Despite troops on the Russia-Ukraine border, a shot at diplomacy

Nato leaders are engaged in high-stakes diplomatic efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution

Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron attend a joint press conference, in Moscow, on February 7. Reuters
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While there are no guarantees that the current flurry of intense diplomatic activity over Ukraine will avert military conflict, there are nonetheless encouraging indications that they may yet succeed in defusing tensions.

With Russia about to embark on the largest military exercise conducted in the neighbouring state of Belarus since the end of the Cold War, the possibility of a full-scale conflict erupting over Ukraine cannot be discounted.

Moscow continues to deny it has any intention of launching an invasion against Ukraine. But the 10 days of Russian military exercises about to take place in Belarus, conducted against the backdrop of a 100,000-strong battlegroup deployed on Russia’s southern border with Ukraine, mean there is no let up in the pressure on Kiev.

The importance of the Belarus exercises is reflected in the fact that Moscow has sent several of its top military commanders to oversee the 30,000 Russian troops that are taking part. In addition, Russia has moved two battalions of its sophisticated S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems, as well as numerous fighter jets, into the country. The exercises will be overseen by Gen Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian armed forces’ General Staff. Meanwhile, six Russian warships have been deployed to the Black Sea to carry out simultaneous exercises.

The combined presence of so many combat troops so close to the Ukrainian border has led to Nato leaders continuing to express concern about Moscow’s ultimate ambitions, with officials in Washington claiming that an invasion of Ukraine is “imminent”.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan warned in an interview over the weekend that Russia could take military action against Ukraine “any day now”, while US intelligence officials are predicting that Russia would be able to capture Kiev within two days. Such a move, they say, could result in the deaths of up to 50,000 civilians.

The scale of the threat Russia might pose to Ukraine has prompted an equally robust response from Nato, further adding fuel to the fire of potential conflict. Washington has deployed extra forces to Central Europe and the Baltic states to deter possible Russian actions, while other Nato allies such as Britain have deployed troops also.

Against this backdrop of frenzied military activity, there is, though, a growing realisation on both sides that diplomacy still offers the best hope of resolving the crisis, and to this end Nato leaders are engaged in high-stakes diplomatic efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution.

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The Kremlin believes that Kiev needs to recognise pro-Moscow separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk

As British Prime Minister Boris Johnson travelled to Brussels to meet with Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg, he called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to show “real diplomacy” over the Ukraine crisis. At the same time, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss travelled to Moscow for discussions with her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.

Germany’s newly appointed Chancellor Olaf Scholz has also been heavily engaged in diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis, flying to Washington for his first meeting with US President Joe Biden earlier this week. The German leader was keen to reassure the White House that Germany was not going soft on the Ukraine issue because of Berlin’s dependency on Moscow for its energy needs.

But the high point of the West’s attempts to defuse tensions was undoubtedly French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Moscow earlier this week, where he had a five-hour meeting with Mr Putin to discuss ways to resolve the crisis. Mr Macron certainly provided an upbeat assessment of his meeting, claiming he had secured an assurance from Mr Putin that “there would be no deterioration or escalation”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, French President Emmanuel Macron, centre, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy arrive at a working session at the Elysee Palace on December 9, 2019 in Paris. The meeting marked the last time when the leaders of the four nations met in person to try to revive the stalled 2015 peace deal for eastern Ukraine. Pool via AP

Even though the Kremlin later disputed the precise terms of the undertakings Mr Macron had received, Mr Putin confirmed that some of Mr Macron's proposals "could form the basis of further joint steps" – although they were "probably still too early to talk about". Ukrainian officials also made encouraging noises about the summit, with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba remarking that “diplomacy is continuing to lower tensions”.

Nevertheless, it is clear that, at the very least, Mr Macron has established the parameters of a possible diplomatic solution to the crisis – one in which Moscow scales down its aggressive military posture towards Ukraine in return for Kiev agreeing to implement some of the proposals outlined in the Minsk agreement negotiated in 2014 and 2015 to establish a ceasefire in the Ukrainian conflict. Ukraine’s democratically elected government has been engaged in a long-running conflict with Russian-backed separatists, who are opposed to Kiev’s attempts to forge closer ties with the West.

The Kremlin believes that under the terms of the Minsk agreement Kiev needs to recognise pro-Moscow separatists in the eastern territories of Donetsk and Luhansk. Kiev insists the separatists need to disarm before any political solution can be found, and officials believe implementing the agreement could lead to the collapse of the Ukrainian state because, by allowing the Russian-backed territories a role in the constitution, they would be giving Moscow a direct say in the country’s affairs, thereby undermining its sovereignty.

The so-called “Findlandisation” of Ukraine, whereby the country’s destiny is controlled by Moscow (as Finland’s was during the Cold War) and not the Ukrainian people, is not a concept that attracts much support in Ukraine itself. Indeed, it is the reason Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has given only lukewarm support for Mr Macron’s initiative.

"I do not really trust words,” said Mr Zelenskiy. “I believe that every politician can be transparent by taking concrete steps.”

Despite Kiev’s quite understandable reservations about allowing Moscow a say in how it conducts its affairs, it is clear that Mr Macron has identified a possible diplomatic resolution to the crisis, especially if, as he contends, the Kremlin has committed to withdrawing its forces from Belarus once the current round of military exercises have been concluded. Any sign that Moscow was scaling down its military presence so close to the Ukrainian border would undoubtedly constitute a major step towards defusing tensions in the region.

Published: February 10, 2022, 2:00 PM