Newspapers have been gleefully reporting about 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 zero.
As bne IntelliNews has reported on in detail, the reasons are obvious: it would be too costly in Russian lives, something that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s slowly falling approval and trust ratings make extremely unappealing to the Kremlin; while Russians overwhelmingly support the annexation of Crimea, they are a lot more uncomfortable with the war in Donbas; eastern Ukraine could be taken easily, but western Ukraine could not; and finally the international diplomatic backlash would be catastrophic for Russia’s economy.
And why bother? What would Russia gain? The only thing of value Ukraine has is agriculture, which would collapse in the event of an all-out war followed an inevitable viscous and impassioned insurrection. On top of that, the Kremlin would take on the cost of fixing Ukraine at a time when it is struggling to fix Russia Inc. It’s not going to happen.
So what is actually going on here? As usual, all you have to do is listen to what Putin says. Putin has a history of telegraphing his moves 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 set-piece speeches he lays out his plans in black and white and almost always follows through on them. But as it is Putin and as he has been so demonised in the last two decades a lot of what he says is ignored, or twisted to suit the various narratives used to describe Russia.
Putin said in his very first speech as president that demographics was the main danger to Russia and as we reported in “Putin’s babies”, he did something about that a decade later. Putin warned in his 2007 Munich Security Conference speech that Russia would push back if its security concerns were ignored and he started modernising the army in 2012, annexed the Crimea in 2014 and is now moving up troops that could invade Ukraine in 2021. You can draw a straight line through all these points.
What did he say?
Putin has just done it again. During the Munich speech he brought up the broken verbal promises made to Mikhail Gorbachev of no Nato eastern expansion. And he has mentioned them again in the last month several time.
The year after Munich in 2008 the Russian Foreign Ministry drew up detailed plans for a new pan-European security deal that included a fair specific framework proposal released by the Russian Foreign Ministry in 2009. Putin has now brought that up again, demanding “legal guarantees” from Nato that it will not expand further (i.e. allow Ukraine or Georgia to join). The Russian Foreign Ministry followed up a few days after the two-hour December 7 virtual summit with Biden with a concrete five point list of demands and on December 15 the MFA sent even more extensive details on what a security deal could look like. Clearly the MFA has been working on this for some time and has a very clear idea of what it wants.
There is a general assumption that the current war talk will die away in the New Year. Daniel Salter, head of Equity Strategy and head of Research at Renaissance Capital, said during a conference call on December 16 that Russia is one of the more prospective investment stories in 2022, as the house view is that Russia won’t invade Ukraine and that things will “calm down” at the beginning of next year.
It’s clear to everyone that Putin is dead set against Ukraine joining Nato, but the assumption is that he is satisfied with the frozen conflict he has caused in the Donbas because that guarantees Ukraine can never join Nato. So after the current posturing is over the status quo will resume.
And that is the bit that has changed.
If you listen to what Putin has been saying he is no longer happy with the status quo of maintaining a costly and embarrassing insurrection in the Donbas. He wants a resolution of the Nato question. He wants the promises made to Gorbachev fulfilled and guaranteed. He wants the status of Ukraine in Europe defined. And he wants the West to stop interfering in Russia’s affairs.
Again, all this was laid out in black and white by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in his new rules of the game speech in February and again a month later when he said Russia would break off diplomatic relations with Europe if the West continued its policy of sanctioning Russia. To underscore the point the Kremlin did break off diplomatic relations with Nato in October.
Things won’t calm down in the New Year if the West does not take these demands seriously. Russia will not withdraw its troops from the Ukrainian border regions until meaningful progress has been made on starting on these talks. Lavrov made it clear in his speech that Russia has set the bar at zero tolerance and is not prepared to compromise or make concessions with the West unless the West moves first.
In the meantime, Russia will continue its military preparations. It will continue to build up its economic and military ties with Beijing, which has exactly the same agenda. Pointedly eight days after Putin’s summit with Biden, Putin held the same online summit with China’s President Xi Jinping where they pledged their mutual friendship on what was clearly intended as a message to Washington: you cannot divide the Russian and Chinese “problems” unless we are prepared to co-operate.
Thrashing out a new security deal will be extremely difficult. Both sides of the House in the US are strongly critical of Russia and after the Afghanistan debacle Biden is keen to show that the US will stand by its allies, said Renaissance Capital’s chief economist Charles Robinson at the same briefing. That means supporting Ukraine in its conflict with Russia and maintaining Nato’s compelling deterrent.
However, it appears that Biden has already agreed to a more comprehensive deal with Putin than was revealed in the post December 7 summit comments.
Biden backed talks between four “leading members” of Nato and the Kremlin to discuss Putin’s demands within days. Putin restored all the machinery of diplomatic relations with the US that have been frozen since the summer following a row. A $200mn US military aid package to Ukraine has been frozen. Harsh sanctions that were included in the US defence-spending bill by Senator Bob Menendez were quietly removed before the bill passed in the same week as the summit. The Russian Foreign Ministry has said it is “not opposed” to the US joining the Normandy Four group that is trying to broker a peace deal in Donbas.
Likewise, in Europe the new German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said last week that the certification for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline would be suspended “if Russia invades Ukraine”, but in the meantime Germany has suspended arms sales to Ukraine via its state procurement agency.
Biden continues to make very tough statements above the severity of the response “should Russia invade Ukraine,” but increasingly this is looking like a smokescreen that allows Biden to appear strong, but actually buys him the room to engage with Russia on the more subtle job of working out a workable deal with Putin.
Most of the war talks that started at the end of October have been driven by US intelligence briefing US newspapers. “One scenario that a Democrat party member told me,” says Robinson, “was that you can talk tough about Ukraine’s invasion, but when it doesn't happen then somehow the US and Biden can take some credit for that not happening.”
The holidays are on us, but in the New Year a much more difficult process starts of the Kremlin negotiating with a reluctant Washington on a new security deal. At this point it is not clear if Washington is even willing to contemplate any sort of deal at all. However, if that happens then Putin is very likely to turn up the temperature again and cause a fresh flaring in tensions – possibly with the increasingly participation of China.
New Cold War
What Putin is proposing in effect is a return to the Cold War relations between East and West. And many of those security arrangements are reappearing.
In this sense the current showdown is better understood as a modern version of the Cuban Missile Crisis where Putin, like John F Kennedy, finds the possibility of western missiles on Ukrainian soil, a few minutes flight time to the largest part of Russia’s urban population, anathema. Like in 1962 no one actually wants to go to war and are willing to do a deal, but like then the threats of war are serious and remain a real possibility.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has explicitly compared the current crisis to the Cuban Missile Crisis and went on to say on December 13 Russia may be forced to deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe in response to what it sees as NATO's plans to do the same.
Ryabkov said if the West did not engage in the talks that Putin is proposing the Russia would escalate by moving missiles west. Specifically he said if the West declined to join it in a moratorium on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in Europe, that is included in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s list, “It will be a confrontation, this will be the next round," he said, referring to the potential deployment of the missiles by Russia.
Poignantly Ryabkov said Russia has a "complete lack of trust" in Nato, which was the basis of the Cold War thinking. "They don't permit themselves to do anything that could somehow increase our security - they believe they can act as they need, to their advantage, and we simply have to swallow all this and deal with it. This is not going to continue," Ryabkov added, echoing Lavrov's "new rules of the game" speech.
Another trope of Putin’s is to complain about the US unilateral withdrawal from the ABM missile treaty in 2002, a key piece of the Cold War security infrastructure. The decision marked the end of the bonhomie between Putin and Bush and arguably started Russia off on the road that would lead to the current clash.
Following that, the US withdrew from several other Cold War treaties, with the most recent being the US nixing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and Open Skies treaty under Trump.
One of the positive signs in the prospects for a deal between Biden and Putin is that the US president is in favour of these old deals and was vocally opposed to the US exit from the ABM treaty while he was a senator. Moreover, in the first week on the job Biden rushed through renewing the START III missile deal and broached the topic of new arms deals during his meeting with Putin in Geneva.
For its part the Kremlin is also keen to see these deals back in place and one of the items on the Russian Foreign Ministry list is to restart the INF treaty, which was also mentioned by the Russian side when the START III deal was done in January.
However, this set-up is to concede that all hope of friendly relations between Russia and the West are over. Security will be based on arms controls deals, backed by the threat of force. Russia is now actively avoiding engaging with multilateral organisations 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 set-up will bring peace and quiet. It could end the war in Donbas relatively quickly. And it could mean that Putin steps down as president in 2024, as he is clearly tired of the job, but Ukraine’s status is his big legacy issue and he won’t leave as long as that is unresolved.