Tensions over Ukraine: entrapment or de-escalation?

By Tom Casier, Director of the Global Europe Centre
University of Kent / Brussels School of International Studies

Media speak about Russia’s possible invasion of Ukraine as the threat of a new war. If it comes to military action, this would be all but a new war. It would be a new and dangerous stage in a conflict that erupted in 2014 and has never stalled since then, as daily violations of the ceasefire and casualties in Eastern Ukraine prove. Even more, the current tensions are the result of a deep and protracted crisis of the  European security order, that makes repeated incidents between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic Community unavoidable. Analysts have warned over and over again that the conflict over Ukraine held the risk of renewed escalation. This is what we are witnessing now.

Speculation has been rife in Western media about Putin’s intentions: does he plan to invade Ukraine or not? And if so, what form of military action will he opt for? Many Russian analysts, though usually sceptical it will come to an invasion, claim that even those close to Putin do not know. Even more, Putin may not have made up his mind and a decision may depend on how things unfold. Speculating will thus not help us much. What we do know, is that there has been an interesting evolution in Russia’s approach. Let us wind back to early 2014. Russia took control of Crimea by stealth, through ‘little green men’, soldiers without insignia. It managed to do so because it used tactics of surprise, confronting the West with an unexpected move for which the latter lacked a clear and immediate answer. Today, Russia’s actions are exactly the opposite. The country is deploying troops close to Ukraine’s border in a visible and mediatised way. Russia flexes its muscles in a demonstrative way, but also gives the Euro-Atlantic Community the time to prepare, to unite, to plan sanctions, to send weapons to Ukraine and troops to NATO’s eastern borders. Over the last year, there has been an interesting evolution in Putin’s discourse. In his address to the Federal Assembly on 21 April 2021 he threatened with ‘asymmetrical, swift and tough’ action and said: ‘I hope that no one will think about crossing the “red line” with regard to Russia. We ourselves will determine in each specific case where it will be drawn.’ Interestingly, he did not specify the red lines at this point, but left it to the Kremlin to decide when they would be crossed. Only later, in November-December 2021, he started specifying the red lines in terms of three demands: no further expansion of NATO to post-Soviet states, no deployment of offensive weapons in the proximity of Russia and the withdrawal of NATO military infrastructure from member states that joined after 1997. He added at a press conference in December: ‘our actions will not depend upon negotiations, they will depend on the unconditional compliance with Russian security demands’. Stating it this way, Putin has not only been unusually specific, but has also set the bar really high. He makes three demands, of which he knows he will never get the full, unconditional and written compliance by the West he asks for. What is puzzling is why this change of tactics has occurred.

One of the most obvious reasons is that Putin, by making these unconditional and impossible demands, tried to force negotiation space on the issue of European security. Moscow has tried many times to put this on the agenda, for example with Medvedev’s proposal for a European Security Treaty in 2009, but never managed to get the topic really on the negotiation table. At the time of writing, Putin seems to have put some steps in this direction. For the first time, there is diplomatic activity and declared willingness to talk about the structural issues of European security. Russia’s military build-up could be seen as a classic, but radical, change to force negotiations from a position of strength. As Andrei Tsygankov has argued, this is what one does, when negotiations from a position of trust have become impossible. And trust between Russia and the West has systematically dwindled for over fifteen years.

An alternative explanation, one that has circulated among Russian experts mainly, is that Putin considers the Ukraine issue as an unsolved problem, one he wants to tackle during his presidency and on which he now wants to force a breakthrough. No doubt, Russia continues to have an interest in destabilising Ukraine, a strategy it even reinforces with the massive mobilisation of forces around the country. This approach deters NATO expansion and prevents Ukraine from becoming a ‘useful’ partner of the West. But so far, the weakness of this strategy of destabilisation has been that the final goal remains unclear: what should the current half-hearted situation with the non-recognised People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk and an ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine eventually lead to? Moscow may be looking for a more ‘permanent’ solution, whatever form this may take. Many scenarios are possible between today’s stalemate and seizing full control of Ukraine.

While there may be some negotiation space on Russia’s demands, it is perfectly clear that they will never be met unconditionally, as Putin has asked. He has thus put the bar unachievably high and is no doubt aware of that. Inevitably this entails a high risk of losing face and the crucial question is how he will deal with that. The demands have been formulated so sharply that some spinning about diplomatic gains in the margin will not suffice to turn this into a diplomatic victory. If Moscow’s official rhetoric that there is no plan for an invasion is true, the real risk may reside in things getting out of control. At some point, the Kremlin may feel compelled to do something drastic if its demands have clearly not been met. That risk has only increased, because for now Putin only got the opposite of what he asked for: an increased NATO presence on Russia’s borders. The danger is then one of Moscow getting entrapped in its own audacious claims.

In these circumstances, diplomacy aiming at de-escalation is the only way to go. Macron’s diplomatic demarche, at an early stage at the time of writing, is probably a necessary answer. But to be successful, it will have to go hand in hand with some long-term vision of how European security architecture can be redesigned. For the post-Cold War security order has eroded steadily until its full collapse today. Hardly any of its founding principles and instruments stand today: the principle of the indivisibility of security, the inviolability of borders, a working collective security system for greater Europe and an effective arms control regime. As to the latter, only one of the core treaties survived, the new START treaty. One of the defunct treaties, on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, was exactly meant to avoid the situation in which we find ourselves today, whereby the amassing of troops close to the border creates fears of an offensive war.

Rethinking Europe’s security architecture and arms control will inevitably require negotiations between the US and Russia. As the EU has no control over these security arrangements (such as nuclear arms control), its role will inevitably be limited. Where the EU could play a role, is in promoting de-escalation, as a condition for more substantive negotiations. It may also play a role in fostering the implementation of the Minsk agreement, which remains a key condition for demining current tensions. Finally, if it wants to weigh on possible negotiations, it will need a clear vision of what the European security order and Russia’s place within could look like in the long term. But we are far from there. The best we can hope for at the time of writing is de-escalation as an essential prerequisite for any steps forward.

Further background:
-See a policy memo on tensions over Ukraine in Spring 2021.
-See a recent article in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs on the systemic crisis of the post-Cold War order.