For most of his two decades in power, Vladimir Putin tried to get the U.S. to pay attention to his fears about NATO expanding on his doorstep.
After a massive troop buildup raised alarms Russia would invade Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden finally said he’s ready to talk about Putin’s security worries.
The Kremlin understands there’s virtually no chance of NATO meeting the Russian president’s demands for binding written promises not to spread further east or put its weapons near Russia, according to people close to the leadership. Just what Moscow might be willing to settle for remains unclear.
The crisis has brought to a head growing frictions between Russia and the West over NATO’s post-Cold War expansion since the alliance held open the prospect of membership for Georgia and Ukraine in 2008. Russia’s brief 2008 war with Georgia and Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine underlined his willingness to intervene to thwart these goals, even as NATO indicated that membership was a distant prospect.
With Ukraine determined to escape Moscow’s orbit, Putin is raising the ante still further to try to compel acceptance of Russia’s security terms and avert conflict.
“Now that the demands have been conveyed, Putin is ready to wait, but not for too long,” said Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of political consultant R.Politik. “If Putin decides that he’s hit a wall of incomprehension, I don’t exclude a real military operation.”
The prospect of talks has for the moment broken the spiral of escalation and opened a window for diplomacy. Given the huge divide between the two sides, it’s not clear whether that will simply be time for Putin to assemble a force massive enough to invade his neighbor or to come up with a lasting settlement.
“There hasn’t been any real progress yet as neither side is ready to back down,” said Andrey Kortunov, head of the Kremlin-founded Russian International Affairs Council. “It all depends now on what Putin’s real intentions are — if the aim is just deterrence, he can declare mission accomplished, but the military buildup could have an entirely different logic.”
There’s no sign Russia has stopped massing troops, according to Western officials. Moscow hasn’t softened its rhetorical attacks on Ukraine either.
Biden, meanwhile, is trying to quell the discontent his offer of talks with Putin triggered among NATO’s eastern members, where memories of Soviet domination are still fresh. In a phone call Thursday, Biden tried to reassure them with pledges of more military deployments on the eastern flank-just the kind of move that the Kremlin has protested.
Biden also is under intense pressure domestically to give Putin next to nothing in exchange for his saber-rattling. Republicans in the U.S. say the president instead should meet force with force, by providing more weaponry to Ukraine or even holding out the prospect of air support in a war. White House officials say that despite Biden’s offer of a meeting, Putin will have no say on NATO’s future expansion.
“It was not meant to be an indication of a deal cut, concessions made, any formal format or anything along those lines,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said of the offer of talks at a press briefing on Thursday.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg added his assurance on Friday, saying the alliance’s relationship with Ukraine remains unchanged. “It is a fundamental principle that every nation has the right to choose its own path,” he told reporters in Brussels.
While the U.S. has threatened sweeping economic sanctions in the event of an invasion, it has all but ruled out backing those up with military force in a country that’s not a NATO member. For Putin, on the other hand, the fate of Ukraine whose population he views as “one people” with Russians is an existential issue.
“The West has mainly economic levers,” said Konstantin Malofeev, a wealthy Putin ally who was sanctioned by the U.S. for backing separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas and Crimea.
“Russia has military potential that it’s ready to deploy.” he added. “If it gets as far as a war, it will be very short and destructive and won by us.”
Publicly, the Kremlin denies any plans to invade. The U.S. has shared intelligence with European allies showing Russia may be amassing as many as 175,000 troops near Ukraine in preparation for an attack.
The Kremlin remains wary of starting a war in Ukraine, aware that it would lead to painful Western sanctions and trigger fierce opposition on the ground, according to people close to the leadership. But any attempt by Kyiv to move against the separatist regions would bring an overwhelming Russian reaction, according to senior officials.
“The big question mark remains what kind of a face-saving solution Moscow might take if Biden proves to be resistant to Putin’s demands,” said Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat who’s now a Moscow-based foreign policy analyst. “By insisting on legally binding guarantees on NATO enlargement and allied security assistance to Ukraine, Moscow is showing it’s not betting on diplomacy to succeed.”
The Foreign Ministry late Friday issued a statement laying our Russia’s detailed demands, saying NATO must rescind its 2008 statement saying Ukraine and Georgia will join. The U.S. and its allies must provide legally binding assurances it won’t deploy weapons around Russia that Moscow finds threatening, it said.
Some limits on NATO military presence and exercises near its borders could help assuage concerns and lead the Kremlin to agree to similar restrictions, said Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Reaching a deal on the conflict in eastern Ukraine could be more difficult. Moscow might be satisfied with pledges from the U.S. to pressure Kyiv to take more steps to implement the 2015 truce deal that ended fighting, offering the Russian-backed separatist regions greater autonomy, Trenin said. But the U.S. accuses Moscow of failing to live up to its obligations under the deal.
Ukraine’s desire to join NATO is enshrined in its constitution and Western officials say that giving Russia any kind of assurance on the issue would be too much of a concession for Washington.
They warn that Moscow could be seeking to provoke a conflict along the tense front line between the separatists and Ukrainian forces that would give Russia a pretext to openly join the fight and defend the half-million residents to whom it has granted passports there.
That’s similar to the playbook the Kremlin used in its war against neighboring Georgia. Russian withdrew its military after crushing Georgia’s army then formally recognized two separatist regions, which requested deployment of thousands of Russian troops, who remain there to this day.
Putin hinted at a similar scenario for the breakaway areas in Donbas recently, pointedly calling them “as yet unrecognized.” Pro-Kremlin commentators have started openly discussing recognition. Moving troops in wouldn’t raise the same risks as a broader invasion, since there are no Ukrainian forces in those areas.
But it’s not clear even deploying troops in the Donbas regions would satisfy Putin’s desire for certainty that NATO will never expand closer to his borders.
Biden’s offer for talks between Russia and the U.S. and major NATO members, may offer a respite for “the next two to three months,” said Yevgeny Buzhinsky, a retired Russian general who chairs now the PIR Center, a Moscow think tank. “But if nothing changes, there can be escalation after the New Year.”
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