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As Diplomacy Falls Short, Will Russia Retaliate Militarily? – OpEd

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By Saaransh Mishra

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The week-long Russia-United States (US) security talks yielding no progress suggested that diplomacy is at a dead end, owing to significant differences between NATO allies and Russia on the latter’s wish list of security demands. As the US slammed most of these demands as “non-starters” over the course of three high-stakes meetings, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow has run out of patience with the West and expects a written response to its demands within this week. Lavrov has also clearly said that even though Russia prefers the standoff resolved with mutual respect and balance of interests, they will consider a variety of options on how to respond. This means that persisting delays in attaining an agreeable solution, which seems far-fetched currently, could prompt Russia to act through “military technical means”. But it remains to be seen how long this takes and whether some middle ground could be reached.

Washington has been aggressively promoting the narrative of Russia trying to fabricate Ukrainian provocations, which could be used as a pretext for invasion, something that Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has dismissed as “unfounded”. Russia’s movement of troops to Belarus for a joint military exercise is also being viewed with scepticism by the West because of the country’s 700-mile border with Ukraine, completely glossing over the fact that these exercises had been announced in December, before the failure of the talks. Russia’s decision to call back officials from its embassy in Ukraine too has been perceived as indicative of an imminent invasion, when this could also be a measure for officials’ safety in view of simmering and unabated tensions. Lavrov’s recent statements, in the backdrop of President Vladimir Putin’s warning to the US in late December of “military-technical measures” in response to unfriendly actions, have further solidified western fears of a looming invasion of Ukraine, even though Russian government officials have repeatedly denied any such plans vehemently.

However, amidst speculations in western circles, even the most reputed experts seem to be unaware of what might be coming next. Yet another discussion in Geneva that took place 21 January between US-Russia saw no major breakthrough. Russia seems quite frustrated with the futility of diplomacy in generating any tangible outcomes so far.

In case Russia does decide to act militarily, it would undoubtedly have the upper hand over Ukraine, especially given that Biden has firmly stated that sending US troops to Ukraine is completely off the table. Notwithstanding that the Ukrainian military has grown stronger over the years due to billions of dollars in arms and training by the West, there still aren’t enough military resources to repel a full-scale attack by Russia, according to the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service. Kiev has nearly 255,000 military personnel along with 900,000 reservists, which is a high number for a country the size of Ukraine. According to western reports, Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops on its borders with Ukraine so far. In totality, Russia has military manpower of over 3 million, including reservists.

Barring the aforementioned, as retired Lieutenant General Evgeny Buzhinsky told The New York Times, Russia also possesses the capability to win a war with Ukraine without deploying any manpower on their territory through the help of airstrikes that would destroy all Ukrainian infrastructure from the air, giving it a considerable advantage.

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Nevertheless, Russia understands that any form of military action will come with hefty repercussions, ranging from economic consequences through stringent sanctions that would supposedly be more damaging than the ones imposed after 2014 and halting of Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline by Germany that could estimatedly inflict losses worth tens of billions of dollars to stationing of additional US and NATO troops in countries near Russia, something that Russia tried to address through its security-demands list as well. A full-scale war would also have serious economic ramifications, glimpses of which could be seen last week after the Moscow exchange fell by 6 percent in 2 days, the ruble fell 2 percent against the U.S dollar, whereas on Friday, the ruble dropped to almost 77 percent against the greenback, its lowest level since last spring.

The other thing to be considered here is that when Russia penned down the list of security-demands, it probably understood that most of the points mentioned in the draft would be simply non-negotiable to the US and NATO as these were against the core principles of the alliance that it would be unwilling to alter at any cost. Moreover, as Samuel Charap writes, in the face of vociferous Russian objection, speculations of Ukraine and even Georgia joining the NATO have been vaguely floating since 2008 even when both the countries were denied “Membership Action Plans” (MAPs). But nothing has been concretely done in a full-fledged manner to integrate these two countries into the alliance’s fold because, for the NATO, it seems to be more about not bowing down to Russian pressure than anything else. This symbolic tug-of-war between Russia and the West on Ukraine’s NATO membership does not change the reality that NATO ceases to have any impending plans on proceeding with the same.

Therefore, through the stern rhetoric and by building pressure, Russia could also be trying to bring the western allies onto the table over issues other than Ukraine’s membership such as legal guarantees regarding a cap on NATO troops and missile deployments in areas threateningly close to Russia, returning NATO forces to where they were stationed pre-1997, as well as modernisation of Ukraine’s military infrastructure which is a threat to Russian security.

Much to Russia’s credit, the US has already clarified that it is willing to discuss the issue of missile deployment in nearby countries. If Moscow is able to maintain the pressure, which it seems to be at the moment, by not only setting timelines for the US and NATO to respond to demands but also by expressing intentions to deploy military forces or missiles in Latin America depending on America’s actions, Russia could strategically extract a lot of concessions from the West that would suit its own long-term security interests. Nevertheless, what these concessions exactly might be and whether they would satisfy Russia can only be gauged once there is some kind of progress in talks.

To be sure, the US and NATO would not let Russia or anyone else dictate their polices but considering the highly-volatile scenario, the West could explore the possibility of providing guarantees to Russia that NATO membership for Ukraine is not on the cards in the foreseeable future, which would significantly de-escalate tensions.

It might be very difficult even for the most seasoned experts to predict what might actually happen next, but it is ominously clear that Russia is not willing to wait endlessly for a security deal.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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