Russia’s Ultimatum and the Future of a Self-Inducing Conflict

Perception of the threat of war between Russia and the West is very different in the United States, Europe and Ukraine. While Washington is convinced that a full-scale conflict with Russia over Ukraine is inevitable, many in Europe, including the Ukrainian leadership, consider the military escalation on the border of Ukraine a tactical bluff by Vladimir Putin. And while hysteria over military risk attracts international support for Kiev, it also damages the Ukrainian economy. Russia may not want war, but in the current situation the conflict could become self-inducing: Moscow has raised the stakes so high that the crisis might no longer be resolved on its own. It may be ended either by mutual agreement or further escalation.

Since the start of the year the conflict between Russia and the West has been on the rise. In the middle of January, Ukraine received lethal weapons shipments from the United States and Great Britain, while on February 3, Washington sent an additional 2000 American troops to Poland and Germany. Up to February, Ukraine had been provided with about 500 tons of equipment and received over US$2.7 billion financial aid from the US. The military equipment includes Javelin anti-tank missiles, NLAW anti-tank guided missiles and Stinger air-defence systems. The US placed another 8500 soldiers on high alert and ready for deployment, while Klaus Iohannis, President of Romania, expressed his willingness to accept more soldiers from NATO.

Just a few months ago, chances of a full-scale war in Europe would have been unthinkable, yet the topic of military conflict with Russia increasingly dominates political and media debate. The situation is exacerbated by the persistent rumours from the media and politicians about the Russian willingness to attack, its troop readiness, or the evacuation of diplomats from the Ukrainian capital. A British MEP, Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Select Committee, told the BBC that a “Russian invasion is imminent”.

But the threat perception is very different either side of the Atlantic Ocean and even in Ukraine. While American diplomats and political experts are convinced of the inevitability of a full-scale military conflict with Russia, their European partners tend to see the situation as more of a Russian bluff. For them, the main question is how far Russia might go in its bluff, and what can be done to de-escalate the situation. Some political comments make the situation worse, bringing tension rather than clarity, like the remarks of Bruno Kahl, the head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service, who told Reuters that he believes the decision to attack has not yet been made. Even worse, US President Joe Biden said at his press conference on January 19, marking a year in office, that he thinks Russia will invade Ukraine. “My guess is he will move in; he has to do something,” he said, referring to Vladimir Putin.

The Ukrainian leadership, on the contrary, seems calmer than most of its Western partners. According to President Volodimir Zelensky, panic has to be avoided by all possible means, and Russia is not attacking Ukrainian soil, but instead trying to frighten the country. In January he said, “Didn’t the invasion start in 2014? These risks have existed for a long time, the threat has not become greater now. Just the fuss has gotten bigger.”

The official Ukrainian position is no surprise, given the impact of war predictions on the country’s economy. Stocks of Ukrainian companies are falling, international investors are fleeing, and the national currency has lost 6 per cent of its value since the beginning of the year. According to Zelensky, the capital outflow from Ukraine since October 2021 reached US$12.5 billion by the end of January.

Russia can profit significantly from war hysteria and Ukraine’s economic situation. On the one hand, Ukrainian economic problems make the country even more vulnerable, destabilising the government and worrying the population. On the other, the situation dramatically increases the prices for energy and commodities: the Bloomberg Commodity Spot Index, based on twenty-three commodities, hit an all-time high on the last day of January, amid growing tensions between Russia and Ukraine. The index has risen by 8.15 per cent since the beginning of the year, resulting in increased profits on energy and commodities for Moscow.

The beginning of the current crisis goes back to the end of October 2021, when major American newspapers reported a Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian border. At that time, both Russia and Ukraine denied the threat. By the end of November, the number of Russian troops stationed near the border exceeded 100,000—as at the beginning of 2021, when Vladimir Putin forced Joe Biden to meet him in person by launching a similar military build-up. Soon, it became clear that the Kremlin’s plan was following his previous strategy, but this time, Putin wanted more than a bilateral meeting with the US President.

Russian conditions were given clear practical form in the virtual meeting between Biden and Putin on December 7, 2021. The Russian president talked about NATO and the US crossing red lines. It turned out that Putin was envisioning some kind of agreement with NATO that would provide Moscow with written security guarantees from the West. That demand probably rests on the legend deeply rooted in Russian political consciousness that the United States gave Gorbachev assurances in the early 1990s that NATO would not expand eastwards and then violated its promises after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although the existence of such an agreement is not proved by any document, and Gorbachev himself denied that it had ever happened, the myth of Russia’s betrayal by NATO has gone deep into the Russian public consciousness.

One and a half weeks later, Russia published its detailed conditions in an unusual way. In the first place, such diplomatic discussions are usually held behind the scenes in order to facilitate understanding and compromise, and revealed to the public only later. Second, the timing looked intentionally inappropriate, just one week before the Christmas and New Year holidays, when Western leaders and decision-makers are leaving to have some rest with their families.

Both documents, published by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and addressing Russia’s relations with the United States and NATO, were called “agreements”. But they looked more like an ultimatum to the West. According to the proposed US-Russian “treaty”, the United States undertakes not to establish military bases in post-Soviet countries, not to use their military infrastructure and not to develop military co-operation with them. Washington also undertakes to rule out further eastward expansion of NATO and refuses to admit post-Soviet countries into the alliance. Also, the parties undertake not to deploy nuclear weapons abroad, to return those already deployed, and also to eliminate the infrastructure for the deployment of nuclear weapons outside their territory. But the presence of American nuclear weapons in Europe is a pivotal point of the European security system.

The main conditions of the NATO-Russia “agreement” commit NATO never to admit Ukraine to the alliance. It would also waive any military activity in Ukraine, Eastern Europe, Transcaucasia and Central Asia. NATO and Russia would not deploy short-range and medium-range missiles reaching each other’s territories. Finally, NATO could never place additional weapons in the countries that joined after 1997—that is, the entire Central and Eastern European region, including Poland and Hungary.

While the terms of the Russian ultimatum initially looked unrealistic, the military build-up alongside these ramped-up allegations of an unjustified NATO expansion forced Western leaders to take Moscow’s red lines seriously. No European leader would risk an outbreak of full-scale war in Europe by ignoring Russia and assuming it was bluffing. In the weeks after the publication of the Russian “treaty”, intense diplomatic work started. The parties have negotiated several times, mostly in neutral locations.

However, the talks and meetings so far have not yielded tangible results. Positions have not come closer: the United States is not negotiating on issues that also affect its partners; and NATO is committed to its open-door policy on membership, arguing that every sovereign country has the right to choose its allies. On the other side, Moscow is willing to negotiate its demands only in a single package, and so far seems to be reluctant to compromise. Still, the continuing talks by themselves help to de-escalate the conflict, by demonstrating that parties are committed to a diplomatic resolution.

Yet because Russia dictates the conditions, Ukraine may feel itself in a trap. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba’s article “Do Not Sell Out Ukraine” was published in December in one of the leading US foreign policy journals, Foreign Affairs. Kuleba explained that he did not understand why the European Union and the United States go along with Russian blackmail and why they believe that the neutrality of Ukraine demanded by Moscow, over Ukraine’s head, could be a solution to the Russian escalation:

The fact that Putin is searching for a new ideological justification concerning Ukraine suggests that he really is on the verge of something big: an attempt to fundamentally rewrite the post–Cold War security order in Europe. Having created a crisis, he hopes to invite US President Joe Biden to the negotiating table to solve it. There, he imagines, the two leaders will draw new lines across Europe, partitioning the continent into new spheres of influence. Moscow has fantasised over such a scenario for years.

Moscow, meanwhile, has stepped up military pressure to strengthen its demands. In addition to the military units near the Ukrainian border, joint Russian–Belarusian military exercises were launched, so that the Russian army appeared at the northern borders of Ukraine. An increasing number of Russian units had arrived in Belarus by February 9, with military exercises titled “Allied Determination 2022” to take place immediately.

There is nothing new in the Kremlin’s perceived or actual grievances: Russia has been criticising NATO enlargement for over two decades and complaining that its interests were not taken into account and it was humiliated in the global arena. Moscow especially condemned the 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade, one of Russia’s allies. Putin has continually expressed these views in international forums starting at least from his famous speech at the Munich security forum in 2007:

I consider that the unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world. Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force—military force—in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts … One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?

Russia has repeatedly suggested dialogue on mutual security guarantees, but such negotiations have never started. Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 then made negotiations with it on European security impossible. Vladimir Putin, who otherwise has very good tactical sense, may have felt that now is the perfect time for forcing negotiations.

For a start, the United States has declared China its number one opponent, and the relationship between the two great powers has fallen to another low. In such a situation, one of the most important efforts of American diplomacy should be to disrupt the Russian-Chinese alliance and improve relations with Moscow. Putin presumably believes Washington will swallow tougher Russian demands to do so. These concerns are not unfounded, as shown by Putin’s recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, before the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. The two presidents signed a joint declaration, in which China states that it “understands and supports the proposals put forward by the Russian Federation on the formation of long-term legally binding security guarantees in Europe”.

For Europe, the Russian escalation comes at the worst possible time. After sixteen years in office, German chancellor Angela Merkel has left the political scene, leaving emptiness not only in German but also in European politics. The coalition which has come to power in Germany is divided over many questions, and there are no experienced leaders who could adequately represent Germany on the international scene. The other crucial power of the European Union, France, is also busy with its own affairs: presidential elections are coming in April.

Europe is also trying to survive the energy crisis—the result of a constellation of several factors, including increased global demand on the energy market and the planned closure of German nuclear power plants. Energy prices have risen dramatically in a few months, and Russia is the leading supplier of crude oil and gas to the EU: 41 per cent of the EU’s natural gas imports and 27 per cent of crude oil come from Russia. Potentially Russian pressure on the energy market would have catastrophic consequences on European economies.

The protracted Covid epidemic since 2020 and its resulting economic problems are other explanations for Putin’s timing. Under these circumstances, European leaders will do everything to avoid a European war. In addition to the continuing epidemic, an armed conflict in the EU’s neighbourhood would further damage Europe’s economy. Covid too has a Russian domestic political dimension—it has battered the popularity of the Russian political elite and of Putin himself. (Nevertheless, a firm stand on behalf of Russian interests will always get support in Russia.)

Then there are Ukraine’s plans for NATO membership. Kiev has become increasingly active in the international arena, as demonstrated by the success of the Crimean Platform Summit, held in August 2021 and attended by forty-six countries. There was growing talk of the country joining NATO, a picture reinforced by the US Secretary of Defense’s visit to Kiev in October. Although Ukraine is still very far from joining NATO, Putin probably doesn’t want to risk it.

And finally, Ukraine’s political elites have become more divided than ever in the last eight years. President Zelensky seems to be preparing for the 2024 presidential election by launching criminal proceedings against his political opponents. Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician, was first prosecuted by authorities in the spring of 2021, and his television channels were banned. In October 2021, another opponent of Zelensky, the previous president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, was charged with treason. These two men are the most popular opponents on Zelensky’s right and left. However, the fighting between the Ukrainian political elites is alienating the Ukrainian population and sending a bad message to Kiev’s international partners.

Military conflict is not in Moscow’s interests—a war with Ukraine would certainly cause enormous casualties on both sides and further damage the already stagnant Russian economy, not to mention bringing tougher Western sanctions than ever before. The domestic political impact of a potential Russian intervention would also be negative due to the expected casualties and economic consequences. The Ukrainian population will not be easily pacified by Russian weapons either.

Suppose we rule out the idea of a full-scale war and invasion of the country and consider a preventive strike instead, which would destroy Ukraine’s defence systems and force it to accept a peace on Russian terms. But surely if Russia had wanted to attack, it would have done so quickly, with an element of surprise, as it did during the occupation of Crimea or the intervention in Syria. Yet, since October, we have been able to follow the movement of Russian troops as it happens, leaving plenty of time for the other side to prepare. So it looks as if the Russian military escalation is more of a bluff than a genuine intention.

However, even if Russia does not intend to wage war, that does not rule out the possibility of war. History knows many examples where war has broken out against the parties’ will. At this point, the conflict has become self-inducing: Moscow has raised the stakes so high that the conflict can no longer be resolved on its own. Military mobilisation and stationing come at a huge daily cost. And the unusual pre-disclosure of Russia’s “treaty” essentially makes it impossible to back down and compromise. In the absence of any agreement with the West, Russian units will not retreat from the Ukrainian border—they have put too much money and energy into it, and it would be a massive loss of prestige for Putin’s regime.

So, if there is no compromise between the West and Russia, the most likely scenario would be another escalation—some kind of Russian response due to the lack of Western guarantees. One such step could be the deployment of Russian weapons in Belarus, another might be military escalation in eastern Ukraine with the help of Russian “volunteers”, or even Russian recognition of the separatist people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. We have already seen signs of this recently: the Russian parliament officially requested Putin to allow weapons and military equipment to be sent to the separatist regions of eastern Ukraine to help them “counter potential Ukrainian provocations”. Open support for DNR and LNR could mark a new phase in Russian involvement in the region that would give the Kremlin even more leverage on Ukrainian politics.

In short, no war, but no peace either.

Anton Bendarzsevszkij was born in Belarus, and now lives in Hungary, where he is Director of Research at the Danube Institute

7 thoughts on “Russia’s Ultimatum and the Future of a Self-Inducing Conflict

  • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

    Think about ex President Poroshenko who allowed The Ukraine to tap into the pipeline crossing The Ukraine and never did pay for the gas they stole, think about the same bloke insisting that the residents of the Crimea speak only Ukrainian, a territory that belonged to Russia for a very long time and given to The Ukraine by Khrushchev, even though the bulk of the Crimean residents were Russian. Think about Russia then building a pipeline to the North of The Ukraine to avoid any more drama and think about Europe moaning and grizzling about having to buy gas from Russia because of their own problems caused by them going “Green.” Then think about the scandal the democrats tried to keep quiet about Biden the younger and his Ukrainian sources of loot, think about Hillary Clinton and the fake “Russian” drama in the election President Trump won, and then think about the supplier or the controller of oil and gas to Europe if Russia was out of the way, and lastly think of what Australia would do if for the sake of argument the CCP started arming NZ, PNG, and Indonesia as NATO has started to do with The Ukraine? The presidents of both countries appear to be the only sane leaders around when compared to P M Boris, President Biden, especially President Biden, and our supposed diplomats. Were I the USA I would leave Russia and The Ukraine well alone to continue with their schoolkid spats they have enjoyed for many years for like schoolkids they eventually kiss and make up for a while.

  • Lewis P Buckingham says:

    Some years ago I asked my Mother ‘Why is it that there are all these wars?’
    Her answer,’if some big power can take territory from another, they will.’.
    Her role in WW2 was in intelligence.
    So the answer to this is to be prepared to fight an asymmetric war.
    This way the cost of victory for the aggressor is greater than the benefit.
    Anti tank drones,cyber warfare, blow the gas lines to the West.
    Threaten to mine the Russian warm water ports.
    Were these ideas on the table the Europeans would be more prepared to support Ukraine.
    They need their gas.
    After all,the areas annexed by Russia have new gas fields.
    Best prevent them using this resource.
    The first condition of any discussion to be, with draw all Russian armor,
    .If Putin’s aim is to rattle the cage and have the West capitulate to force ,then no go.
    Sure this could mean loss of face, but then the alternative of a bloody nose could be worse.
    Otherwise the Russians will salami slice the whole region.

  • Maic says:

    Those of us who actually read history know that this drama has been played out before.
    In 1938 Nazi Germany – the bully in the neighbourhood – threatened Czechoslovakia
    while at the same time acting as the aggrieved subject.
    To their shame the European nations who had the military power to stand up to Hitler let him take over part of the country and then the remainder.
    You can make a case that if Hitler had been checked at that stage further conflict and suffering would have been averted.
    The NATO countries should show some inner fortitude and tell Russia that it will defend the sovereignty of Ukraine and that NATO and Ukraine will jointly make the decision on whether or not Ukraine will join NATO.
    Give way to the threats of a bully, give him what he wants and sure as fate he will shortly be back demanding more.
    Decades ago Europe failed to defend a free nation – surely this is not going to happen all over again!

  • Claude James says:

    Russia invade Ukraine?
    Perhaps the Russian-speaking eastern fringes and a bit more to secure another Black Sea port facility
    After that -Nothing.
    Check the realities of sustainable military power and economics.

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    Maic, I’m sure Putin will tell us all that Ukraine is his “his last territorial claim in Europe.” In 1938 Poland and Hungary also helped themselves to parts of Czechoslovakia, so it will be interesting to see what they do with what’s left of Ukraine this time around. Bear in mind that when Germany invaded Poland from the west in 1939 the Russians also invaded from the east and annexed their gains to the Belorussian and Ukrainian Soviet Republics, territory their successor nations still hold. In 1938 Chamberlain got to wave a bit of paper on his return to London. I wonder what the Allies will have this time.
    Given the inevitability of what is about to happen in Ukraine, perhaps the most important question to ask now what will be this century’s Poland.

  • Lewis P Buckingham says:

    B O’H ‘stream of consciousness’ Leads to other conclusions.
    Putin rattles the cage and blames everyone else.
    They capitulate.
    Some other little democracy ends under the heel and has its oil and gas stripped.
    Say, Lithuania, which Putin is very afraid of as arming to invade the Russias.
    Even if ‘nothing happens’ the stock markets fall every time he rattles.
    He picks his rattle rate.
    Shorts the market, in synch.
    Every now and then he ‘backs off’ and the market rises.
    A ponzi scheme where everyone else puts the money into the market, he plays with and against them.
    A sort of win win , whatever he does, he wins.
    Time to call his bluff and prepare for asymmetric war.

  • Lewis P Buckingham says:

    An afterthought.
    Every nation has the right to defend its people and borders.
    Russia is now a very middle power with an obsolescent navy and large land army.
    It has a huge positive balance of trade in fossil fuels and is looking for more.
    Russia is only ‘threatened’ by NATO in as far as it may stymie its economic interest.
    So freezing its assets in the West would ‘disincentivate’ its annexing gas in Ukraine.
    In the meanwhile Australia would be better to find other markets than Russia in case
    it decides to do a China on us or manipulate our stock market.

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