Russia seeks to restore its former position in the world and has repeatedly shown under Putin that it has the ability to destabilize international order. While Russia lacks the military power to challenge the United States’ superiority, Europe does not underestimate its capabilities. Moscow’s use of arms sales and military engagement to build ties with Asia, Africa, Latin America, and especially the Middle East, and the mass export of fossil fuels to Europe have given Russia more leverage to shape power dynamics in various regions. Russia’s growing share of the natural gas market, previously a major player in the oil market, has further extended Russia’s influence but after the Corona pandemic, sanctions of Western countries as well as Putin’s failure to diversify the economy and can put him in trouble.
In the summer of 2021, Putin wrote an article emphasizing the creation of a larger Slavic empire (Slavic ethnicity). He stated that Ukraine and Russia were “one person” separated by the Bolsheviks’ map-making desires and Western intervention. He insists on compensating for the miscalculations of his predecessors by allowing NATO to expand eastward and points out that power in Ukraine and Belarus should be in the hands of the Kremlin. After the scandalous withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan, Putin saw the United States’ serious weakness in the unwillingness to start a new war and conflict. He subsequently stopped talks with Ukrainian leaders, dismissed German and French mediators, and deployed more troops along the border with Ukraine. In this regard, Putin’s main goal is to pressure the United States to agree to a set of demands to restructure Europe’s security. However, Russia’s most immediate demand is that the United States should not allow Ukraine to become a member of NATO. In talks with NATO, Putin wants to be an order maker, unlike in the post-Soviet era, when Russia was idle and ignorant of new security arrangements due to its weakness. The Russians see the collapse of the Soviet Union as a historical humiliation, so they are looking for initiatives to revive the Tsarist Empire. They want to step by step increase Russia’s weight in world affairs and re-strengthen Russia’s influence around the world. Putin knows very well that crises are opportunities for power. The opportunities that Putin patiently awaited were presented to him by Georgia and Ukraine.
In 2014 after a revolution that toppled a government close to the Kremlin, Russia invaded Crimea and backed an insurgency in eastern Ukraine. The United States created many economic problems for Russia and sought to isolate it from the rest of the world by imposing sanctions over its annexation of Crimea. During Donald Trump’s presidency, US officials, including members of Congress and the intelligence community explicitly called Russia an enemy that interfered in US elections and continued to act against US national security interests around the world. Russia-US relations have now entered another period of uncertainty and distrust as Biden imposed sanctions in response to Russia’s cyber-attacks and Congress prepared a new package of sanctions in case of a Russian military strike on Ukraine.
The deployment of Russian troops to Ukraine’s borders eventually forced the West to choose the diplomatic path and therefore bilateral security talks in Geneva, a NATO-Russia summit as well as a summit in Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe were held in Vienna between the two sides. NATO and Russia suspended their practical cooperation in 2014 after Moscow occupied and annexed Crimea, and the NATO-Russia Council had not held any meetings since 2019. Putin administration has called on the West to lift sanctions and veto the admission of new members such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Finland to NATO. The Allies have threatened to impose extensive economic and financial sanctions on Moscow if the increase of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border led to war. Russians, nonetheless, have shown no sign of retreat. Thirty member states invited Russian envoys to return to Moscow and advise Putin to join them in a series of confidence-building talks on limiting provocative military exercises, arms control, and reciprocal restrictions on missile deployment.
Russia is not in a position to agree to this proposal. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Pskov said just before the talks that “NATO’s continued open-door policy and further NATO advance towards our borders is exactly what threatens us.” This is exactly what we do not want to continue through legally binding guarantees. It is also impossible for NATO members to agree to Moscow’s demands for a new security order in Europe. “The United States and its allies in NATO have made it clear that they will not stop the NATO’s open-door policy,” Sherman said after the meeting. NATO has never expanded by force or overthrowing governments. It is the independent choice of the countries themselves to join NATO. During talks, Latvia and Estonia said they wanted all of the Baltic states to expand NATO’s military presence in their country as a deterrent to Russia. These meetings also showed that they were as ineffective as the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest. At the time, Russian pressure prevented Georgia and Ukraine from joining NATO, which emboldened Kremlin to have more adventurous goals in its foreign policy. We are now witnessing the logical continuation of this historical process, and Russia’s ambitions have now spread to all the countries of the former Warsaw Pact. Putin’s recent list of security demands clearly shows that he seeks to re-establish Russian dominance throughout post-Soviet regions. This can empower Russia’s position as a superpower and expose the inability of Western powers to deliver on their promises. Donbas’s autonomy inside Ukraine, like the occupation of Ossetia and Abkhazia, is a serious obstacle to Ukraine’s membership in NATO, which prevented Georgia from joining NATO. Therefore, Donbas’s autonomy indirectly addresses Russia’s main concerns, which could be Putin’s most prominent foreign policy achievement. Moscow’s actions have left other actors between the devil and the deep blue sea as they either have to accept Moscow’s terms or see Ukraine invaded.
A barrage of pessimistic remarks by Russian and Western officials indicates the probability of diplomatic success in these most tumultuous moments of East-West relations since the Cold War is very low. Alexander Lukashevich, Russia’s ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said: “If we do not hear a constructive response to our proposals within a reasonable period of time and aggression against Russia continues, we will have to make appropriate conclusions and take all necessary measures to ensure a strategic balance and elimination unacceptable threats to our national security. He continued: Russia is a peace-loving country, But we do not need peace at any cost. The need to receive these formal legal guarantees is unconditional for us. His speech followed the pattern of recent statements in which Russia said it wanted a diplomatic solution, but also rejected calls for a reduction in force and warned of uncertain consequences for Western security if its demands were not met.
The United States, meanwhile, says Moscow’s demands for a veto on Ukraine’s membership and a cessation of NATO military activity in Eastern Europe are unacceptable but is willing to talk about arms control, missile deployment, and confidence-building measures. Russians say that after decades of NATO expansion, they are determined to draw red lines and prevent Ukraine from being accepted as a member of NATO or to deploy coalition missiles there. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Pskov criticized the sanctions bill unveiled by US Senate Democrats targeting senior Russian government and military officials, including Putin, as well as key banking institutions if Russia invades Ukraine. Pskov said a boycott on Putin was tantamount to severing ties. “We see such documents and statements in the background of a series of ongoing, albeit unsuccessful, negotiations as very negative,” he said. US Ambassador Michael Carpenter told the OSCE “As we prepare for a free dialogue on how to strengthen security for the benefit of all, we must resolutely reject blackmail and never allow aggression and intimidation to be rewarded,”. Russia has said it will decide on its next steps after talks soon. it has threatened unspecified “military-technical measures” if its demands are rejected.
On the other hand, looking at the domestic issues, a war with “rebellious Ukraine”, as many Russians see it, could reinforce patriotism in Russia and distract them from other important issues such as corruption, the failure to contain the Covid 19 pandemic, and the widespread rise of political opposition led by Alexei Navalny. A diplomatic or military victory over Ukraine and the West could boost Putin’s low popularity and morale in Russia. History also plays a prominent role in producing Moscow’s favorite narratives of events today as the Kremlin has for years repeatedly asserted that Ukraine is not a completely independent country with its own culture, heritage, history, and language. “The Russians and the Ukrainians are one nation, one whole,” Putin said in an article published in July 2021 entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” He made it clear that the Ukrainians and Russians were “one nation” and that Ukraine was a “segregated province” that should be united with Russia through diplomacy or force.
Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union in the 20th century and was previously part of the Russian Empire making the two countries’ history intertwined. In addition, many Russians believe that the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv, is the Jerusalem of Orthodox and the center of the Slavic world. Putin seeks to end the embarrassment of the collapse of the Soviet Union and return “Russian historical lands” to their former glory. In his mind, the Ukrainians betrayed Russia with independence. It is also a warning to any other former Soviet state not to mess with Moscow. When this is Putin’s true thinking, the continuation of the conflict and ultimately the occupation of Ukraine is inevitable. Putin has the second most powerful army in the world and will arrive in Kyiv in a few weeks. The Ukrainians will eventually resist through guerrilla warfare. The West is unlikely to be militarily involved and will only provide financial and weapons support to Ukraine, hoping for guerrilla warfare to ground Russia like Afghanistan. However, Ukraine is not Afghanistan, and Moscow has fed and mobilized Russians inside Ukraine in recent years. Nuclear powers are not going to fight, proxies are doing it as usual. In addition, the continuation of the war will affect the West economically, and gas and bread prices are expected to rise, as Ukraine and Russia are some of the world’s largest grain exporters, so Europe will try to end the war at Russia’s behest.
Russian leaders, influenced by the successes in Georgia, Crimea, and Syria are more willing to take risks and are more ambitious than ever before. Undoubtedly, pursuing Russia’s ambitions and use of force will have major consequences for the future of the country, Eurasia, and the world. Putin’s apparent indifference to Western warnings is understandable. By ignoring Russia’s long list of international crimes and limiting itself to promises of future sanctions, the West inadvertently validates the Kremlin’s claims that Ukraine is not completely independent. The same is true of Georgia, another independent country partly occupied by Putin and targeted by Russian vetoes on its foreign policy. In the current situation, Vladimir Putin practically sees Ukraine as a battle of prestige that he must win. Putin is well aware that if he fails in Ukraine and the periphery of Russia, it will have many serious and negative consequences for Russia.
*Timothy Hopper is an international relations graduate of American University.