The newspapers happily report a “possible” invasion of Ukraine by Russia since the end of October. But analysts – both Russian and international – are almost unanimous in the belief that the chances of an actual invasion are almost nil.
Like bne IntelliNews reported in detail, the reasons are obvious: it would cost Russians too dearly, which the slow decline in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval and trust ratings makes extremely unattractive for the Kremlin; while the Russians overwhelmingly support the annexation of Crimea, they are much more uncomfortable with the war in Donbass; eastern Ukraine could be taken easily, but western Ukraine not; and finally the international diplomatic reaction would be catastrophic for the Russian economy.
And why bother? What would Russia gain? The only thing of value Ukraine has is agriculture, which would crumble in the event of all-out war as the result of an inevitable slimy and passionate insurgency. On top of that, the Kremlin would bear the cost of repairing Ukraine at a time when it struggles to repair Russia Inc. It will not happen.
So what is really going on here? As usual, just listen to what Putin is saying. Putin has a habit of telegraphing his movements well in advance. That was the big difference between Putin and his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, who never said what he meant.
In Putin’s big speeches, he lays out his plans in black and white and almost always puts them into action. But since it’s about Putin, and since he’s been so demonized over the past two decades, much of what he says is ignored or distorted to fit the different narratives used to describe Russia.
Putin said in his very first speech as president that demographics were the main danger for Russia and as we pointed out in “Putin’s Babies” he did something about it a decade later. Putin warned in his 2007 Munich Security Conference speech that Russia would push back if its security concerns were ignored and it started modernizing the military in 2012, annexed Crimea in 2014 and is now moving troops that could invade Ukraine in 2021. You can draw a straight line through all these points.
What did he say?
Putin has just started over. During the Munich speech, he referred to the rupture verbal promises made to Mikhail Gorbachev about any eastern expansion of NATO. And he mentioned them again last month on several occasions.
The year after Munich in 2008, the Russian Foreign Ministry drew up detailed plans for a new pan-European security agreement that included a framework proposal released by the Russian Foreign Ministry in 2009. Putin raised this issue again, demanding NATO’s “legal guarantees” that it will not expand further (i.e. allow Ukraine or Georgia to join). The Russian Foreign Ministry followed days after the December 7 two-hour virtual summit with Biden with a five point list requests and on December 15, the MFA sent even more detailed details of what a security deal might look like. Clearly the MFA has been working on this for some time and has a very clear idea of what they want.
There is a general assumption that the current war talk will die out in the New Year. Daniel Salter, head of equity strategy and head of research at Renaissance Capital, said on a December 16 conference call that Russia is one of the most promising investment stories in 2022 because public opinion of the house is that Russia is not invading Ukraine and that things will “calm down” at the beginning of next year.
It is clear to everyone that Putin is strongly opposed to Ukraine’s membership in NATO, but the assumption is that he is happy with the frozen conflict he provoked in the Donbass, as it guarantees that Ukraine will never be able to join NATO. Thus, once the current posture is completed, the status quo will resume.
And that’s the little that has changed.
If you listen to what Putin said, he is no longer happy with the status quo of sustaining a costly and embarrassing insurgency in Donbass. He wants a resolution of the NATO question. He wants the promises made to Gorbachev to be kept and guaranteed. He wants Ukraine’s status in Europe to be defined. And he wants the West to stop interfering in Russian affairs.
Again, all of this was presented in black and white by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in his new rules of the game speech in February and again a month later when he declared that Russia would sever diplomatic relations with Europe if the West continued its policy of sanctions against Russia. To highlight the fact that the Kremlin severed diplomatic relations with NATO in October.
Things will not calm down in this New Year if the West does not take these demands seriously. Russia will not withdraw its troops from regions bordering Ukraine until significant progress is made in initiating these talks. Lavrov made it clear in his speech that Russia has set the bar of zero tolerance and is not ready to compromise or make concessions with the West unless the West moves first.
In the meantime, Russia will continue with its military preparations. It will continue to strengthen its economic and military ties with Beijing, which has exactly the same agenda. Eight days after Putin’s summit with Biden, Putin hosted the same online summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping where they pledged their mutual friendship on what was clearly meant to be a message to Washington: you can’t divide them. Russian and Chinese “problems” unless we are ready to cooperate.
It will be extremely difficult to strike a new security agreement. Both sides of the House in the United States strongly criticize Russia and after the debacle in Afghanistan, Biden is keen to show that the United States will stand by its allies, said Renaissance Capital chief economist Charles Robinson, at the same briefing. This means supporting Ukraine in its conflict with Russia and maintaining NATO’s compelling deterrent force.
However, it appears that Biden has already agreed to a more comprehensive deal with Putin than was revealed in the December 7 summit comments.
Biden backed talks between four “leading members” of NATO and the Kremlin to discuss Putin’s demands within days. Putin has restored all the wheels of diplomatic relations with the United States frozen since the summer following a dispute. $ 200 million US military aid to Ukraine has been frozen. Harsh penalties that were included in the US defense spending bill by Senator Bob Menendez were quietly withdrawn before the bill passed the same week as the summit. The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was “not opposed” to the United States joining the Normandy Four group which is trying to negotiate a peace deal in the Donbass.
Likewise, in Europe, the new German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said last week that the certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline would be suspended “if Russia invaded Ukraine”, but in the meantime Germany suspended arms sales to Ukraine through its state procurement agency. .
Biden continues to make very harsh statements above the seriousness of the “if Russia invades Ukraine” response, but it increasingly looks like a smokescreen that makes Biden look strong, but gives him in fact the possibility of engaging with Russia on the more subtle work. to strike a viable deal with Putin.
Most of the war talks that began in late October were prompted by US intelligence reports in US newspapers. “One scenario that a member of the Democratic Party told me,” says Robinson, “was that you can talk harshly about the invasion of Ukraine, but when that doesn’t happen, the United States and Biden can somehow take credit for it not to happen. ”
The holidays are upon us, but in the New Year a much more difficult process begins with the Kremlin negotiating with a reluctant Washington on a new security deal. At this point, it’s not clear whether Washington is even ready to consider some sort of deal. However, if that does happen, it is very likely that Putin will raise the temperature again and cause tensions to rise again – perhaps with the increasing involvement of China.
New Cold War
What Putin is actually proposing is a return to the Cold War relationship between East and West. And many of these safety features are reappearing.
Another of Putin’s trope is to complain about the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the ATM missile treaty in 2002, a key part of the Cold War security infrastructure. The decision marked the end of the bonhomie between Putin and Bush and arguably set Russia on the path that would lead to the current confrontation.
Subsequently, the United States withdrew from several other Cold War treaties, the most recent being the cancellation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and Open sky treated under Trump.
One of the positive signs in the prospects for a deal between Biden and Putin is that the US president is in favor of these old deals and strongly opposed the US exit from the ABM Treaty while he was senator. Additionally, during the first week on the job, Biden was quick to renew the START III missile contract and broached the subject of new arms contracts during his meeting with Putin in Geneva.
For its part, the Kremlin also wants these agreements to be put back in place and one of the items on the Russian Foreign Ministry’s list is to restart the INF treaty, which was also mentioned by the Russian side during the conclusion. of the START III agreement in January. .
However, this montage consists in admitting that all hope of friendly relations between Russia and the West is lost. Security will be based on arms control agreements, backed by the threat of force. Russia now actively avoids engaging with multilateral organizations other than the UN, where it has a veto, and the G20, where it is actively building a network of allies and illiberal and barely democratic countries are in the majority .
But this configuration will bring peace and quiet. This could end the war in Donbass fairly quickly. And that could mean Putin stepping down as president in 2024, as he is clearly tired of his job, but Ukraine’s status is his big legacy issue and he won’t leave until he is. resolved.