– The military on the border and the threat to use force are the Russian starting position in negotiations with the US. Without it, Moscow is not able to talk to Washington on an equal footing, says Dr. Daniel Szeligowski, head of the Eastern Europe program of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, to Gazeta.pl.
The situation at the borders of Ukraine has been very tense for several weeks. According to experts, the Russians are gathering considerable forces capable of launching an attack on selected areas of eastern Ukraine. In subsequent media, maps appear to show what the Russian invasion will look like. However, the decision to war in the Kremlin has probably not yet been made, because the war is not an end in itself. – Plan A of the Kremlin for now is most likely to exert pressure and obtain concrete concessions. Only somewhere further, as plan B or C, is the real use of force – says Dr. Szeligowski.
Russia presents an offer
Already in the first days of December, Putin revealed some cards. He publicly announced while receiving accreditation from foreign ambassadors that Russia wanted legal guarantees not to expand NATO further east. In addition, the Alliance’s failure to deploy near Russia’s borders closer to the unspecified offensive weapons that threaten it. In return, the Kremlin would also guarantee something to the West, although it is not clear what.
– According to Putin’s words, the Kremlin currently expects Ukraine to be left alone by the West. Withdraw from military cooperation and political support. In addition, the creation of a kind of buffer zone in Central and Eastern Europe due to the fact that significant forces and NATO weapon systems are not deployed here – describes the PISM expert.
Such an offer is in line with Putin’s wider narrative that has been running for years, according to which Russia is surrounded by an unfriendly NATO and must take steps to defend its interests. The Kremlin’s flagship proposal is to create a new security system in Europe. One where Russia had more to say and her interests were respected. This is called “inclusive security”. Now Russia is to be excluded from talks on what is happening on its borders, which is considered by the Kremlin to be an unacceptable threat to security.
– This is part of a wider conviction in the Kremlin that the balance of power after the end of the Cold War is unfair, and that the West has used Russia’s momentary weakness to expand its alleged sphere of influence. Now, in Putin’s opinion, these unfavorable changes must be reversed, says Dr. Szeligowski.
Ukraine is supposed to be nobody’s or Russian
Ukraine’s slow drift to the west and its progressive integration with the EU and NATO are therefore treated by the Kremlin as a critical threat to Russia’s security. In the opinion of Russian politicians and military personnel, this cannot be allowed to happen. For now, the Kremlin says it wants a neutral Ukraine that is not and will never be in NATO. – If the West went to such a deal and abandoned Ukraine, it would be a serious blow to President Zelensky and the pro-Western forces in this country in general – says an analyst from PISM.
– In the long run, however, the neutrality of Ukraine would not satisfy Russia’s appetite. Putin never came to terms with the collapse of the USSR. Likewise, he did not come to terms with the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine. For the Kremlin, the only solution that is fully satisfactory is full control over this country, believes Dr. Szeligowski. He adds that Russia’s narrative that Ukraine will be safe if it remains neutral is hypocritical. In 2014, when the Russians seized Ukrainian Crimea and started a war in Donbas, Ukraine was just neutral, apart from NATO.
The key issue now is how the West reacts to Russia’s actions. When Russia rallied and put pressure near Ukraine’s borders this spring, it got part of what it was playing for. In June, a Biden-Putin meeting took place in Geneva, and in the photos both leaders looked equal to each other. They talked, among other things, about Ukraine, but also about negotiations on limiting nuclear arsenals or competition in cyberspace. – The Kremlin interpreted the meeting as an informal US commitment to stop rearming Ukraine, Moscow now believes that Washington broke it – says Dr. Szeligowski.
The situation in the country may stiffen Biden
Now the Kremlin, using pressure once again, has brought about a meeting with Biden. – I do not know what will emerge from today’s conversation, but I have the impression that there is little appetite for concessions to Putin in Washington – believes an analyst from PISM. He points out that there are many politicians in Washington who would willingly give way to Russia in exchange for stabilizing the situation in Eastern Europe and gaining more freedom in more important rivalry with China. – However, every president of the USA in recent years has tried to reset relations with Russia and everyone got burned by it. So if Biden now reaches out to Putin, and he uses it in his own way in the near future, it would be a powerful blow to the position of the US president – says Dr. Szeligowski.
Biden would not want such a blow. It had just received a mighty one because of how the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan was going. The rapid takeover of the country by the Taliban and the initially chaotic evacuation from Kabul reported by the media around the world severely undermined its image. If Biden tried to appease Putin even now, and he would pay back by further escalating his demands in the near future, the US president would appear naive and weak. In the already difficult situation of the Democratic Party, it would be a serious problem before next year’s elections to Congress. – Republicans would definitely use it all the time. So I do not think that Biden would be willing to make any significant concessions – the PISM expert supposes.
The question is how united and ready to make difficult decisions the West in general will be. – It’s just a matter of calculating Putin’s losses and gains. First, Russia may resort to the escalation of the situation in Donbas, because it will always be able to say that they are separatists. If the attitude of the West is uncertain and shaky, then without fear of serious costs, Putin may play more risky, initiating a more serious conflict. It would not be the first time, says Dr. Szeligowski.
Before talking to Putin, the White House made an official assurance that the US president would be firm in his message. It is intended to threaten the Russian that an escalation of the war with Ukraine will mean very serious economic sanctions that could significantly harm the Russian economy.