When I was little, I played chicken with my brothers on the beach. In this version, you had your little brother on your back and you ran towards your friend, who also had a brother on his back. The goal was to knock the brother over his back and into the sand.
Russia and Ukraine/NATO are locked in a similar game, which has already had two rounds and now threatens to enter a third. For the sake of analogy, putting the brother down is forcing a deal on your opponent. The danger is that the first round was played with diplomatic pillows; the second with sticks and stones; and the third round, which could begin soon after tensions have soared in recent days, could be played with guns.
There are two clear camps on the whole show. Proponents of the former claim that President Vladimir Putin is afraid of Ukrainian democracy and wants to destroy it, invade it or at least bring it back into Russia’s “sphere of influence”. The second group thinks this is all about NATO: that Putin is genuinely concerned about Ukraine possibly joining NATO and about NATO placing offensive missiles on the Ukraine-Russia border that have less than 5 minutes of flight time and could affect 80% of the Russian population.
As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m in the second camp simply because that’s exactly what Putin says is the problem and he’s said it over and over again for over a decade. (To bolster the other side, Putin once mentioned to George W Bush that he didn’t think Ukraine was “a real country,” and this 5,000-word essay he wrote, but not a big -something else). argument leads us to assume that it is NATO.
This is not the first time that Putin has called for pan-European security talks. In 2008, Putin showed up in Brussels with the new Dmitry Medvedev on his back, offering to play chicken and a security framework agreement in hand. He was ignored. Europe didn’t want to play and Medvedev left without showing anything for the effort.
This time, Putin has forced the issue on the table by reinforcing his troops on the border. This made the West sit up and take notice. A series of the meetings have started in January where the two parties presented their positions, but no progress was made.
I say this trick was played with pillows because we argued from the start that the build was simply a way to get the west to come up and take the sand. There was never any intention to go to war in the first round because it simply costs too much politically, economically and in terms of human lives. An agreement that would have improved everyone’s safety was possible at little cost. It wouldn’t even have reduced Ukraine’s security since it is already de facto excluded from NATO, since even NATO openly admits that it has no intention of offering membership to Ukraine anytime soon.
And Putin scored a victory in this round as the talks he has been asking for so long began in January. This cycle ended after the United States delivered its letter at the end of January with a categorical “no” to Russia’s request to ban Ukraine’s membership for life.
This closed out the first round but neither brother was knocked down although no one was hurt either.
sticks and stones
The second round began in February with a meeting between French President Emmanuel Macron and Putin where the focus shifted from obtaining a guarantee that Ukraine would never join NATO to implementing the Minsk II protocols which have the practical consequence of making the Donbass region fully autonomous and de facto giving Russia a veto over a Ukrainian candidacy for NATO.
But during this round there has also been a lot of shouting and tensions have risen after US national security adviser Jake Sullivan gave a briefing on February 12 warning that an invasion could come. “from one day to another”.
According to reports, Macron and new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have both told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during visits to Kyiv to accept the Russian version of the Minsk II agreements. The Ukrainian version is a softer decentralization of Donbass that leaves Kiev in charge of its foreign policy.
However, this round also seems to have ended with no one in the sand. Zelenskiy reportedly refused to consider implementing Minsk II on Russia’s terms and has since blasted the protocols as “tasteless”. Moscow has long said Kiev has no interest in implementing the deal and Zelenskiy had previously rejected them, calling on them to renegotiate them to improve them on Ukraine’s terms – a request Moscow rejected out of hand.
Staging of the Donbass
The next day, fighting in the Donbass broke out with the shelling of two kindergartens. This was followed by a series of increasingly alarming events, including the self-proclaimed leaders of the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics announcing an evacuation of towns, the mobilization of reservists and the release of local intelligence showing Ukrainian troops massing on the border ready for an invasion. – moves that analysts say mirror similar moves by the United States, including the release of attack plan maps.
All of this was clearly staged by the Kremlin. It has since been revealed that the evacuation order videos and footage of orphans being put on buses were recorded two days before the bombing of kindergartens which was the reason for the evacuation orders.
Why now? A few days later, the world’s best diplomats gathered at the Munich Security Conference. With war potentially just days away, Putin has once again imposed his agenda on the international slate – this time in Munich. The move was particularly ironic because it was in Munich that Putin gave his famous speech complaining about NATO expansion and warning that Russia would push back if it didn’t stop.
Russia’s tactics in this chicken game are transparent. At each turn, he introduces an idea and then uses military escalation to try to force the West to make concessions and agree to his specific demand.
The first round was played with pillows as it was designed to introduce the demand for a new security deal. The “no NATO” option was never going to fly and could well have been introduced by the Kremlin as a tough stance that gives Russia the chance to concede ground in later rounds.
But with every turn Putin increases the tension and that means increasing the threat of war. At the same time, Washington played a similar game as its response was also to keep alive the warning of an impending invasion, despite the fact that each of the deadlines it sets passes with nothing happening.
The outbreak in the Donbass was specifically aimed at Zelenskiy, as much as European leaders. The Kremlin has threatened to escalate the war in the East which has already killed 14,000 Ukrainian soldiers. The law passed by the Duma last week recognizing the autonomy of the two breakaway people’s republics also threatens to allow regions to secede from Ukraine in a manner similar to Crimea’s departure. It is a card the Kremlin is clearly threatening to play if Zelenskiy does not admit the need to implement the Minsk II agreement.
The current round has still not been played. Since the Kremlin’s goal is to produce a negotiated security deal, as long as the negotiations are still ongoing, it will not start another round of chickens with guns. The Munich summit was an opportunity to impose the Kremlin’s agenda on Western leaders. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov (who skipped Munich this year for the first time in years) is also due to meet US Secretary of State Antony Blinken again next week, so there is still some way to go.
But there is an end to this road. And the surge in the Donbass in recent days suggests that the Kremlin is not ready to walk very far down any of these roads. If Putin deems the effort to force Minsk II through is dead, we could have a third round of chicken. The third round could be played with firearms. One possible scenario is that Putin starts a small war so that the security deal he seeks is included in the peace settlement.
Will the third round start soon? It’s impossible to say, but there are plenty of “technical” things the Kremlin can do in the meantime to keep the pressure on the West. However, while the focus is on passing Minsk II, the action is likely to be contained in the Donbass and this could easily include some fighting as a means of maximizing that pressure.
For example, Ukrainian intelligence reports that Russian secret services are mining buildings in Donetsk in order to blow them up and use them as casus belli.
And that is unfortunately not at all improbable because, for both the West and the Kremlin, the simplest solution to this impasse is to implement the Minsk II agreement.