The Russia-Ukraine crisis: can diplomacy still find a way out?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

The build-up of Russian forces around the borders of Ukraine has been going on for several weeks now, and there is still no end in sight. Is Russian President Putin planning to invade Ukraine? We are no closer to having a clear answer, although Russian officials and spokespersons have repeatedly denied that Russia has any intention or plan to launch an invasion. Yet the facts on the ground speak otherwise.

In the last 10 days, the levels of Russian troops along the Ukraine border rose from 60 to an estimated 84 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs), or in other words, from 100,000 to 130,000 troops. This represents about a third of Russia’s entire army if we look at equipment, logistic chains and overall combat capability. About 50% of Russia’s air assets are now also in the region.

In addition, Russia has deployed about 30,000 troops to Belarus, together with 15 Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jets, S-400 air defence units and a battery of SS 26 Iskander missiles. The Russian forces in Belarus have ostensibly been sent there, mainly from the Russian Far East, for the Union Resolve joint Russia-Belarus military exercise, due to begin at the end of this week.

Yet the location of the Russian forces has raised suspicions that Russia is preparing a full-scale onslaught against Ukraine from the north. Far away from the proposed exercise training grounds in Belarus, Russian forces have been deployed to Yelsk, Luninets and Rečyca, which are only around 30 miles from the Ukrainian border and 80 miles from Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. Currently, US intelligence sources believe that the Russian forces are around the 70% mark in their build-up, and they are alarmed to see that the Kremlin is bringing in things like military field hospitals and blood supplies that are usually only needed if a real attack is going ahead.

This strategy contrasts with earlier assumptions from Western defence experts: that Russia would invade from the east in order to detach the Donbas region fully from Ukraine and integrate it formally into Russia; that  Russia would seek to occupy more parts of Russophone Ukraine in the east, such as the city of Kharkiv; that Russia would attempt to build a land corridor from Russia across Ukraine to Crimea; or that Russia would attempt to deprive Kyiv of its important ports on the Sea of Azov, such as Mariupol’ and Berdanys’k.

Why would Putin make demands that he knows would be rebuffed?

Yet the ongoing build-up of Russian forces on Ukraine’s eastern border, and its deployment of warships and amphibious units in the Black Sea near Odessa, clearly demonstrate that Russia has kept a full spectrum of these limited invasion options open as well. Aircraft, missiles, drones and Spetsnaz units could also be used to lay waste to large areas of Ukraine, or try to compel the Zelensky government in Kyiv to meet Moscow’s terms without the need for a full-scale invasion and installation of a puppet Moscow-friendly regime.

Putin has used this highly visible show of military power to put pressure on NATO as well as Ukraine. It has obviously been an expensive operation to demonstrate Russia’s leverage in an area where the Kremlin still has a key advantage: the possession of a sizeable army and the willingness to use it to intimidate and coerce its neighbours. Following this spectacle of military brinkmanship, Putin has demanded that NATO abandon further rounds of alliance enlargement and withdraw its military forces from the territory of its new member states in central and eastern Europe. Without attaining these major diplomatic concessions from NATO, Putin will struggle to find reason to back down, especially given the way that he has framed the crisis as an existential issue for Russia’s security.

This has been as much a crisis of the post-Cold War European security order as it is of the future of Ukraine as an independent country. That said, the continuing Russian stranglehold on Ukraine, which has also gone hand-in-hand with cyberattacks on Ukrainian government agencies and mounting economic costs to Kyiv, has perplexed Western diplomats. From their rational negotiating standpoint, an invasion of Ukraine makes little sense. It can only antagonise NATO further and lead to the alliance increasing its units on the ground in eastern Europe. This is already happening in anticipation of a Russian invasion, as the United States has sent 3,000 additional troops to Germany, Poland and Romania. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the Netherlands are preparing to send smaller numbers to Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and Romania.

Moreover, it was inevitable that NATO allies would reject Putin’s maximalist demands. Conceding would give Moscow a droit de regard, or even veto power over NATO’s affairs. To end NATO’s military presence on territory which encompasses half of NATO members would be tantamount to making them second-class allies. It would thus undermine the principle of equal security on which the alliance is based and, in doing so, terminate NATO as a viable military organisation. Such an outcome would put paradoxically NATO security guarantees to Russia ahead of security guarantees to its own member states.

It begs the question, why would Putin make demands that he knows would be rebuffed? Was it simply a way of advertising Russia’s complaints and diverting attention from its own regional ambitions by blaming all the tensions on NATO? In other words, is Putin attempting to disguise the subjugation of Ukraine behind a narrative of preventative measures to stop an aggressive NATO moving in on Ukraine, and, therefore, pre-empting a direct NATO military threat to Russia from Ukrainian territory? Such a subversive narrative would identify Russia as the victim, not the aggressor.

The debacle in Afghanistan was one of the causal factors in the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union

Certainly, Putin’s denunciation of a European security order has cast a spotlight on the very different ways in which NATO countries and Russia interpret the key principles of European security, which were enshrined in the Charter of Paris of 1990 and the Charter of Istanbul in 1999: “indivisibility of security”, “legitimate security interests” and the “right to choose” in joining or not joining a military alliance. As Henry Kissinger once said of the Soviet Union: “absolute security for the Soviet Union means absolute insecurity for everyone else.” The fundamental problem with Putin’s demands is that they ask Russia’s neighbours to reorganise themselves around Russia’s interests while the Kremlin shows scant regard for their own security perceptions and concerns.

In the same way that Moscow’s diplomatic objectives are unlikely to be realised, a long drawn-out conflict in a large country like Ukraine does not seem to make much sense either. This would be a far cry from the times when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968 to install Communist governments more loyal to Moscow. At that time, the Kremlin could count on loyal local armies and Moscow-friendly intelligence services, as well as large and conservative segments of the local Communist parties that remained loyal to the Soviet leadership. These supportive aspects are entirely lacking in Ukraine, which has developed a strong sense of nationhood since Russia annexed Crimea and stirred up a pro-Moscow rebellion in Donbas in 2014. Public opinion surveys show a strong mood of popular resistance even in some of the Russian-speaking areas like the eastern city of Kharkiv.

Certainly, Russia could easily take another slice of territory but invading a country is not the same as occupying or subjugating it. Ukraine has an army of 250,000 soldiers and 200,000 reservists, many of whom have combat experience from the operations in Donbas. That army is now to be increased by another 100,000 recruits and it is increasing its defensive capabilities with weapons supplied by the US, UK, Turkey and the Czech Republic. The US estimates that Ukrainians would take heavy casualties – around 50,000 from an initial Russian invasion – but so would the Russian forces, particularly if the fighting is in urban areas where, as Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, insurgents and militias can hold up entire armies in street-to-street fighting.

Moreover, although the Russian military has been extensively overhauled since its shortcomings in Georgia in 2008, we have only seen a very small group of elite or special forces at work since, such as in Syria or Ukraine where there was little resistance and the availability of proxy forces to do the Russians’ work for them. So, we do not yet know how the ordinary or regular Russian forces would perform when confronted with a hostile and determined population.

The same would apply even more if Russian conscripts, with less than 12 months of training, were used. The obvious parallel is with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, something that the Soviet general staff advised against but were overruled by the Politburo, determined to put a loyal Communist and pro-Soviet regime in power. The result was that the Soviets lost 15,000 troops, and their presence only united the Afghans in resistance to the occupation. The debacle in Afghanistan was one of the causal factors in the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin, who lived through these events, must be mindful of them. The Afghan precedent raises the issue of what added value an invasion of Ukraine would bring Putin when his strategy of hybrid warfare – undermining Ukraine through a constant barrage of cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, energy supply manipulation and political interference – has already had such a big impact, and turned many Western policymakers against any near-term NATO membership for Ukraine.

Putin may decide that the best time to invade is now before new weapons arrive at the Ukrainian frontline

Given these questions, Western diplomats had hoped that by now they would have persuaded Putin to pull back his forces from the Ukraine border and take steps to de-escalate the crisis. After all, a traditional package of sticks and carrots worked to defuse the crisis caused by a similar build-up of Russian forces in March 2021. At that time, the Russian forces finished their exercises and returned to their barracks, although they did leave some of their equipment, ammunition, and command and control field headquarters behind. This time round, the old, familiar playbook has been rolled out again.

The first deterrent is a package of robust sanctions to make the Kremlin pay a high price for an invasion. Here Washington has been working steadfastly with the European Union, the UK and other Western powers to devise a set of sanctions that will target the Russian banking sector, its access to international financial markets and the government’s ability to float its sovereign debt. Into this package has come the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which the US is confident will be blocked by the German government in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. The signals from Berlin have been more ambivalent in this respect. Also in the sanctions package are technology transfers, particularly in the consumer electronics area. The aim of the sanctions is, of course, to deter Russia rather than to punish it after the fact for a military action. So the question is: will Putin be deterred or will he calculate that he can live with the sanctions and anticipate that they will be lifted before they really start to bite?

Putin’s visit to China last week and his summit with President Xi suggested that he can count on China’s economic and diplomatic support. In addition to a declaration that underscored their diplomatic alignment and China’s understanding for Putin’s position on NATO, Moscow and Beijing signed 15 economic agreements, including one for Gazprom to deliver 10bcm of gas from Sakhalin to China and another for Rosneft to supply more oil. This trade will be in euros rather than the traditional dollar to help Russia avoid the impact of US financial sanctions. Moreover, the Russian government and its central bank have long anticipated the arrival of fresh sanctions by reducing Russia’s foreign debt, building up a considerable sovereign wealth fund of around $150bn and diverting as much trade as possible from the US dollar. Yet many Western economies think that despite these measures and China’s support, Russia is still dependent on Western investments and technology, and that a robust package of sanctions will inflict real pain on Russian consumers.

The second step that the West is taking is weapons for Ukraine. To some extent, this has been happening for some time already with the US allocating $500mn this year to supply Kyiv with radios, radars, naval corvettes, medical equipment, and Javelin and Stinger missiles. The UK has offered Brimstone missiles and finance for the development of Ukraine’s shipbuilding capacity. Turkey has supplied its legendary TB2 armed drones, which proved devastating when used recently by Azerbaijan against Armenian forces in Nagorno Karabakh. Kyiv has already used these drones against pro-Russian separatist forces in Donbas, provoking virulent protests from Moscow. The aim here is to give the Ukrainian forces weapons that do not require a lot of training but which can be effective in stopping Russian armour. This process has not always gone smoothly. Germany has refused to supply lethal weapons, falling back on its economic assistance to Ukraine of $2bn. Its offer of 5,000 helmets was greeted with derision in Kyiv. Berlin has also refused to grant licences for Lithuania to export old East German howitzers to Kyiv that were donated to Lithuania after its accession to NATO. This policy of Germany, as well as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline issue, have exposed Berlin to much criticism in Washington, which Chancellor Scholz experienced first-hand when he visited the White House this week. Boosting the Ukrainian army with Western weapons can help to deter a Russian attack, but it is a double-edged sword as Putin may decide that the best time to invade is now before new weapons arrive at the Ukrainian frontline.

The West sees arms control as the most promising area for agreement with Russia

Third in the West’s playbook is the sensible policy of reducing energy dependency on Russia. This cannot be done overnight as Europe currently imports 40% of its gas from Russia. Yet Europe is better incentivised to diversify its energy sources, having been exposed to Moscow’s tactics of using energy as a political form of coercion in the Ukraine crisis: sticking only to minimal, contractually-agreed supply levels; increasing supply only to Moscow-friendly countries such as Orbán’s Hungary; and using gas supplies as leverage to speed up the certification of Nord Stream 2 by Germany and the EU. The EU is working with the US to increase liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports and has reached out to other potential suppliers such as Azerbaijan, Qatar, Algeria, Norway and Nigeria. Japan has offered some gas to Europe too. The European Commission is looking at increasing storage capacity and acting as an agent for EU member states in bulk-buying gas as it did for COVID-19 vaccines. Of course, Europe will still need Russian gas just like Russia will need to sell it; but this is the moment for the EU to press ahead with the transition to the green economy and to securing its energy from non-fossil fuels, thus considerably reducing Russia’s economic leverage. Given Moscow’s great reliance on hydrocarbon sales, the Kremlin needs to ask itself if the short-term benefits of using the gas weapon outweigh the longer-term risks of greater EU energy autonomy.

If these are the sticks, then what are the carrots that can be offered to Putin as an inducement to de-escalate?

In first place, more progress should be made in implementing the Minsk-2 agreement on the future status of the Donbas region. Here Moscow regularly claims that Kyiv is dragging its feet and even blocking the implementation of these accords. Kyiv’s alleged obstructionism is one of the pretexts that Putin has drawn on in his build-up of Russian forces. Yet, as always in negotiations, it takes two to tango, and both must gain as well as lose. The Minsk-2 agreement contains a two-track approach whereby Kyiv will proceed to organise elections inDonbas and grant the region a large degree of autonomy; but also a security track whereby Moscow would withdraw its forces, disarm the separatist militias and allow Ukraine to regain control of the Donbas-Russian border. Clearly, these steps have to proceed in a parallel, verifiable and quid pro quo fashion. Although Russia is insistent on the implementation of the political track, it shows little interest in the security track, giving Kyiv reason to believe that Moscow is pushing for a confederal scheme that would make Ukraine lose sovereignty over its own territory and give Moscow permanent control over Ukraine via blocking votes from Donbas.

Consequently, we need a solution in Donbas that provides devolution within the Ukrainian constitution, as well as democratic elections under Ukrainian electoral rules with international, not just Moscow-led, supervision. Kyiv and Moscow are far apart but France and Germany have been working closely with them at foreign minister level in the Normandy Group to reboot the talks and agree with Kyiv and Moscow on a step-by-step, phased approach. Recommitting to the ceasefire in Donbas and conducting an exchange of prisoners, as Kyiv has suggested, would be useful confidence building measures.

The Western strategy to defuse the crisis is based largely on arms control talks. This is the substance of the written replies that both the US and NATO have forwarded to Russia in response to Putin’s proposals for the European security architecture. The West sees arms control as the most promising area for agreement with Russia, as NATO’s and Moscow’s concerns largely overlap – sometimes in a mirror image fashion. For instance, both sides demand more transparency about each other’s military exercises. They also want to avoid forces and armour being concentrated along borders, and to limit or stop altogether the deployment of short- and intermediate-range missiles, either with nuclear or conventional warheads. Russia also worries about US missile defences in Europe being used for offensive purposes. NATO worries about Russian ships and aircraft coming too close to its own forces and the possibility of dangerous incidents and accidents.

Unfortunately, the arms control agreements that regulated these things and avoided snap military exercises or surprises, such as the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), the Open Skies Agreements and the Vienna Document, have all largely broken down. The death knell was also provided by former US president, Donald Trump, when he abrogated the INF treaty and pulled out of Open Skies. Certainly, Moscow played its part by cheating on the INF rules and refusing to abide by the CFE and Open Skies.  The treaties that Trump promised to replace the ones he abandoned never materialised, leaving Europe once again as an unregulated zone of military posturing and competition.

The grave threat of war in Europe remains

Until the NATO-Russia Council stopped meeting in 2019, apart from an exceptional meeting on Russia’s security demands three weeks ago, NATO had been trying to actively engage Russia on risk reduction measures such as the use of aircraft transponders and pre-briefings on exercises. Moscow even sent general staff officers to Brussels to discuss its Zapad exercises and other major field trials. The Europeans have been trying to keep Open Skies going even without American participation. So presumably, there is an agenda here that serves the interests of both sides, unlike so many of the Kremlin’s other proposals. NATO has proposed a series of follow-up consultations in the NATO-Russia Council to go into depth in each of these areas, including the cyber domain, and to see if new confidence-building measures can be worked out.

A further opportunity is the role of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna. Its Forum for Security Co-operation (FSC) has been conducting a Structured Dialogue among the 57 OSCE member states. It is a good platform to explore difficult and controversial concepts such as “legitimate security interests” or “indivisible security”. Both the West and Russia believe that they are threatened by the other. An open dialogue about these perceptions and the factors that are driving them, real or imaginary, can help to build trust, provide early warning of flashpoints, and rule out military planning based on worst case scenarios.

Inevitably, NATO will respond to Moscow’s threats and assertiveness by deploying more forces to its eastern regions. The alliance will feel compelled to give up its current posture, which consists of four battalions set up in tripwire fashion in the Baltic states and Poland backed up by the NATO Response Force and reinforcements from western Europe and across the Atlantic. Already the Baltic states have called for the deployment of additional and permanent forces on their territory. The NATO Military Committee is currently looking at options to strengthen NATO’s defence and deterrence, and NATO defence ministers will have an initial discussion on these when they meet in Brussels next week. Final decisions will probably be taken by NATO leaders at their summit in Madrid at the end of June, unless events in Ukraine force the alliance to take them earlier.

Putin has every interest in NATO not turning battalions into brigades or even Cold War style armoured divisions in its Enhanced Forward Presence in eastern Europe. Yet NATO will only stick with its current low-key posture if Putin desists from further aggression against Ukraine. This will also apply to the prospect of Sweden and Finland joining NATO. Russian sabre-rattling has only rekindled the debate in both these countries about NATO membership, a Rubicon that they are unlikely to cross if the strategic situation remains stable in Ukraine and Russia’s western neighbourhood. Certainly, Stockholm and Helsinki reacted vigorously against Putin’s demand that the alliance halt its process of enlargement, wanting to keep this option open.

We are at a crucial juncture in the management of the Ukraine crisis. The West has offered a number of off-ramps to Moscow, enabling it to de-escalate the crisis and save face, if it is willing to take them. So far, Putin has not done so. The grave threat of war in Europe remains. The West has two choices.

One is to avert the immediate threat of war by giving Putin guarantees regarding the non-enlargement of NATO to Ukraine with the West forcing Zelensky to renounce this option. In return, Putin would guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty and remove his forces. NATO would stick with its current posture and send those additional troops, ships and aircraft that have gone to Poland, the Baltics and the Black Sea back home. Relaunching the Minsk-2 agreement would no doubt also be on the agenda. These ideas seem to be what French President Macron discussed with Putin at their meeting in the Kremlin last Monday. Macron has consulted extensively with other NATO leaders before and after his trip so he must have had the scope to put these proposals on the table.

Many more leaders and ministers will need to travel to Moscow and Kyiv

Yet an exit strategy from this crisis along these lines would violate the West’s promise to include Ukraine in decisions about its future. Equally, what trust could there be in Putin’s guarantee to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty given that in 2014 Russia violated it twice – in Crimea and Donbas? Russia also undertook to uphold Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for Ukraine handing over its Soviet-era nuclear weapons to Russia in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. Would Russia evacuate Donbas and hand Crimea back to Ukraine, even though it has been incorporated into Russia? It does not seem very likely. Moreover, would Georgia, Sweden and Finland also be forced to renounce the option of future NATO membership, notwithstanding their right, according to OSCE documents, to join an alliance if they so choose? In short, Russian military intimidation would have paid off. Other powers seeking territorial or strategic revisions will no doubt take notice. Apart from a short-term reduction in tensions, it is difficult to see what the West gains – and all too easy to see what it loses– from such a deal. It may bring short-term relief but, like buyer’s remorse, only at the cost of storing up problems for the future.

The second choice is to stick to the current strategy of deterrence and dialogue which was described above. It means calling Putin’s bluff and not giving in to one-sided attempts to change the European security order. This may involve a game of nerves for several more weeks and allowing Putin to stay in the global diplomatic spotlight that he adores.

Many more leaders and ministers will need to travel to Moscow and Kyiv. At least these trips and the ongoing diplomacy buy time to allow Putin to examine his interests and options more rationally, and appreciate the off-ramp options which the West has presented to Moscow in writing, as well as the penalties of further sanctions, and diplomatic isolation.

In 1990, the key challenge for the US vision of a “New World Order” was undoubtedly Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Upon learning about the invasion in Aspen, Colorado in August 1990, former UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, famously said to former US president, George H. W. Bush: “this is no time to go wobbly.” The same applies to today. The West should stick to its guns and its principles. That is the best chance of avoiding yet another Ukraine crisis six months from now.

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