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Huseyin Oylupinar (PhD)
Foreign Policy Institute
After December 17, 2021 template agreements published by the Russian Foreign Ministry,[i] Russian-US and Russia-NATO relations have entered a new phase within which Russian Federation’s administration threatens the US and NATO, if they fail to sign the agreements, with what Russian government terms as “military-technical measures”. Given the military deployments around Ukrainian border since October 2021, one should read such measures as open military operations in Ukraine and even as far as operations in the Baltic Sea region against Sweden and Finland.
Russia came to the table to talk over its two templates with the US in January 10, 2022 ,with NATO in January 12, and during OSCE meeting in January 13. The Russia have left without tangible results and the US and NATO left without any Russian commitment to deescalate the tensions over the Ukrainian border. Within days of today, Russia is expecting a response to its templates from the US and NATO in a written form.
One may wonder, taking Russian claim that it is under the US and NATO threat since 1990s, why exactly at this time Moscow needs to increase tensions with a military threat, to gain security guarantees from the NATO and US? Here is how I see the nature of game in terms of its timing.
First a recap: By 2014 Russia has been in control of the Ukrainian politics, through its reach into some of the Ukrainian political parties, political and intellectual elite, and operatives in Ukrainian intelligence and military. All this allowed Moscow to pursue its economic interests within Ukraine. The Euro Maidan events were motivated by then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to not to pursue EU oriented policies. When the pressure of pro-European masses and protests have become overwhelming, odds turned against Yanukovych. Russia, understanding that this meant the end of its established effective control and network of operations in Ukraine, decided to occupy Crimea and scripted and orchestrated so-called separatist armed actions in Donbas (the author interviewed those so-called Donetsk and Luhansk separatists in summer of 2013 in Crimea months before they were transported from occupied Crimea). The current conditions in Crimea and Donbas are assumed to be known by an interested reader, so I avoid further details. Yet, I will suffice to say that Russia held on to Crimea and Donbas as a retribution to its lost control over entire Ukraine which it well benefited.
In 2014, Ukrainian army, which was literally incapacitated (deployable armed force was effectively several hundred strong) by the Russia-serving Ukrainian commanders and the intelligence service (Sluzhba Bezpeky Ukrayiny, shorthand SBU) had to face Russian aggression in Donbas mostly by relying on volunteer units. However, as the armed conflict prolonged and lasted until today, Ukrainian army is modernized and increased in capacity and capability standing now on the 25th rank on the list of Global Fire Power Index. Ukraine received arms and training from the US and developed deeper cooperation with NATO. Nevertheless, the capability the Ukrainian army reached is no match to that of the Russia. Yet, the tendency in this particular military vector disturbs Russia and recently gained unmanned aerial combat drones and its operations in Donbas and over the Black Sea are one of the timeline events marking Russia’s new deployments around the Ukrainian borders in fall months of 2021.
Ukraine’s significant progress in meeting NATO standards may qualify Ukraine, at least on paper, for NATO membership, to which the alliance gave a green light in 2008. This attainment of military standards and possibility of NATO membership negotiations will be an irreversible point for Russia to return Ukraine to its fold. It is therefore, high time for Russia to act and risk a military level engagement in Ukraine.
As a second factor determining why now Russia preferred to initiate an escalated phase is that Joe Biden, in president’s office since January 20, 2021, has marked China as the main rival while Russia appeared to be a lesser problem to be dealt with. Joe Biden has been a vocal supporter of Ukraine as a vice-president (in office until January 2017). As a president he has kept sanctions in place, yet preferred to keep diplomatic channels open with an emphasis on deescalation of tensions built up in recent years. Yet, his restraint on using stronger tools against Russia, letting Nord Stream-2 pass without sanctions, pulling the US out of Afghanistan haphazardly, allowed the government in Moscow to read a weak counterpart than what might have been expected earlier.
Joe Biden’s commitment to lead and cooperate with the US’s European allies has not found in past year a visible and tangible embodiment that might be read as a variable that Russian leadership would calculate as a complicating factor. Biden administration has not given any signs that the US will give security and defence guarantees to Kyiv in case of an armed attack further targets Ukraine. It is all clear to Russian decision-makers that once they attack Ukraine none of Ukraine’s allies will have boots on the round or fire their cruise missiles from a distance. All the foregoing factors are convincing indicators for Vladimir Putin to lead Russia to take more courageous posture and tell the US to pull back and spare a backyard for Russia’s use in the Eastern Europe and the Baltic Sea region.
Another significant variable that determines why Putin’s Russia has escalated tensions with the US and NATO to post-Cold War high is the weakened state of the European Union. The EU has been challenged by the Trumpian US policies that have marked by policy divergences in relation to European security and dealing with issues like the Iran nuclear deal. The EU has been also challenged by crisis in Libya and Syria where the EU proved to be less then a unified actor. Moreover, the immigrants heading to Europe from conflict regions of the Middle East and North Africa has shaken both the European economy and the values that have been promoted as the premise of European identity.
Internally, Brexit has occupied the EU’s agenda for a long time and challenged the EU economically and politically, marking shrinking global imprint of the EU. Other EU actors, Poland and Hungary, now dubbed as illiberal democracies, challenge the whole idea and values of the EU by the domestic policies they pursue and the problems they pose to the European project.
While EU is a complicated machine at supranational and intergovermental levels of administration, by this very same nature it is open and vulnerable to outside factors such as individual countries’ relations with and dependencies to Russia. Having found dealing with the EU as an organization too troublesome and complicated, Russian policy-makers preferred to bypass complications and the pressures presented and enforced by the standards of communication and cooperation with the EU, preferred to relate to the individual EU countries on an intergovernmental level. This has given Russia an internal leverage into the EU structures as an individual country may be bound by interests and benefits provided by Russia and therefore, remain hesitant to support the EU positions that may disturb Russia. This appears sharply in the case of European dependency on Russian energy resources and particularly with the completion of the Nord Stream-2 and Germany’s careful treatment of Russia (note Germany’s avoidance of supplying arms to Ukraine and vetoing NATO to do so). On the backdrop of apparent weaknesses of the EU, Russia is reaching into the EU structures through economic dependency and effective anti-EU and illiberal value promoting sources in Europe. By doing this, the Russian administration calculates that escalating tensions at this period may not cause further concerns manifesting in mutually damaging new sanctions and/or reactions.
Ukraine itself is not a major issue for Russian military and political planning. Yet, Ukraine has been plagued during Zelenskyi’s presidency, whose public support dropped from 73% to 20%s, with a period with political instability and poor staffing policies. A striking example is Oleksiy Danilov, the Head of the National Security and Defence Council, the highest agency advising the president in domestic and international security matters, who has no security related background or experience, even not holding any government positions since 2006, Failure to deal with the internal challenges and shortcomings in activating social capital of the country, Ukraine’s power to resist a Russian aggression is compromised therefore, provide welcoming grounds for Russian plans.
This article will not address all the Ukrainian internal problems, yet I will mention in passing the Wagner Scandal, when Ukrainian secret service failed with an operation to hunt down some Wagner operatives, who fought against Ukraine in Donbas. Soon after the president’s office was informed about the plan, the operation is exposed effectively showing existence of a leak in the higher ups. In the event of a Russian aggression foregoing shortcomings will cost highly as it may cause political and social paralysis and fail before the Ukrainian army at the front. These weaknesses certainly adds up positively in the calculations of Moscow.
With the foregoing variables Russians feel safe to threaten Europe and the US with a long standing military confrontation. Andrei Kartapolov (Duma Defense Committee) puts it bluntly: “Our partners must understand that the longer they drag out the examination of our proposals and the adoption of real measures to create these guarantees, the greater the likelihood that they will suffer a pre-emptive strike.” We are yet to see if Russia is reading the variables on the ground well and can back up political and diplomatic discourse with actions. Regardless, Russia controls the tone and the speed of the political game and fellow players try keep up.