What Is Russia’s Logic for the Current Crisis?
U.S.-Russian relations may no longer be central to world politics, the way they used to be during the Cold War, but when it comes to strategic stability and security in Europe and Eurasia, there is still no more important bilateral relationship in the world. President Vladimir Putin’s demands for “security guarantees” from the United States and NATO have caught many, including in Moscow, by surprise. The urgency with which Moscow seeks to have its proposals addressed — presented not as a “menu of options” to choose from but a “package” — has been even more stunning. This swift and somewhat bewildering presentation by Moscow should not be read as a bluff or as yet another attempt to simply get the attention of the United States. Putin may not exactly know what he wants, but he surely knows what he doesn’t want: over the course of his almost 20-year rule, this is his third major call to negotiate more favorable security conditions for Russia. Two previous attempts ended in wars. This time Moscow feels may be different, primarily because of the changing focus of the United States from Europe to Asia, and a U.S. interest in “a stable, predictable relationship” with Russia. In other words, there’s a sense in Moscow that Washington is looking for changes to the European security architecture so that it can focus on the Indo-Pacific. And if that is the case, Russia can be part of the solution if the United States agrees to the Kremlin’s proposals, or become an even bigger problem if the United States rejects them. The military build-up around Ukraine that unfolded before the proposals were formally rolled out appears to have signaled Russia’s determination to have frank, direct, and prompt discussions with the United States. Putin’s virtual “ultimatum” thus breaks into two closely intertwined subject matters: the Kremlin’s hopes to change Washington’s approach to the European security order and Russia’s intentions for Ukraine. Moscow is likely to make decisions regarding the second track depending on the progress on the first one — or lack thereof. Invading Ukraine was — and still is — not Putin’s preferred option to bring Washington to the table, but it took such a threat to get the White House to take his agenda seriously. This, however, seems to be only the first part of the plan. Should the talks with the United States fail to deliver satisfactory results for Moscow, the “military and military-technical response” that the Russian leadership mentioned may indeed directly concern Ukraine. This doesn’t necessarily imply a direct military invasion but may include a range of other options such as, for instance, missile deployments in Donbass, Crimea, or elsewhere. In addition, Russian officials also promised to embark on the course of “creating vulnerabilities” for Western countries.
At the first sight, the proposals may look bizarre: In this respect, it’s only logical that the knee-jerk reaction to Russia’s dozens of demands in Western policymaking circles was to scoff at them, especially since Moscow did not propose even one concession of its own. Some of the proposals concern fundamental issues rooted in late 1980s and early 1990s, while others focus on modern-day issues where the interests of the parties have long seemed irreconcilable.
The proposals could also be grouped according to time horizon: those that can be addressed immediately, those that may be dealt with in the middle term, and those that require a much longer distance and a more comprehensive discussion about European security. But as Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine and chairman of the Presidium of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, put it:
Everyone wants to return to the situation at the moment of their highest influence: Russia – to 1945, the West – to 1991. To do this, Russia needs to annul the outcome of the Cold War, and the West needs to correct the outcome of World War II. But both sides are aware that neither is possible.
Some of the proposals demand concrete substantive solutions in the short term. Other proposals are meant to start a process. But at the root, Russia wants security guarantees alongside its borders. It intends to get those at the negotiating table or through creating new realities on the ground. If this is the case, understanding the drivers of Putin’s “compellence tactics” with the United States is critical, as is understanding why Putin thinks that now is his moment.
Since its beginning, NATO’s enlargement policy has been a significant irritant in Russia’s relations with the United States. Moscow didn’t see the expansion of the alliance that was historically meant to contain Moscow as an effort to enlarge the “security community” in Europe. Instead, most of the Russian political elite and much of the public came to think of NATO as a euphemism for U.S. military presence in Europe, a tool for advancing American interests, and a source of legitimacy for the Americans to adopt key political decisions in the “belt of Russia’s vital interests.” The phrase “aggressive advancement of military infrastructure to the Russian borders” came to accompany most Russian official statements on NATO.
Since the end of the 1990s, NATO has seen five waves of enlargement eastward. Each wave triggered noise from Moscow, but it was the possibility of Ukraine and Georgia’s accession to NATO that Russia feared most and set as the red line. Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 symbolically ended the 1990s era of Russian-Western relations. It was Putin’s first notable call to set the framework for “security guarantees” for Russia. Agitated by what Russia called “color revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia as well as the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Putin’s complaints about “unilateral dominance of the United States in international relations” were a howl of frustration after failed attempts to establish a more favorable relationship with the United States during the presidency of George W. Bush. In the West, his remarks were seen as a signal of Russia’s own revisionist ambitions. The five-day war with Georgia in August of 2008, although triggered by then-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s adventurous offensive in South Ossetia, was, in Moscow’s view, part and parcel of the greater American and European failure to take the red lines seriously.
Putin’s second call for “joint undivided security” came during another period of turbulence: the Arab uprisings, NATO’s intervention in Libya, and what Moscow perceived as the Obama administration’s support for the Bolotnaya protests in Russia. These spurred Putin to raise the issue of Russia’s “security guarantees” in one of the articles he penned as an aspiring presidential candidate in the spring of 2012. Titled “Got to Be Strong: Security Guarantees for Russia,” the article in Rossiyskaya Gazeta argued that Russia’s own security can be guaranteed only by means of “developing military potential in the framework of containment strategy and at the level of defense sufficiency.”
Putin’s key thesis there warned: “We must not lead anyone into temptation with our weakness.” In early 2014, the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, hailed by major Western powers, made Moscow “take active measures to avoid the temptation.” The takeover of Crimea became another milestone in Russian-Western relations and officially ended the era of President Barack Obama’s reset policy with Russia.
Putin’s current “ultimatum” is thus a third attempt to coerce the United States and its European allies to review the entire European security architecture as well as alter the Western approach towards the post-Soviet space. This is a matter of strategic importance for Moscow. Regardless of the rhetoric, Russia’s major challenges cannot be adequately addressed without at least a “cold peace” with the United States and Europe. Putin’s threat to sever diplomatic ties with the West if Washington opts to impose new sanctions on Russia over Ukraine suggests the Kremlin feels it may reach a certain point after which talking to the West makes no sense. After that, Russia would have to activate an option of “providing its own security” that would probably imply greater costs for its own economy but also an uncomfortable security reality for others.
The urgency of the Russian proposals most probably has to do with Ukraine. On a number of occasions, Russian leaders have talked about the “active military development” of Ukraine — meaning the American buildup of Ukraine’s military potential, the penetration of American intelligence structures into key branches of the Ukrainian government, and the deployment of America’s own military infrastructure on its territory. Topped off with what Russia sees as Kyiv’s assertive policies towards Donbass, the persecution of pro-Russian groups and individuals in the rest of Ukraine, as well as escalating pressure on Lukashenko’s Belarus, the picture the Kremlin is getting is grim: Political and military trends near Russian borders are shaping up in an unfavorable manner for Russia’s security and status. When Putin says “Russia is pushed against the wall” it is not an exaggeration, but a real reflection of how Russian leaders view the current situation. If the pattern is recurring and unaddressed, Russian pledges for security guarantees end in major crises and war, such as the Russo-Georgian War and Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Diplomacy is not yet exhausted, but it might be soon.
Russia’s gambit with the United States is based upon two considerations: its perception of how the United States sees Russia and Russia’s assessment of the top foreign policy priorities of the Biden administration.
On the first, while the United States doesn’t see Russia as a peer competitor on a global scale — much to the despondency of the Kremlin, perhaps — the American military and intelligence community takes Russia as a serious adversary, especially in terms of nuclear and precision weapons, in cyberspace, and space capabilities. Following the extension of the New START treaty and the first Biden-Putin summit in Geneva on June 16, 2021, it became clear to the Russian party that strategic stability is the only area that truly concerns the United States in relation to Russia since these are the domains where Russia maintains near-peer capabilities and poses a serious threat to the United States. Based on these assumptions, Putin’s proposals hinged any further progress with the United States on matters of strategic stability on Russia’s own security guarantees in Europe. Without addressing the latter, it would be hard to move forward in the framework of the two working groups on strategic stability that the United States and Russia now have. “Walking and chewing gum,” as Biden once framed his Russia policy, is made more difficult this way.
On the second account, Moscow appears to believe that the Biden administration is better placed for serious deal-making at the moment. First, because there is an increasing domestic demand in the United States for a more restrained foreign policy that has supporters on both sides of the political aisle. Greater reliance on diplomacy was also stressed by Biden’s team during the campaign as one of his signature policies. Second, and most importantly, Moscow is skeptical that Biden is going to run for a second term and therefore may be thinking about his political legacy now. “Building back better” and getting America in shape for the century’s most important showdown with China are the two prime goals. A messy, protracted conflict with Russia that may also tie America’s hands in other regions would distract resources and impede the achievement of both goals.
Moreover, if Russia decides to augment its “force multiplier” role for China, things may also get more difficult for the United States in the Indo-Pacific theater. Putin has already made a small step in that direction by virtually inviting Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping to tacitly support a Russian “ultimatum” vis-à-vis the United States and NATO. China wouldn’t jump to Russia’s support, but is displeased with how Washington “drags” Europe into its China containment agenda in the Indo-Pacific.
Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, never mind how it was carried out and how much Russia profited from it in terms of media propaganda, was seen in Moscow as Biden’s ultimate ability to act, unlike his predecessors who had to care about reelection, in a more audacious and decisive manner on matters of strategic importance to the United States. Putin’s remark in his latest phone call with Biden that “too many mistakes were made in the last 30 years [in U.S.-Russian relations]” is a ball pass to Biden. The Russian president believes that his American counterpart now has the opportunity to benefit from these proposals and do away with yet another “damned question” of U.S. foreign policy in the post-9/11 era — “Russia problem.” As both Russia and the United States enter a qualitatively new stage in the making of the new world order, this may be an attempt to orient the forthcoming conversation in Geneva to some vision for the future rather than continuing to argue over the past.
Maxim A. Suchkov is acting director of the Institute for International Studies at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University). On twitter: @m_suchkov
Image: Russia Ministry of Defence (Photo by the Press Service of the Central Military District)