Why Putin’s gamble does not have to be lose-lose

Vladimir Putin is upping the ante ahead of fresh discussions with the US and NATO, hoping to weaken their resolve. But if he attacks Ukraine, the gamble fails.

Expert comment
3 minute READ

Sir Roderic Lyne KBE CMG

Former UK Ambassador to Russia (2000-04)

Despite Russia’s deployment of a potential invasion force around Ukraine’s borders, its foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has claimed Russia does not intend to invade – and it is certain the Kremlin would prefer a bloodless victory.

Although defeating Ukraine would be a short-term win, the long-term damage to Russia and the burden of subjugating the Ukrainians again would be huge. Ultimately – albeit not necessarily in Putin’s lifetime – the Ukrainians would break out again and Russia would definitively have lost.

But the cost to Russia is not just in Ukraine and in the further sanctions certain to be imposed in the event of an invasion. However much the Kremlin presents this as a conflict to stop NATO, Russian casualties and killing Ukrainians would be deeply unpopular with the Russian populace, plus the Russian leadership will have widened the chasm separating their country from central and western Europe – a chasm which many Russians already regret.

Putin has likely calculated that weak leadership and internal divisions in the West make this an opportune time to test NATO’s resolve.

An attack would also trigger a reinforcement of NATO’s positions in eastern Europe – the reverse of Russia’s aims – and leave Russia both more isolated in the world and even more dependent on China, a country which Russians both fear and see as a long-term threat.

Given that the Ukrainians and the international community would also lose from a conflict which dealt such a blow to the stability of Europe, is there an alternative?

Kremlin is frustrated by failure

Russia seeks by coercion to establish a veto over Ukraine’s foreign and defence policy, prohibit accession to NATO, and limit Ukraine’s international relations. The Kremlin is frustrated at its failure to achieve a core objective of Russian foreign policy – namely that eight years of conflict have not caused Ukraine to collapse into Russia’s arms, or to halt the country’s westward drift towards the European Union (EU).

Russia also seeks a limitation of NATO’s forward-based systems and involvement in eastern Europe, and a new European security architecture which would de facto recognize Russia’s sphere of influence over the States of the former Soviet Union.

The US and NATO, on the other hand, insist on the sovereignty and territorial inviolability of Ukraine – as with other United Nations (UN) member states – and its right to self-determination and to choose its own alliances.

These positions appear irreconcilable and yet there could possibly be scope for a negotiated outcome. The US and NATO are right to explore this, and to challenge Russia to accept a peaceful outcome. Negotiations would need to address three broad areas in parallel.

The first area is to repair stability and security in central and eastern Europe on both sides of the Russian border. Russian officials have dismissed these as ‘second order issues’ because they want to keep the focus on Ukraine, but this is not the case.

Many agreements underpinning European security and strategic stability between Russia and the US have dissolved, so a more stable order would bring obvious benefits to both sides.

Steps to take would include new agreements on intermediate-range missiles and limitations on conventional forces with, crucially, effective verification procedures. This would open the way to a reciprocal de-escalation of forces.

New threats from cyber warfare and in space also need to be addressed. Confidence-building measures should include, as in the past, agreements on notification of military exercises and on the prevention of incidents at sea and in the air.

The US could also re-establish a regular security dialogue with Russia, perhaps with an agreement that the two parties would give briefings on it to the NATO-Russia Council. In the longer-term, once the immediate threats to security are resolved, NATO could then express willingness to consider a wider new negotiation on European security architecture.

The second subject for negotiation – and probably the most difficult – is Russia’s relationship with Ukraine. There must be a peaceful settlement of the conflict on Ukraine’s eastern border but NATO must stand rock solid on the sovereign independence of Ukraine. It cannot agree to any provision which allows Russia to limit that sovereignty and it cannot negotiate over the heads of the Ukrainians.

The outlines of a settlement already exist but the Minsk II proposals are not acceptable and should be amended. Ukraine and Russia should withdraw forces from the border zone, with credible border monitoring perhaps by UN peacekeepers. Donetsk and Lugansk should remain within Ukraine and return to administration by Kyiv, with constitutional changes to grant them a greater degree of autonomy but, most importantly, without external involvement.

However much the Kremlin presents this as a conflict to stop NATO, Russian casualties and killing Ukrainians would be deeply unpopular with the Russian populace.

Constitutional changes should only be implemented after the verified withdrawal of external forces and materiel currently supporting the separatists. This settlement would then allow the US, NATO, and the EU to lift the sanctions imposed since 2014 – except for those relating to Crimea.

The third area is Russia’s relationship with NATO. The Russians must know that their demand that NATO’s deployments should return to the status quo of 27 May 1997 is a non-starter. NATO had to strengthen the defences of member states in central and eastern Europe in response to a heightened threat from Russia. If that threat diminishes, NATO will be able to respond proportionately.

The Kremlin knows NATO cannot, and will not, give Russia the right to determine whom NATO admits to membership. But the Kremlin also knows – as does the Ukrainian government – that Ukraine is not within sight of achieving NATO membership.

NATO cannot formally retract the position it took at the 2008 Bucharest Summit but the reality is that NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia has been off the agenda for the past 13 years.

This issue needs to be finessed. If the border conflict was settled, and other measures agreed to ensure Ukraine’s independence was no longer under threat, the way would be open for Ukraine to leave its NATO application on the table but commit not to proceed with it within a defined and lengthy period. This would recognize reality without breaching NATO’s principles.

Crimea must be left unresolved for now

One issue on which there is currently no prospect of agreement is Crimea. Ukraine and the wider international community cannot recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea – which was opposed by 100 states in the UN General Assembly with only ten ‘mavericks’ supporting Russia – so Crimea has to be recorded as an issue for future resolution, with all parties standing by their positions.

Why Putin’s gamble does not have to be lose-lose 2nd part

Uncertain prospects for negotiations

Whether there is the political will to drive through a settlement remains uncertain. On the US and NATO side, it depends crucially on close coordination within NATO and with Ukraine, as Russia is most likely to be deterred by a united front and the certainty of a strong reaction to any further use of force.

In Moscow, decisions on war and peace rest with the president alone, and his sources of advice are never known. However, unlike in 2008 and 2014, there is no clear trigger for this crisis – it appears to stem mainly from mounting frustration and near-paranoia, and perhaps from unseen internal pressures.

Putin has likely calculated that weak leadership and internal divisions in the West make this an opportune time to test NATO’s resolve. That said, for eight years Putin has dug himself into a hole over Ukraine. It remains to be seen whether he will now dig deeper, or reason that the best course would be to make a deal and present it as a victory.