Putin’s choice: Hot war or a deeply frozen conflict

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Top United States officials say they are worried Russia is aiming to heat things up in Ukraine, with troops positioned along the border for a potentially imminent invasion. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin may have precisely the opposite in mind: deepening the freeze of the conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region as his best, and perhaps only, guarantee that Ukraine won’t join NATO.

At a meeting in Stockholm on Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken presented utterly contradictory assessments of the situation in eastern Ukraine. Blinken insisted that the only risk of war was the threat of Russian military aggression. Lavrov said NATO’s eastward expansion was the threat.

They did agree that Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden would speak directly in the coming days. Russia has long wanted to set aside the Franco-German-sponsored peace talks with Ukraine (known as the Normandy format) in favor of a direct dialogue with Washington that would echo Moscow’s former superpower status.

After confirmation of the presidential chat, some well-sourced Russian analysts quickly suggested that the risk of war was receding in favor of new negotiations. “It appears that military scare over Ukraine may now be peaking off, having set stage for diplomatic bargaining,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Twitter.  

Russia’s hopes from a parallel track of talks may be misguided. Along with his recent threats of severe consequences, including “high impact” sanctions in the event of an invasion, Blinken has repeatedly stressed that the best path toward peace is for Russia to return to negotiations as part of the Minsk 2 peace accords, part of the Normandy format.

Putin, meanwhile, has refused to participate in Normandy meetings in recent months, even going so far as to reject a personal entreaty from outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Many experts believe the Minsk 2 accords are effectively dead, with neither Russia nor Ukraine willing to meet their obligations.

Biden, on Friday, told reporters that he was intent on deterring an invasion. “What I am doing is putting together what I believe to be the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for Mr. Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do,” Biden said at the White House.

Even if Biden agrees to enter into direct negotiations with Putin, or if the U.S. was to take a formal role in an expanded Normandy process, there is little Washington can offer to meet Russia’s demands without undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity — to which the U.S. and its NATO allies have pledged an ironclad commitment.

The U.S. and its alliles will not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, for which they have imposed sanctions on Russia. And they will not pressure Ukraine to give up swathes of territory in its eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions currently occupied by Russian-backed separatists. Nor will the U.S. and allies give Russia a veto over Ukraine’s ambitions to one day join NATO and the EU.

That point was stressed by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg after a meeting Wednesday of allied foreign ministers in Riga, Latvia.

“Only Ukraine and 30 NATO allies decide when Ukraine is ready to join NATO,” Stoltenberg said. “Russia has no veto. Russia has no say. And Russia has no right to establish a sphere of influence, trying to control [its] neighbors.”

Privately, some NATO allies have expressed skepticism about Washington’s warnings of a imminent Russian invasion. They allies don’t dispute U.S. intelligence, including satellite images, showing a big mobilization of Russian forces and weapons along the border, but they question the likelihood Putin wants to start another war.

An internal analysis prepared for European Commission officials and diplomats, and seen by POLITICO, noted the high level of alarm being conveyed by Washington to allies, but concluded Russia was unlikely to launch an attack as it does not have the logistical capabilities to support a sustained, large-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“The U.S. considers the Russian threat of military escalation as serious, and it has very high confidence that this is not a bluff from Putin,” the analysis stated. But it added: “Due to lack of logistical support, it would take one to two months for the Russian army to mobilize for a full-fledged invasion. (Moreover, its overall logistical weakness prevents the Russian army from serious invasion). Thus, there is no threat of imminent invasion.”

Rather than igniting a hot war, the unofficial analysis found Moscow was more likely to be using the troop moblilization to convey its growing unhappiness over increasing U.S., U.K. and NATO military ties with Ukraine, as well as Ukraine’s acquisition of new weaponry, including an armed, Turkish-made drone that was used recently to fire at separatist artillery. NATO has no permanent troop presence in Ukraine, but allied nations have built up close links with Ukrainian forces including though training, joint exercises and the sale of weapons systems.

“Moscow seems fully understanding [of] the costs of an invasion,” the analysis found. “So pre-positioning is more about delivering the message of discontent about the Western policy vis-vis Ukraine (increasing U.S./U.K. and NATO presence).”

Still, the analysis allows for other scenarios, including Russian preparations for a military conflict mirroring its war with Georgia in 2008, when Russia used massive force in response to clashes between Georgian troops and Russian-based separatist forces that Moscow characterized as provocations by Tbilisi. Under this view, Russia could use Ukraine’s use of advanced weaponry and military activity near separatist-held territory as a pretext for invasion.

Blinken, mindful of the risk, has also called on Ukraine to exercise restraint and warned loudly that Russia has previously manufactured provocations to justify military aggression.

Putin has long expressed the view that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people,” including in a lengthy article last July titled “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”

While Putin’s ultimate preference might be for Russia to seize the entire country, that seems far-fetched. Following the 2014 annexation of Crimea and nearly eight years of conflict in Donbas, large segments of the Ukrainian population despise Russia and its leader.

Russia may have motives to attempt a more limited seizure of Ukrainian territory, including by creating a land link to the Crimea peninsula, but Putin’s more certain objective seems to be preventing Ukraine from ever joining NATO. Trenin, the Carnegie analyst, has described Russian concerns about western-supplied weapons close to its border with Ukraine as akin to U.S. fears over Soviet missiles in Cuba during the crisis of the 1960s.

Russia’s opposition conflicts directly with the goals of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and other top officials in Kyiv, as well as a majority of Ukrainians, who are firmly committed to following a path that might lead the country to EU and NATO membership. In 2019, Ukraine’s parliament even amended the country’s constitution to add specific provisions tasking the president and the government with implementing the “strategic course for obtaining Ukraine’s full membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

Some European NATO members have opposed Ukraine joining the alliance in the past, recognizing this would provoke Moscow. But Putin has long insisted that the U.S. broke a promise to Russia by accepting countries east of Germany into the alliance. He may now believe that his only guarantee of keeping Ukraine out of NATO is to prolong the status quo in Donbas, sustaining a frozen conflict akin to those in Transnistria in Moldova and the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Given the collective defense commitment of NATO, it is effectively impossible for the allies to accept a new member locked in an ongoing military conflict.

Lavrov, before meeting Blinken in Stockholm, insisted there were matters that could be negotiated. “Further advancement of NATO to the east will unambiguously affect the fundamental interests of our security,” Lavrov said. “There are things to talk about.”

Biden, as he left Washington to spend the weekend at Camp David, said that he would not accept Russia’s red lines. “We’re aware of Russia’s actions for a long time,” he said. “And my expectation is we’re going to have a long discussion with Putin.”

Given the failure so far of the Normandy format, Biden and the West might worry that Putin’s goal is exactly that: to continue talking — on and off — for a very, very long time.



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