EXPLAINER: Putin’s Ukrainian strategy mixes threats and diplomacy

INQUIRIES AND RESPONSES

Russia wants the United States and its allies to prevent Ukraine and other former Soviet countries from joining NATO, refrain from placing weapons near Russia, and roll back alliance forces from Eastern Europe.

Washington and NATO dismiss these demands as “non-starting”, but they also offer to discuss possible limits on missile deployments, greater transparency of military exercises and other confidence-building measures.

Putin has yet to give Moscow’s official response to the Western proposals, but he has already called them secondary and warned that he would not accept a “no” answer to its main demands. He countered the Western argument that NATO has an open-door policy by arguing that it threatens Russia and violates the principle of “the indivisibility of security” enshrined in international agreements.

MILITARY MUSCLE FLEXIBILITY

As the West rejects its key demands, the Kremlin has upped the ante by massing more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine and carrying out a series of military maneuvers from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea.

As part of the show of force, Moscow moved trains of troops, tanks and weapons from the Far East and Siberia to Belarus for joint war games, sparking Western concerns that that Russia could use them as cover for an invasion.

Washington and its allies raise the prospect of unprecedented sanctions in the event of an invasion, including a possible ban on dollar transactions, draconian restrictions on imports of key technologies like microchips and the closure of a newly built Russian gas pipeline. to Germany.

President Joe Biden’s administration has also deployed additional US troops to Poland, Romania and Germany to show Washington’s commitment to protecting NATO’s eastern flank. The United States and its allies have delivered planes loaded with weapons and ammunition to Ukraine.

CALCULATED STAIRCASE

By concentrating troops that could attack Ukraine from many directions, Putin demonstrated that he was willing to escalate the crisis to achieve his goals.

“Putin seems overconfident and shows a high level of risk tolerance,” said Ben Hodges, who served as the commanding general of the US Army in Europe and now works at the Center for European Policy Analysis. “He seems determined to exert maximum pressure on the West in this self-made crisis, in the hope that Ukraine or NATO will eventually make concessions.”

Some observers expect Putin to further escalate tensions by expanding the scope and area of ​​military exercises.

Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Moscow-based Foreign and Defense Policy Council, which closely follows Kremlin thinking, predicted that a Western refusal to discuss Russia’s key demands would trigger further escalation.

“Logically, Russia will have to raise the level of tensions,” Lukyanov said. “If the objectives set are not achieved, then the pressure must be increased, first by a show of force.”

Lukyanov said that while invading Ukraine is not what Putin wants, he could challenge the West in other ways.

“The idea as envisaged by Putin (…) was not to resolve the Ukrainian crisis through war, but to bring the West to the negotiating table on the principles of European security agreements”, noted Lukyanov. “The moment Russia starts a war against Ukraine, the whole previous game will be over and the new game will be at an absolutely different level of risk. And all we know about Mr. Putin is that he’s not a player. He’s a calculated player.”

POTENTIAL AREAS OF COMPROMISE

While Putin and his officials have insisted they expect the US and NATO to bow to Russia’s demands – a prospect that seems nigh impossible – some Kremlin watchers expect that Moscow would eventually agree to a compromise that would help avoid hostilities and allow all parties to save face. .

While the Western allies won’t back down from NATO’s open door policy, they have no intention of embracing Ukraine or any other ex-Soviet nation anytime soon. Some analysts have floated the idea of ​​a possible moratorium on expanding the alliance.

Gwendolyn Sasse, a Carnegie Europe fellow who runs the Center for East European and International Studies in Berlin, expressed skepticism, saying “the worst thing would be to point out that there are divisions within NATO” , noting that Putin might not be happy about it either. .

Another possibility is the “Finlandization” of Ukraine, which means that the country would gain neutral status, as Finland did after World War II. This policy helped her maintain friendly ties with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War.

Such a move would represent a sharp revision of Kiev’s trajectory to NATO membership and would likely fuel strong domestic criticism, but the Ukrainian public could eventually welcome the political twist as a lesser evil, compared to a Russian invasion.

Asked about the idea of ​​”Finlandization”, French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters on Monday that “it’s one of the models on the table”, but he backtracked the following day during his visit to Kyiv.

Another potential compromise would likely include steps to defuse tensions in eastern Ukraine, which has been controlled by Russian-backed separatists since a rebellion erupted there in 2014 shortly after Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine.

Russia has urged the West to pressure Ukraine to fulfill its obligations under a 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany and required Kiev to offer autonomy to the territories held by the rebels. The agreement was seen by Ukrainians as a betrayal of the country’s national interests and its implementation has stalled.

Macron this week described the agreement as “the only way to build peace… and to find a lasting political solution”.

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Associated Press writers Lorne Cook in Brussels and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed.

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