbass coal.
Although Ukraine signals it does not intend to attack the Donbass and Crimea, the country’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that Kyiv will “under no circumstances implement the Minsk Agreement on Russian terms”. The deal, signed in the Belarusian capital in 2015, envisages the Donbass should get a special self-governing status after it holds elections under Ukrainian legislation. Kyiv, however, insists the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk’s People’s Republic should first allow Ukraine to reinstate full control over its border with Russia. For Putin, the Minsk Agreement has no alternative, even though over the past seven years not a single point of the deal has been implemented.
The Kremlin seems to aim to preserve the status quo, rather than to invade Ukraine. It is quite questionable if Moscow is even determined to protect the self-proclaimed Donbass republics if Kyiv eventually launches a military offensive. As Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko recently said, in case Ukraine starts a war in the Donbass, the Belarusian army will act in exactly the same way as the Russian Armed Forces. But what if Russia decides to turn a blind eye to the Ukrainian action? Sooner or later the Kremlin will have to act one way or another. In the time of radical transformations of the global economic, financial and energy systems, preserving the status quo in Ukraine will no longer be possible.
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