US negotiators at tomorrow’s meeting must seek ways to de-escalate the looming conflict, while finding face-saving ways for Putin to back down.
Why is President Putin so preoccupied with Ukraine, an obsession that has already cost more than 14,000 lives? Why has he now amassed a vast invasion force of over 100,000 troops, together with armed vehicles and field hospitals around Ukraine’s borders? Is he bluffing about an invasion? These are the questions foremost in the minds of US negotiators in the geopolitical game of poker with their Russian counterparts which starts tomorrow in Geneva. Putin’s sabre-rattling is plunging the world into a new Cold War which could soon spark the biggest European conflict for 70 years and so many are questioning his real motives. And why now?
On the surface, the Kremlin wants the world to believe that its actions are a perfectly rational response to NATO’s eastwards expansion which threatens Russia’s security. Over the past weeks, Putin has issued an increasing list of demands that NATO must deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and roll back its military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe. “It’s a matter of life or death for us”, said Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov in over-the-top remarks broadcast two weeks ago. From this you might think that Ukraine is on the verge of joining NATO. But the closest that country has ever come to joining NATO is a vague and largely symbolic commitment to future membership given at NATO’s 2008 summit in Bucharest, one which carries no real weight and is essentially a reaffirmation of the alliance’s standard open-door policy towards all potential new members.
NATO’s ultra-cautious approach towards Ukraine makes a mockery of Putin’s claims that the alliance is seeking to gain a foothold in the country. In actual fact, the noise heard around Europe is Ukraine desperately banging on NATO’s door in search of security against current Russian aggression. It was in 2014 that Russia attacked and seized Crimea from Ukraine while supporting separatist groups in the east of the country, where they now have a base. It was Russia that supplied the Buk anti-air system to their separatist allies which shot down the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July 2014, murdering 283 passengers and 15 crew. So when it comes to aggression, only Russia is in the frame.
Ukraine is not the only former-Soviet country that has been attacked by Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian troops currently occupy not only regions of Ukraine but also South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, as well as parts of Moldova. In the past year, Putin’s “commissars” have also moved into Belarus to prop up its dictator, Lukashenko, still in power after the sham election in 2020. You might almost think that Vladimir Putin is trying to recreate the old Soviet Union!
Putin certainly resents the way the two Slavic states slipped from Russia’s control. For centuries, Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, was seen as the cradle of Russian and Belarusian culture and font of their Orthodox faith. Being united with Ukraine was fundamental to Russia feeling of itself as European. Russia had no history other than one of empire, and that empire required Ukraine. Small wonder, then, that back in 2008 Putin told NATO leaders that “Ukraine is not a state”. In his 5,000-word essay published last year, sent to every soldier in the Russian army, Putin argued that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people”, illustrating an emotional connection to Ukraine. In true KGB style, however, this is simply “маскировka”, or deception. Vladimir Putin is a man disengaged from emotion. He has no emotional connection with Ukraine—only fear.
To have a democratic, flourishing Ukraine on Russia’s doorstep would cause President Putin sleepless nights. A successful Ukraine would expose just how autocratic, kleptocratic and sclerotic Russia has become under him in the past 22 years. Suppose Russians started to envy their close neighbours and wanted the same, replacing the brutal system they now live under? Now is the time to stop this nightmare, while the US is divided and Europe is exhausted by Covid and relies more and more on Russian gas. Putin is painfully aware that his entire legacy now depends on returning Ukraine to the Kremlin orbit, otherwise he will be remembered by future generations as a failure—the man who lost Ukraine.
The problem for the Kremlin is that the war unleashed by Putin in 2014 continues to this day and had proven disastrous for his ambitions in Ukraine. While Moscow has managed to occupy about 7% of the country, Russian influence throughout the rest of Ukraine has plummeted to historically unprecedented lows. Pro-Russian parties have been marginalised while successive governments in Kiev have kept the country on a course towards greater integration. Putin’s current aggression indicates that he believes his only option now is force, or the prospect of a full-scale European war to blackmail the West into abandoning Ukraine. But would an invasion or blackmail succeed?
Most analysts agree that if Russia decides to invade Ukraine, it is likely to do so now. Writing in the Russian magazine “Колта”, Vladimir Frolov argues that because of Ukraine’s rising economic growth, national consolidation and military investment, the costs of an invasion are rising each year. The US has continued to give Kiev training and military assistance, including $450 million of defensive weapons this year alone. None of this would allow Ukraine to attack Russia, but it would certainly increase Ukraine’s ability to defend itself should Russia invade.
Few believe that Russia would not be successful in an invasion; at least initially. Ukraine’s navy is tiny, its air force is small, and it doesn’t have the most advanced anti-aircraft defences. The army revealed last year that 440 of its tanks were destroyed or damaged by mortars or rockets during the Russian-supported uprising in Donbas between 2014 and 2016. Today, it possesses 850 modern tanks, with another thousand in reserve, unlikely to cause a major problem for the 1,200 modern Russian tanks grouped on its borders. But Ukraine has built up a substantial territorial-defence force, run by the professional military and supported by civilian volunteers. A recent poll indicated that 50% of the men interviewed were prepared to join armed battle if Russia invades. Leaked documents reveal that the army would split into smaller units, less easily targeted by advanced weapons. The strategy, according to former Ukrainian president Poroshenko in a recent interview, is to ensure that “every city and every home becomes a fortress—and thousands of coffins are sent back to Russia”.
So this is the calculation that’s burning the midnight oil in the White House, in Brussels and in the Kremlin. Any initial attack is very likely to be successful, but the Russian army will soon get bogged down by fierce, low-level local resistance. Neither the US nor EU will provide forces to help Ukraine, but President Biden has promised to reinforce Ukraine military in the event of an invasion, while moving arms and military into eastern NATO states. In his 30 December call with Putin, the second that month, Biden again threatened dire economic sanctions on Russia if it attacked its neighbour, further reaching than those imposed on Russia in 2014 after it seized Crimea.
While fresh measures designed to cripple Russia’s economy will have already been factored in by the Kremlin if it does decide on war, the Kremlin has already invested too much to back down without receiving concessions. There is zero chance that the West will agree to Putin’s list of demands of withdrawing NATO to the pre-1991 borders, or giving a written guarantee that Ukraine, a sovereign country, would never join NATO. US negotiators at tomorrow’s meeting must seek ways to de-escalate the looming conflict, while finding face-saving ways for Putin to back down. As Putin controls how his actions are portrayed in the Russian media, this should not be impossible.
So, if one is needed, what could be the basis of a deal between the two sides in Geneva? Kiev and the West should accept the hard fact that Russia will never return Crimea to Ukraine. Crimea was part of Russia until the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, himself half Ukrainian, gave it to Ukraine as a gift in 1954. Crimea, now connected to Russia by the new 12-mile bridge over the Kerch Strait, is populated mainly by Russians, so even a free and fair referendum would result in a huge majority in favour of the status quo. Kiev has also effectively ring-fenced the disputed Donbas region, making no effort to recover this lost territory. Recognising this, Donbas should also be part of the deal, as this Russian-speaking part of Ukraine, many holding Russian passports, would almost certainly also vote to be transferred to Russia. In return, Russia must sign a Treaty recognising the independence of Ukraine and undertake to respect its borders. It must also accept that Ukraine could in the future be a member of NATO, on the proviso that non-Ukrainian troops will never be permanently based in the country, nor will any weapons capable of attacking Russia.
This would allow President Putin to claim a victory which would be much heralded in the Russian media. If NATO expedites the membership of Ukraine, it would also allow Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to claim a significant victory, clutching an international treaty which guarantees Ukraine’s security while pointing the country westwards.
But a “Putin victory” could be bitter-sweet. Alarmed by the Kremlin’s aggression, Finland’s President, Sauli Niinisto, said in an address to the nation last week that his country might join NATO as a form of protection from Russia. There are similar noises coming from an anxious Stockholm. So, if Putin invades Ukraine to “stop NATO’s expansion”, it could actually result in countries queuing up to join!
There’s an old Cold War joke which Putin appears to be taking seriously: “What’s ours is ours; what’s yours is negotiable.” Putin is demanding that NATO commit suicide and the US be reduced to a regional power, which simply won’t happen. So, if it’s not a bluff and he doesn’t back down, it’s either an unlikely deal—or war.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.