February 14, 2022
Last week, Presidents Macron and Putin had a phone call. According to the Kremlin readout of the call, “at the French side’s initiative”, President Putin once again drew attention to the absence of a substantive response from the United States and NATO to the Russian initiatives. He also stressed the reluctance of the leading Western powers to encourage the Kyiv authorities to implement the Minsk agreements.
This was followed by a call between Presidents Biden and Putin. Washington’s readout of the call contained nothing new. Kremlin Aide Yury Ushakov told reporters that the call between the two Presidents was “rather balanced and business-like”. “Joseph Biden made a mention, as might have been expected, of the possibility of harsh sanctions against Russia, but they were not the focus of his rather lengthy conversation with the Russian leader,” Ushakov said.
Senior US officials said the call was “professional and substantive”, but there was no fundamental change in the dynamic that has been unfolding now for several weeks.
Russian officials have repeatedly accused Western countries of spreading disinformation about Russian intentions and creating “hysteria” over an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine. The US State Department has ordered all its diplomats and employees except essential staff to leave Kyiv. Other Western countries are taking similar measures. Last Saturday, the Russian Foreign Ministry also said it was pulling some of its diplomatic personnel out of Ukraine. The implementation of the Minsk agreements was seen by some as the key to de-escalation, but there was no progress in the latest round of Normandy format talks in Berlin.
In brief, the positions taken by Russia and the West have not changed. Thus, the Russian written response to US/NATO counter proposals will only be the reiteration of Moscow’s initial security demands. The frenetic Western diplomacy of the past few weeks appears to have yielded very little if anything. And the next, perhaps the last high-level Russia-West diplomatic exchange will take place tomorrow in Moscow when Chancellor Scholz meets President Putin. This would be the most significant episode of Europe-Russia diplomatic engagement because of the questions regarding the future of Nord Stream 2.
In the meantime, the political and economic cost of the Russian buildup on Ukraine’s borders is continuing to rise for the Kremlin.
If Russia were to resort to military action, Russian troops would probably not just move across the border. This would be preceded by a final political/diplomatic move.
So far, the Kremlin has not responded to Ukraine’s calls for a high-level meeting between the two countries. A meeting between Presidents Putin and Zelensky could be an option.
US intelligence sources have drawn attention to the possibility of a “false flag” operation by Moscow designed to put the blame on Ukraine to justify its military operations. Russia has strongly denied this.
A step by Moscow could also be the recognition by Russia of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic as independent states.
The two Ukrainian oblasts had declared independence from Ukraine in May 2014. In January, some members of the State Duma, proposed a draft law to recognize the independence of these two separatist regions.
On January 26, in a must-read Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) commentary titled, “Will Russia Recognize the Self-Declared Separatist Republics in Eastern Ukraine?” Andrew Lohsen responded to the question.[i]
Hopefully, the crisis would not come to a mutually damaging end and the Russia-West diplomacy would prevail. Remembering what Otto von Bismarck had said may help: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.”