Has Russia raised the stakes too high on Ukraine?

Despite the possibility of talks next month, both Moscow and Nato will struggle to find a face-saving solution

Ukrainian soldiers use a launcher with US Javelin missiles during military exercises in the Donetsk region. AP Photo
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The weeks-long standoff between Moscow and Nato, the western security umbrella, escalated on Tuesday when Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened a “military-technical response” if the latter did not stop pursuing what his government considers to be aggressive policies in and around neighbouring Ukraine.

In his address to army and defence ministry officials, Mr Putin said: “If the obviously aggressive line of our western colleagues continues, we will take adequate, retaliatory military-technical measures.”

The Russian president’s statement came at a time when Moscow is deploying thousands of troops along its border with Ukraine – a country that it considers to be within its orbit of influence but whose army has long been training alongside Nato forces. Russia remains opposed to Ukraine’s desire to become a full member of Nato, a US-led security alliance that was created in 1949 as a bulwark against the erstwhile Soviet Union, which Ukraine was an integral part of. Moscow is also against any deployment of Nato weapons systems in Eastern Europe amid talk in Washington of sending forces to support Nato's allies in the region if Russia were to invade Ukraine.

The escalation of tensions amid Nato concerns of a Russian invasion will be worrying not just for the region’s stakeholders but perhaps even for countries around the world, given the impact that an outbreak of war could have on global stability.

Mr Putin has sought to lower the temperature in the intervening days by leaving room for negotiations with Nato next month – as has Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – with both leaders demanding certain “security guarantees” from the West. Karen Donfried, the US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, has called some of Moscow’s demands “unacceptable” but has hinted that dialogue over Ukraine’s future and security in Europe will kick off next month. Mr Lavrov has, meanwhile, stressed that any negotiating process must not be perpetual, especially as the threats – as Russia view them – are emerging continuously, with Nato’s infrastructure drawing ever closer to Russia’s borders.

The problem with Russia’s proposals is their perceived lack of feasibility. For example, one demand is that Nato halts all expansion activities in the direction of Ukraine. Another includes putting a stop to western military co-operation in Eastern Europe – especially with the former Soviet republics.

The agreement to hold talks in January may well calm things down a little but it won’t defuse the standoff. Indeed, the talks don’t rule out the possibility of war and may not alter the course of the respective plans that both Nato and Russia are putting in place. Both sides claim that they want to avoid a military confrontation, but there are no guarantees to ward off the spectre of war.

What will happen if the talks fail? The Russian plan, as Mr Putin laid it out in his speech at the Ministry of Defence, is essentially a military one and includes pre-emptive strikes that could lead to war. The US and Europe, on the other hand, plan to pressure Russia economically. They are focusing on a possible sanctions regime aimed specifically at the country’s high-tech sector.

The agreement to hold talks in January may well calm things down a little but it won’t defuse the standoff

Western sanctions would cause major harm to the Russian economy, as would possible attempts to encircle the country and prevent its vessels from making trips to strategic locations, including bases in Syria. Right there is one global implication of a conflict.

Another implication could be for Beijing, which might already be benefiting from the escalation of tensions. Mr Putin is due to visit China in February to discuss further military and security co-operation at a time when all is not well between Beijing and Washington in the context of their great-power competition.

Moscow blames the West for the current crisis, given that it believes the US is encroaching on Russia’s sphere of influence – that, too, with its missiles, as Mr Putin has put it. It wants Nato to provide legally binding guarantees – not just verbal ones – that it will not deploy forces or weaponry in Ukraine or admit Ukraine into its fold. But it knows that Washington won’t meet these demands, and therefore it is raising the temperature.

In his speech, Mr Putin drew attention to Russia’s military might. But he said something more telling – that Washington “should understand that we have nowhere further to retreat to”.

This is undoubtedly a high-stakes game, but will Russia risk being isolated by the West or the possibility of a return to the kind of Cold War hostilities seen during the heyday of the Soviet Union? Or is this just a ruse on Moscow’s part to keep the West second-guessing? Is there a way out for both sides while still being able to save face? The confrontation seems at its peak now – despite an agreement to hold talks next year – with the Russian military pitted against western sanctions. Everyone should fasten their seatbelts.

Published: December 26, 2021, 4:00 AM