A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy? Russia, Ukraine, and NATO

Friday, January 14, 2022

US and Russian negotiators met in Geneva this week to talk about the Ukraine/NATO crisis. According to the official Russian news agency TASS, however, the Russian government views the talks as a failure

And so, we head into the weekend under something of a cloud. The Russian government's rhetoric on Ukraine has become increasingly bellicose in recent months. Russian demands on NATO, meanwhile, seem unlikely to be met. 

Moscow wants to receive a response to its demands by next week. 

Russia is asking for the following from NATO: 

  • No more Nato enlargement, whether it's Georgia and Ukraine or Sweden and Finland. 
  • No more NATO training exercises in non-NATO countries in former Soviet space 
  • A cessation of NATO deployments to states which joined the alliance after 1997--which would mean all member states in central and eastern Europe would be barred from having other NATO members' troops on their soil. 
  • No armament of Ukraine.
  • No deployment of US nuclear weapons outside the US. 

These demands are not even close to what American and NATO negotiators have in mind. As some observers have suggested, the Russian proposals may well have been intended to be rejected

Here are a few thoughts: 

a) Ukraine means more to Moscow than it ever will to the US. 

No matter what, if push comes to shove the fate of Ukraine is ultimately something that is going to matter a lot more to Russia than the US. The US has the Monroe Doctrine, and now Putin is attempting to establish something similar with respect to the former USSR. If it comes to a war, Moscow will be willing to fight for Ukraine, and the US won't. 

b) Once the US stops arguing with Russia over Ukraine and Georgia, a new argument will emerge over the Baltic states. 

I'm not worried that the Biden administration will take Russia up on the Kremlin's demands. Still, to those who may argue that Ukraine isn't worth destroying our relationship with Russia, I would say: even if the US and NATO were to agree to everything on Russia's list of demands, we would still have to go through this exact same process again in a couple of years. Caving in to Moscow's demands on Ukraine would only convince them to use the same tactics re Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. 

c) It's not necessarily in US interests to prevent Russia from attacking Ukraine. 

Would it have been in Moscow's interests to prevent the US from invading Iraq in 2003? Obviously, it would be a disaster for Ukraine if Russia were to invade, and no one should hope for war. But invading Ukraine would hardly be a cakewalk. If Russia were to attempt to invade all of Ukraine, the western parts of the country could prove genuinely difficult to pacify. It would be easier, of course, to only attack the regions of eastern Ukraine which have already declared their independence from Kyiv. But, were the US and Europe to impose more sanctions in response (which seems likely), it hardly seems beneficial to Russia to go to war and suffer under sanctions simply in order to incorporate a gritty, post-industrial region like eastern Ukraine. 

Moscow has been pouring billions of dollars per year into the Crimea,
and still its cities are among the poorest in Russia. But at least the Crimea brought with it some tangible benefits, such as the Russian Black Sea fleet base in Sevastopol and potentially billions of dollars in natural gas reserves. There was also a sense among Russians that the Crimea is Russian, and the region is bound up in the history of the country in a way that Kharkiv, for instance, is not. And then there is the general poverty and need for infrastructure improvements in the region. Incorporating the Detroits, Akrons, and Allentowns of eastern Ukraine into Russia would be much more expensive and would provide none of the benefits of the Crimea. 
Yet that, frankly, could end up being the best-case scenario for Putin if there indeed is a war: paying a big economic price for a questionable acquisition (eastern Ukraine would be considered a fixer-upper).  

A third possibility would be for Russian troops to make a beeline for Kyiv, knock out the government, replace it with a new one, and then quickly withdraw as many soldiers as possible. But this too is a very risky proposition, one that could still lead to a long-standing Russian occupation over a hostile region. 

Frankly, any one of these scenarios has the potential to make Moscow's objections over NATO's presence in the Baltic region and central Europe a moot point. If Moscow gets involved in a messy conflict in Ukraine, the folks in the Kremlin won't have the time or energy to worry about developments taking place further to the west.  

d) While it's not in Russia's interests to invade Ukraine, it might happen anyway. 

As I've written elsewhere, I certainly don't think it would be beneficial to Russia to invade Ukraine. It could even be disastrous. Without question, the current status quo in eastern Ukraine is much more favorable to Russia than war would be. Presently, Moscow can ratchet up the pressure on Kyiv through its support of separatists in the east, yet Moscow is responsible for nothing in terms of actually administering the area. It would be foolish to try to change this by fighting a war in order to gain control over this territory.  

But sometimes, if you've been threatening to do something long enough and have not done it, people begin to suspect your resolve. This may be the situation in which Vladimir Putin now finds himself. 

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