Russia should be pleased with what it has achieved by parking part of its army within reach of Ukraine. Ahead of the upcoming US-Russia meeting and later planned talks within the OSCE and the NATO-Russia Council, there is every sign Russia may end up getting something for nothing – which will only confirm for Moscow that military threats are the best way to achieve its goals.
Russia’s demands have been widely written off as unrealistic. But based on past performance, Moscow has good reason to believe that it can extract substantial concessions. This belief will have been strongly encouraged by the responses to date of US president Joe Biden – both the early mention of finding an ‘accommodation’ for Russia’s concerns, and the promise of negotiation which endorses Moscow’s demands as acceptable for discussion.
It helps that much of the international public discussion and media coverage of what Russia is demanding misrepresents two key issues. First, the disagreement between Russia and the West is presented as being over potential Ukrainian membership of NATO, instead of concerning the foundations of European security as a whole.
Second, Russia’s language of ‘security guarantees’ for itself has been adopted unquestioningly, obscuring the fact that what Russia is demanding is the opposite – the rolling back of security guarantees for much of eastern Europe. ‘No further NATO enlargement’ is a much more palatable message than ‘withdraw protection from NATO allies’ – but it is the latter that Russia’s ‘draft treaties’ propose.
This represents a failure by Western leaders to communicate to their publics what is at stake, and a success for Russia in framing the public discussion in a manner that makes its demands appear reasonable. At the same time reducing consideration of Russia’s desired outcome to an assault on Ukraine overlooks the fact that increased control over Ukraine is not Russia’s primary objective. Ukraine is a symptom, not a cause, of the overall conflict, and threats to Kyiv are simply the most convenient means for Moscow to emphasize its point.
Looking beyond Ukraine
Any concessions to Russia now would come in return for simply not mounting a new invasion of Ukraine - an invasion which may not have been planned in the first place anyway. If the upcoming negotiations do not lead to satisfactory results for Moscow, Russia’s military options are wide open, and many of them would bring greater rewards for less risk than opening up a new land campaign against Ukraine.
Moving to set up a permanent Russian military presence in Belarus would be one safe way to climb down from confrontation while still reaping significant security benefits and causing NATO severe headaches in the process. But even if Russia does decide on open hostilities, although Ukraine is the most likely victim, moving tanks across the border would still be one of the least promising ways for Russia to get what it wants.
Unlike a land invasion, missile, air, or cyber strikes targeting Ukrainian military command and control systems or civilian critical infrastructure could be turned on and off at will, and punctuated by pauses to repeat or escalate demands in order to pressure Kyiv into concessions and its Western partners into granting Russia’s wishes.
Based on previous experience of concluding ceasefires in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, Russia can be confident Ukraine’s international partners would exert pressure on Kyiv to end a conflict or a series of demonstrative strikes as rapidly as possible, even if this means agreeing to punitive Russian terms.
The best way to avoid this outcome is to dissuade Russia from undertaking military action in the first place through demonstrations of resolute and direct support to Ukraine – and the other frontline states – that in the event of hostilities costs would be imposed on Russia that would not be tolerable.
But even that is not the whole story. Western responses to Russia have centred on the message ‘do not escalate in Ukraine’. This is important, but it does not address the underlying issues that have led Russia to issue its demands with menaces.
Instead, it is essential to change the terms of the conversation with Moscow and confront the core question of whether any country has the right to make the kind of demands Russia is presenting. There can be no future security for Europe without a clear demonstration to Russia that the age of empires there is over, and it does not have the rights it claims over the futures of independent and sovereign states.
Russia has stated clearly what it wants from the negotiation process. The US has not. An optimist would hope the lack of clarity over US objectives, beyond generally preferring for Russia not to invade Europe, may be intentional pending a clear position and counter-demands being laid out at the talks. A pessimist might conclude – probably unfairly – that the US administration has not thought beyond using the incentive of talks to hold off a putative invasion of Ukraine – or, worse, that it is considering offering real ‘accommodations’ to Moscow.
Either way, the core decision to be made is a fundamental one – whether it serves the US national interest to protect allies, friends and partners worldwide from the predations of authoritarian powers. If the answer is yes, Russia must be faced down.
Among many uncomfortable parallels with 20th century history, the current conversation has been repeatedly described as a ‘Chamberlain moment’. Any temptation toward appeasement of Russia for the sake of temporary peace should be tempered by remembering the key lesson that the longer checking an aggressor is delayed, the more damaging and costly it will be when the moment finally comes.
Unlike other European countries, Russia is not content with the notion that the boundaries to its influence and power should coincide with its national territory – and so has decided unilaterally to revise them at the expense of its neighbours.
Containing Russia within its own borders is a challenging, and potentially highly costly, but nonetheless essential contribution to the future security not only of Europe but of any other theatre where a truculent revisionist power may feel emboldened to challenge the US.
The choice is whether Russia is confronted over this issue now – responding to direct threats to Ukraine – or later. If the choice is made to put off this confrontation still further, then the current conversation will convince Russia still further that first, it does have the rights it claims, and second, intimidation through threatened or actual military force is the best way to assert them.