A Winter of Russian Discontent?
Russian troop concentrations along the Ukrainian border have raised serious concerns in both Kyiv and Western capitals. After similar build-ups in March and April of this year, Russia observers once more try to make sense of what reasons lie behind these military manoeuvres. Some of them sound the alarm bell. Carnegie scholars Eugene Rumer and Andrew Weiss state that “almost all of the requisite components and justifications for military intervention are either in—or moving into—place”.[i] Michael Kimmage and Michael Kofman write in Foreign Affairs that “Ominous signs indicate that Russia may conduct a military offensive in Ukraine as early as the coming winter”[ii]. US officials have briefed their European counterparts that military operations may be imminent[iii] while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has expressed his concern about “the continuing build-up of Russian forces in and around Ukraine”.[iv] Somewhat unsurprisingly, the chief of Ukrainian military intelligence claims preparations are underway for an attack by “late January”.[v] This time around, should the warning calls of the Cassandras be heeded?
There must be no Ukraine fatigue
No matter what, these forecasts compel us to refocus on the impasse between Ukraine and Russia – a crisis on our doorstep that over the years, absent any breakthroughs in the all but extinguished Normandy Format talks[vi], has been slipping under Western radars. Ukraine certainly has remained an existential dossier for Moscow. If the longer-term goal of Moscow is to prevent its neighbouring country from further integrating with the West, there is no room for Russian complacency. By annexing the Crimea in 2014 and supporting an insurgency in eastern Ukraine Russia may, for the time being, have thwarted further steps in that direction, but Kyiv did sign an Association and Free Trade Agreement with the EU after all, and NATO countries are stepping up military assistance programmes. Moreover, Russia may be in charge of Crimea and calling the shots in parts of the Donbas region but, as a result of its political and military heavy-handedness, it has lost the hearts and minds of a majority of Ukrainians.
What Russian leaders say should not be dismissed as solely meant for domestic posturing purposes. In July of this year, President Putin published a 6,000 words essay On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians in which he suggests present-day Ukraine is an “anti-Russia” project directed by the West.[vii] Last October, former President and Prime Minister Medvedev (now deputy Chairman of Russia’s Security Council) outdid his political master by publishing a venomous diatribe against the “vassal” leadership of Ukraine with whom, Medvedev claims, it makes no sense whatsoever to negotiate.[viii] Should these utterances be interpreted as having a meaning beyond Moscow’s frustration with Ukrainian President Zelensky, who after taking office seemed disposed to a more Russia-friendly stance than his predecessor Poroshenko, or has Moscow indeed given up on its neighbour’s independence altogether and is it poised to initiate military action? If so, what kind of military action, serving what political goals?
Why send in the cavalry?
As far as Russia’s combat power is concerned, limited territorial gains in eastern or southern Ukraine would be feasible, even though since 2014 Ukrainian armed forces have improved their fighting skills and upgraded equipment, i.a. by acquiring Turkish-made armed TB2 drones[ix] and US-made Javelin portable missile systems. Creating the much talked about ‘land corridor’ between separatist-held territory and the Crimea would, in terms of capacity, neither be an entirely outlandish scenario. But why would Russia embark on this road? Moscow would in any case have to depart from its long peddled narrative that regular Russian forces are not involved in Ukraine, a position that has allowed Russia to pose as a mediator in this conflict. Besides, after the construction of the parallel Kerch Strait bridges the benefits of a land link are less obvious, not to mention the fact that a 300 km-long strip along the coast would be an extremely vulnerable asset.
If the aim of an incursion is to reach the Dnepr river upstream, or to march on to Ukraine’s capital city, it isn’t immediately clear whether Russian military and logistical capabilities would be robust enough for such a large-scale offensive which wouldn’t compare to the practically effortless annexation of Crimea or providing support to local insurgents.[x] Again, the question would be what the Kremlin wants to achieve, these scenarios being unpopular with the Russian population and likely to lead not only to significant losses, but also to countermeasures that go beyond ordinary sanctions by Western countries. Rather, it seems the current Russian military deployments have more to do with a signaling campaign to ensure the West thinks twice before making new moves to lure Ukraine into its camp.
Partly, Russia’s concerns about the fate of Ukraine stem from the West’s ambiguous messaging. In 2008, out of the blue, NATO leaders offered Ukraine and Georgia guarantees of membership, be it without specifying a timetable.[xi] This impromptu decision confused, and unnerved, Russia’s leadership that since has launched military operations against both Georgia and Ukraine. The established facts on the ground notwithstanding, the prospect of membership, routinely reiterated by NATO[xii], still hangs as a Damoclean sword above the heads of Russian leaders, who recently have been hinting that ‘red lines’ may be invoked prior to Ukraine joining the alliance. Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service has accused the US of whipping up tensions in eastern Ukraine, and ominously drew a comparison with the situation in Georgia in 2008.[xiii] Meanwhile, US officials have stated at several occasions that “the United States commitment to Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity is ironclad”[xiv], a formulation that comes close to the assurances extended to allied nations.[xv]
At the same time, and in parallel with the ongoing bilateral contacts on ‘strategic stability’, Washington and Moscow are reportedly preparing two meetings between Presidents Biden and Putin: a video conference by the end of this year and talks in person scheduled for 2022.[xvi] Ukraine should be a key topic on the agenda, so are both protagonists positioning themselves ahead of these discussions? If so, these tactics are prone to accidents and may encourage either party, or Kyiv for that matter[xvii], to raise the ante. The security crisis in and around Ukraine is a very European crisis that has been dealt with, so far unsuccessfully, in a European format. Because of NATO’s role, it has morphed into a US-Russia crisis in a way reminiscent of the Cold War era, when bipolar competition dominated European affairs. The geopolitical environment has changed, though, and America’s main foreign policy focus is now on the Indo-Pacific, and the rise of China. Despite the rhetoric, this new configuration has essentially relegated Ukraine to a second order security issue for the US. Still, a serious issue that should not grow into a first order security crisis for European countries who rely on Russian gas imports and are exposed to migration flows manufactured by Russia’s clients in Minsk.
Why Europe should step up
NATO will of course closely monitor and discuss developments, as it did during the foreign ministers meeting in Riga on 30 November and 1 December that included exchanges with Georgian and Ukrainian colleagues.[xviii] But since Russia has severed ties with the alliance, it cannot function as a venue for addressing Moscow directly .[xix] These circumstances call for renewed European agency. If the ambition is towards a more ‘geopolitical’ EU or even ‘European strategic autonomy’, now is a time to step forward and agree on new initiatives. Once the new German government has settled in Berlin should, together with Paris that has maintained ministerial level channels with Russia[xx], re-engage both Kyiv and Moscow. Even if the Minsk agreements (more often mentioned than studied) are imperfect, lop-sided and signed by Kyiv under duress, they are the only documents in town and the underlying trade-off, peace in exchange for constitutional arrangements for eastern Ukraine, isn’t necessarily flawed. Kyiv, however, has rather focused on obtaining EU and NATO membership than on addressing problems in the east, allowing Russia to lean backwards and shirk its own, modest, responsibilities under the agreements.[xxi]
The provisions of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement (e.g. “The Parties shall … promote gradual convergence in the area of foreign and security policy”[xxii]) provide the EU at least with some leverage to press Ukraine on this issue. Unfortunate as it may be, under the current political circumstances the only leverage the EU may hope to get in Moscow runs to a considerable extent through Kyiv. Russia’s stance, meanwhile, is ambivalent in the sense that it wants to see a reduced role for the US in Europe, but at the same time craves exclusive bilateral talks on European security with its geopolitical peer that reaffirm great power status. These meetings are, of course, important insofar as the US doesn’t unduly cater to these Russian needs and leaves room for European diplomacy.
The enduring issue of NATO enlargement
What Washington should do is make clear it works in sync with European capitals and call on Moscow to engage with European interlocutors, instead of shunning them.[xxiii] The US should also understand that NATO enlargement remains a toxic issue for Russian leaders. Post-Cold War accessions may have been construed by the alliance primarily as political gestures, Moscow has always interpreted new memberships through the prism of military balance. The US must tread carefully lest Russian (or Ukrainian!) leaders misapprehend American messages, military support or patrolling activities in the Black Sea.[xxiv] Actually, the US should consider whether toying with Ukrainian membership is wise or gratuitous policy, knowing that when push comes to shove the West is not likely to bail out Ukraine militarily. As Fyodor Lukyanov remarks: “We have reached a point where the long-standing controversy over NATO enlargement must somehow be resolved”.[xxv]
It seems most analysts still consider a major military confrontation unlikely at this point.[xxvi] Indeed, military and political indicators point to Russia ringing warning bells. But more cautious commentators also agree that “misreadings are dangerous”.[xxvii] Closed shop decision-making in Russia poses a risk as well, but so do calls to deploy NATO forces close to the front line if requested by Ukraine.[xxviii] All the more reason for European countries, first and foremost Germany and France, to intensify diplomatic efforts and work with Kyiv and Moscow respectively. The EU has unveiled a major ‘Global Gateway’ strategy that should form a democratic alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and turn the Union into a more effective geopolitical player.[xxix] That sounds very well, but if you want to play geopolitics, why not get started in your own neighbourhood on more pressing matters?