Without wanting to get drawn into fruitless neo-Kremlinology, it is starting to look as though Putin is winning with the political-military dispute he is pursuing in Ukraine, while also losing in other respects. One main aim is to prevent NATO from expanding any further towards Russia, so that Ukraine and Georgia do not join (and if he has his way, cannot join) the alliance. But the scope of this extends much further. For Putin, the European and world order are at stake. And in this respect, everything remains open.
The West has issued Moscow with public warnings of severe consequences, above all economic and financial, but also in terms of military aid to Ukraine, if Russia invades the country. This would include suspending the opening of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which would enable Russia to supply Germany while bypassing Ukraine. It does not entail any direct military involvement by NATO beyond its zone. That said, the Kremlin interpretation might very well be the opposite: if it does not invade, there will be no sanctions, Nord Stream 2 will start to operate and Ukraine will remain outside NATO de facto, if not de jure, for the foreseeable future.
While the West is not really contemplating Ukraine’s admission to NATO, although it cannot formally rule this out, it does plan to send arms. It is not going to give Russia legal guarantees, since this is not politically possible, just as they were not given to Gorbachev, although verbal promises were made to him about NATO not being extended to former Soviet territories (barring East Germany). This is something that was pointed out years ago, and declassified documents confirm. On the other hand, in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which it breached in 2014, Russia undertook to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine in exchange for it giving up nuclear arms.
Perhaps Putin seeks the nullification, or what was known during the Cold War as the Finlandisation, of Ukraine. Perhaps he is looking to gain more, owing to the geographical, historical and cultural proximity. The Russian position –playing the aces in its hand (military force, territory and raw materials, including oil and gas, and its cyberattack capabilities)– is a starting point, a new opening in this European and global chess game, not an end point. If it secures a degree of understanding with the West, and above all with the US, it will achieve a de facto recognition of its annexation of Crimea in 2014, and maintain Ukraine as a ‘latent conflict’, as in other parts of the post-Soviet sphere.
The Ukrainian crisis is unfolding at a time when the Soviet sphere is undergoing reconfiguration, witness Belarus and Kazakhstan, where there has been a mixture of popular revolt and a revolt amongst the elites, and incomplete transitions to democracy. Indeed, what Putin fears is a truly liberal democratisation of his neighbours, particularly Ukraine. The revolts in Kazakhstan have enabled Russia to revive the Collective Security Treaty Organisation to send in a ‘pacifying contingent’, which will not be easy to pull out. But relying on autocratic regimes is not a position of strength.
In any event, what is at stake goes far beyond Ukraine. For Putin, the time has come to negotiate a new security framework that will last Europe for decades. He must know that many of the elements of the treaties (with the US and with NATO) he has proposed are unacceptable both to the US and to the Western Europeans (non-extension of NATO and the westward withdrawal of NATO forces, among others). It is not possible to give a flat rejection without offering ‘concrete’ (to use the Russian term) alternatives in our interests. Macron is working along these lines when he refers, as he did in his speech to the European Parliament, without going into details, to a security pact with Moscow and a new ‘collective security order in Europe’ vis-à-vis Russia involving a ‘frank’ dialogue. Between them the French President, who also holds the six-monthly presidency of the European Council, and Biden with his declarations have managed to divide the EU and NATO.
The EU per se –as opposed to individual member states acting jointly, such as France and Germany trying to revive the Normandy format (those two plus Russian and Ukraine)– has been relatively sidelined during this crisis, given its internal divisions on how to deal with Russia, Brexit, the lack of a truly common foreign and security policy and the fatigue in the Union regarding possible further expansions, all of which support Putin’s interpretation.
An entente between Russia and the West would include a new agreement on intermediate-range missiles, following Trump’s error of pulling out from the 1987 INF (Reagan-Gorbachev) pact that withdrew them from Europe, amid the threat of Russian 9M729 missiles and concerns about growing Chinese nuclear power. It should not be forgotten that nuclear weapons are Washington’s main concern with Russia. And the Europeans do not want them to return to their continent, not even to Kaliningrad.
While he had already done so in 2014 with the invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, when NATO struggled to act decisively, and the embarrassing and hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan undermined NATO’s global image, with his latest hostile manoeuvres Putin has revived the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
He has prompted a new wave of Ukrainian nationalism, although Moscow would perhaps have preferred a more pro-Russian shift in Ukrainian politics and among its leaders.
With its management of winter gas supplies, and its influence on prices, Putin’s Russia has highlighted European dependence on this source of energy (40% of the gas that Europeans consume comes from Russia), especially when the tensions between Algeria and Morocco have exacerbated the situation. The outcome may be that Europe diversifies its supply, especially by importing liquified gas from the US.
If it invades Ukraine, the economic and financial sanctions could seriously weaken the Russian economy, causing greater dependency on China. Finances, the stock exchange and the rouble are already feeling the effect, although national revenues are not faring badly, given the rise in the oil price. The Russian economy has become more resistant to these possible sanctions, which will be restricted by Europe’s gas dependency. However, this is no longer communist Russia, but rather a system much more influenced –albeit with limitations– by the market. The oligarchs, with a great deal of money in the West, also have much to lose.
Western activities in the Black Sea and the area around Ukraine are also an important factor.
What Russia is contemplating now it could have tried some years ago, and indeed Putin has been considering it for some time. Why now? Ukraine is only part of Putin’s plans.
One reason is that the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of Donbas have not reaped the expected rewards in geopolitical terms. Another might be Putin’s loss of popularity ahead of the presidential election in 2024, which the constitutional reform he himself pushed through enables him to enter. Achieving a new global and European security order, one that is more favourable to Russia, or at least the restoration of its status as a great power, for a country with a GDP of Italy, would help him. The US, under Biden, has started to listen to him rather more, although the extent of this remains to be seen.
These are also times of Western weakness. Many Western democracies are increasingly being challenged from within, the US itself being top of the list. Putin and his cronies perceive that the US is not what it was (militarily, technologically or economically), is internally divided and has a President with a very uncertain future. If in November he loses control of Congress, which he is only clinging on to by his fingertips, or the election results are challenged in the courts, Biden and the Democrats will also be weakened on the international stage during the second half of his term.
The US obsession with China has relegated Russia to secondary status. Perhaps one of the greatest Western mistakes of recent times was not to have cultivated a constructive relationship with Russia –as Bush senior tried to do with Yeltsin– and extricate it from China’s embrace. This was a twofold loss, a twofold strategic Western mistake, which Putin is making the most of.
Putin may also be wanting to gauge the leadership changes in Europe, from Berlin to Paris by way of other capital cities.
There is also the crisis in globalisation and generally in the world brought on by COVID-19, a pandemic that persists. As the British Historian Adam Tooze points out, Putin was the first in 2007-08 to warn that global growth might not produce harmony and convergence, but rather conflict and contradiction.
Following the meeting between Blinken and Lavrov in Geneva, the announcement that Moscow will have an answer to its demands this week opens up fresh prospects of hope and consultations among allies. Depending upon this response, Putin will act in either one way or another. But act he will. It remains to be seen how the deterrence upon which NATO is based, and in which Spain plays an active role, functions in practice. Suspense, for now, remains the order of the day.
Picture: Imagen: Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Vice-President of the European Commission, in Ukraine. Photo: Genya Savilov / EC – Audiovisual Service, ©European Union, 2022.