The Standoff at the Russia-Ukraine Border

December 13, 2021

On December 7, 2021, Presidents Biden and Putin had a two-hour video conference.

According to the White House readout of the meeting, “President Biden focused on what he described as “threatening” movements of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border and outlined the sanctions the United States and its allies would be ready to impose should the situation escalate any further.”

Kremlin readout of the virtual summit said, “In response, Vladimir Putin warned against shifting the responsibility on Russia since it was NATO that was undertaking dangerous attempts to gain a foothold on Ukrainian territory and building up its military capabilities along the Russian border. It is for this reason that Russia is eager to obtain reliable, legally binding guarantees ruling out the eventuality of NATO’s eastward expansion and the deployment of offensive weapons systems in the countries neighboring Russia.(Emphasis added)

And the next day, in response to a question regarding the possibility of sending US troops to Ukraine to stop an invasion, Mr. Biden said:

“That is not on the table…

“We have a moral obligation and a legal obligation to our NATO allies if they were to attack under Article Five.  It’s a sacred obligation.

 “That obligation does not extend to NATO — I mean, to Ukraine.  But it would depend upon what the rest of the NATO countries are willing to do as well.

“But the idea the United States is going to unilaterally use force to confront Russia from invading Ukraine is not on — in the cards right now…” 

Thus, according to these two readouts, Russia wants legal guarantees that Ukraine will never accede to NATO and the US and its allies would only impose severe economic sanctions on Russia if it were to invade Ukraine which I am inclined to read like a military incursion into Donbas. But there could be more underlying the Russian buildup.

It may be that Moscow sees the fissures in transatlantic solidarity as an opportunity to drive wedges between Washington and Europe which is largely dependent on Russian natural gas. According to Euronews, prior to the construction of Nord Stream 2, the European Union was importing 41% of its natural gas from Russia. A completed pipeline would increase gas exports to Europe, solidifying Russia’s energy monopoly over the European continent. This would give the Russians additional leverage over European nations, as Russia could control the price and flow of gas more regularly. Finally, the pipeline would give Russia a direct route into the European continent. If relations were to sour, Russia could turn off these pipelines, leaving millions of Europeans without gas.

On November 22, a press statement issued by Secretary Blinken said, “Even as the Administration continues to oppose the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, including via our sanctions, we continue to work with Germany and other allies and partners to reduce the risks posed by the pipeline to Ukraine and frontline NATO and EU countries and to push back against harmful Russian activities, including in the energy sphere.” By contrast, former Chancellor Merkel has always tried to calm down the concerns over the pipeline.

Moreover, Russia could be reacting to what it perceives as the US plans to boost its military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea regions. Reportedly last week, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov rated Russia’s relations with Greece at 6 on a 10-point scale, while ties with Turkey were put at 7.  Considering the history of relations between Russia and Greece, this was a surprise, perhaps a message to Athens just before the Sochi meeting between President Putin and Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis. Despite the fine talk at the two leaders’ joint press conference after the talks, and the latter saying that Greece continues to be in the heart of Russia, Moscow is not happy with the recent US military buildup in Greece as confirmed by Kremlin spokesman after the Sochi meeting.[i]

And finally, Moscow may have chosen to underscore its frustration with the Minsk process and the Normandy format meetings between Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France as revealed by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs publication of Minister Lavrov’s correspondence with his French and German counterparts.[ii]

Two days after his phone call with President Putin Mr. Biden spoke at length with President Zelenkskyy. The Associated Press reported the following on the call: “Administration officials have suggested that the US will press Ukraine to formally cede a measure of autonomy within its eastern Donbas region, which is now under de facto control by Russia-backed separatists who rose up against Kyiv in 2014…  senior State Department officials have told Ukraine that NATO membership is unlikely to be approved in the next decade, according to a person familiar with those private talks who spoke on condition of anonymity.”

Interestingly Moscow, at least at this stage, has avoided addressing the possibility that Ukraine may join the EU someday.  Thus, the Cold War process called “Finlandization” is back. According to Merriam-Webster, it means “a foreign policy of neutrality under the influence of the Soviet Union, and also the conversion to such a policy”. The collapse of the Soviet Union marked the end of the Cold War. Yet, the word did not disappear altogether.

For example, Henry Kissinger in a Washington Post op-ed in 2014 said, “Ukraine should not join NATO…Internationally, Ukraine should pursue a posture comparable to that of Finland. That nation leaves no doubt about its fierce independence and cooperates with the West in most fields but carefully avoids institutional hostility toward Russia.”[iii] 

The Finlandization of Taiwan has also been debated by some. Whatever is the case, the concept always refers to a relationship between a major power and a less powerful neighbor. Regardless, today’s Finland, a member of the EU, is only a success story.

With Russia’s military build-up at the Ukrainian border, the question of Western “promises” to Moscow regarding NATO expansion has resurfaced.

Some highlight, in this context, the “assurance” given by the then US Secretary of State James Baker to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on February 9, 1990, that the West will not move “not one inch eastward”. Others say that Mr. Baker never made such a promise, that this is a myth, and Mr. Gorbachev misinterpreted the conversation. Some hold the opinion that Mr. Gorbachev was somehow “led to believe” that this would not happen.

In an interview with Russia Beyond on June 27, 2010, Mr. Gorbachev was asked why he did not insist on the promises made to him – particularly Mr. Baker’s promise that NATO would not move one inch further east– be legally encoded?

This was his response:

“The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. I say this with full responsibility. Not a single Eastern European country raised the issue, not even after the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist in 1991. Western leaders didn’t bring it up, either. Another issue we brought up was discussed: making sure that NATO’s military structures would not advance and that additional armed forces from the alliance would not be deployed on the territory of the then-GDR after German reunification. Baker’s statement, mentioned in your question, was made in that context. Kohl and [German Vice-Chancellor Hans-Dietrich] Genscher talked about it.”[iv]

Later, in a Bild interview in April 2017, Mr. Gorbachev said:

“… . We cannot blame anyone for the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, many people in the West were secretly rubbing their hands and felt something like a flush of victory – including those who had promised us: ‘We will not move one-centimeter further East.’[v]

But in both interviews, he did not fail to express his disappointment with the West.

In the former, he said that the decision for the US and its allies to expand NATO into the east was made in 1993. “I called this a big mistake from the very beginning. It was definitely a violation of the spirit of the statements and assurances made to us in 1990,” he declared.

In the latter, he said, “… However, the West then used Russia’s weakness after the dissolution of the Soviet Union to declare itself the “winner” of the Cold War. The principle of equality in international relations was forgotten, and thus we all ended up where we are today.

Sovereign equality of states is still a recurrent theme of Russian diplomatic discourse.

On December 31, 1999, President Boris Yeltsin announced his resignation and turned over power to Prime Minister Putin. A year-and-a-half before his resignation, on May 27, 1997, the “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation” was signed in Paris.[vi]

The Founding Act which focuses on the Euro-Atlantic area is a document of lofty principles with some give-and-take. It says:

“NATO and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries. They share the goal of overcoming the vestiges of earlier confrontation and competition and of strengthening mutual trust and cooperation. The present Act reaffirms the determination of NATO and Russia to give concrete substance to their shared commitment to build a stable, peaceful, and undivided Europe, whole and free, to the benefit of all its peoples…

“… NATO and Russia will seek the widest possible cooperation among participating States of the OSCE with the aim of creating in Europe a common space of security and stability, without dividing lines or spheres of influence limiting the sovereignty of any state…”

Probably at Russia’s request, as one of UN Security Council’s five permanent members with veto power, it says that the Act does not affect, and cannot be regarded as affecting, the primary responsibility of the UN Security Council for maintaining international peace and security.

And it says that NATO and Russia will base their relations on a shared commitment to certain principles. Among these is, “respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states and their inherent right to choose the means to ensure their own security, the inviolability of borders and peoples’ right of self-determination as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and other OSCE documents…”

The people of Ukraine have the indisputable right to chart their future independently of any kind of external intervention. President Putin’s article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” does not change this.[vii] Sadly, however, major powers do not agree on the definition of the so-called “rules-based international order”.

It is worth remembering that during the Yeltsin years (1991-1997) Russia implemented a radical privatization program encouraged by the West. The fall in oil prices added to Russia’s economic troubles. GNP fell by 43%. Inflation reached record levels leading to social problems. And as of March 1999, NATO started expanding, in the first wave by embracing the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland as new members.

In an article published in the New York Times on 13 March 2014, John J. Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago said that few American policymakers are capable of putting themselves in Mr. Putin’s shoes. He explained the background of the Ukraine conflict as follows:

“…The taproot of the current crisis is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West. The Russians have intensely disliked but tolerated substantial NATO expansion, including the accession of Poland and the Baltic countries. But when NATO announced in 2008 that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO,” Russia drew a line in the sand. Georgia and Ukraine are not just states in Russia’s neighborhood; they are on its doorstep. Indeed, Russia’s forceful response in its August 2008 war with Georgia was driven in large part by Moscow’s desire to prevent Georgia from joining NATO and integrating into the West…”[viii]

Could the West manage the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union better? With the benefit of hindsight, yes. Could the West engage emerging Russia more positively, with a long-term vision? Again, yes. Did the West mismanage developments in Georgia leading to the loss of South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Definitely. Could the West handle the Maidan protests and the follow-up better? It probably could. Were the invasion of Iraq and Western participation in Arab Spring proxy wars a disservice to the cause of democracy? Yes.

To conclude, these are testing times not only for relations between Russia and the US but also between Europe and the US.

Russia is a global power with a centuries-old diplomatic tradition. Who leads Russia is clear.

The picture on the Western front of nations is more complicated. After four years of disarray in transatlantic relations, President Biden claimed “America is back” but then came AUKUS. Understandably, Brexit was going to be a difficult process and problems are lingering. Chancellor Merkel, Europe’s pillar of stability has retired. NATO’s southern flank is no longer what it once was. The world’s economic center of gravity is shifting towards the Indo-Pacific. More often than not, China and Russia are acting in tandem on international issues. In brief, challenges to Western unity and leadership are on the rise.

Russia has already deployed around 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, and according to intelligence reports, the numbers can go up to 175,000 in early January. Keeping such a large force in combat readiness for long would be a challenge for Moscow. But the bigger challenge for the parties involved is to move beyond the war of words and engage in result-oriented diplomacy. Otherwise, military coercion, threats of invasion, and countermeasures would continue to loom, raising the costs for all.










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