Russia filed a report to the United Nations on Thursday, accusing Ukraine of committing acts of “genocide” against the “Russian-speaking population” in the country’s war-torn Donbass region. President Vladimir Putin could well use the charge—which seems to have no basis in fact—as a pretext to invade at least that area of Ukraine.
Also on Thursday, the Russian foreign ministry issued a lengthy statement threatening to take “military-technical measures” if the United States did not accept all of Moscow’s proposals on how to settle the crisis—even while knowing that, in Washington’s eyes, some of those proposals are nonstarters.
Meanwhile, officials say there is still no evidence that Russia has moved any of its 150,000 troops away from the Ukrainian border, despite Putin’s assurances to the contrary.
Together, these developments suggest that Putin might soon take some form of military action against Ukraine—most likely an occupation of Donbass, which is controlled by pro-Russia separatist militias. Such action would be accompanied by official recognition of the region’s two provinces, the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic, as independent states, a move that the Russian parliament this week authorized him to take.
This would fall far short of the all-out invasion of Ukraine that some Western observers have feared—but it would also preempt any chances of a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
The foreign ministry’s statement does lay out some possible routes for continued diplomacy and even a peaceful settlement of the crisis, but even they contain some poison pills that, at this point, make the scenario of a limited invasion seem more likely. For instance, one of the document’s most specific passages lays out what it calls the “fundamentally important” steps to “de-escalate the situation”:
These are forcing Kiev [Ukraine’s capital, which Ukrainians spell Kyiv] to comply with a set of measures, stopping the supply of weapons to Ukraine, withdrawing all Western advisers and instructors from there, refusing NATO countries from any joint exercises with the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and withdrawing all foreign weapons previously delivered to Kiev outside Ukrainian territory.
Let’s parse that passage. First, forcing Kyiv to comply with “a set of measures” is a bit vague, sounds like an invitation to negotiate—OK. Next, barring NATO from holding joint exercises with Ukraine’s army is easy—there are no such exercises now or for the foreseeable future, so we’ll take that one too. The other proposals—stopping the supply of weapons and withdrawing the weapons already shipped as well as the advisers training Ukrainian soldiers in how to use them—are plausible, as long as Russia pulls back its troops from the border. However, Putin has said he has the sovereign right to move troops anywhere he wants inside Russian territory—which, legally, is true. So unless Putin makes a compromise here, that’s the end of that.
The document repeats Putin’s denial that he has any intent to invade Ukraine, arguing that Russia’s recent troop movements have been in response to threatening actions taken by the U.S. and NATO inside Ukraine, including the creation of an expansive “military infrastructure.” It expresses the fear that, if it joined NATO, Ukraine could forcibly try to take back Crimea—which Russia annexed in 2014—and would then call on its NATO allies to help.
Again, let’s unpack this argument. It is true that Putin’s acts of 2014—annexing Crimea and sending in troops to support separatist militias in the Donbass—were motivated by the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russia president and the growing desire of Kyiv’s new leaders to move out of Moscow’s orbit and join the European Union. However, as Putin has been told many times, the idea of Ukraine joining NATO, though much desired by President Volodymyr Zelensky, is not remotely on the alliance’s agenda; the “military infrastructure” in Ukraine consists of a few hundred U.S military personnel; and the weapons the West has been sending to Ukraine consist mainly of fairly basic anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles—nothing to support an offensive operation.
Russia’s document is on somewhat more solid ground in lashing out against NATO’s “enlargement” policy of the 1990s, in which the U.S.-led military alliance—emboldened by its Cold War victory—absorbed nearly every former member of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact (who all practically begged to join). Ukraine was pointedly not among those nations, in part because even the policy’s most ardent advocates recognized that bringing in Russia’s largest Western neighbor—a country with which it had centuries-old historical, economic, and cultural ties—would be too provocative. Then, in 2008, at a NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, President George W. Bush crossed that Rubicon, committing NATO to bringing in Ukraine and Georgia—another former Soviet republic left out of the previous decade’s enlargement—at some point in the undefined future.
The Russian foreign ministry’s document demands the repeal of Bush’s resolution, the halt of further eastward enlargement, and the removal of U.S. military forces from many of the former Soviet allies that joined NATO a quarter-century ago.
As M.E. Sarotte chronicles in her fascinating new book, Not One Inch, NATO managed to expand so vastly in the decade following the end of the Cold War only because Russia was too weak to put up a fuss. The last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, let the first wave of expansion happen on assurances that it wouldn’t go much farther. The first Russian Federation president, Boris Yeltsin, allowed the next, much larger waves only because—to put it bluntly—President Bill Clinton and other Western leaders paid him off: giving Russia tens of billions of dollars, letting Russia join the G-7 and other international institutions (from which it was expelled after annexing Crimea), and treating it with the pomp and grandeur of a great empire, which it no longer was.
Putin witnessed this whole history up close, first as a KGB agent in East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell, then as Yeltsin’s last prime minister. Now as Russia’s president, he looks back on that era with deep resentment. And now that Russia is back on its feet, to some degree, he wants to undo its humiliations.
There are problems with this: The deed is done; much of it was sanctified in treaties signed by Russia’s leaders at the time; and, most important, NATO’s new members—the former supplicants of Moscow—were eager for the shield of its Article 5 protections (an attack on one member is an attack on all members) and will not give it up just because the Kremlin’s current vicar says so.
However, there’s no question, Russia did get screwed over, and it’s perfectly reasonable to convene a summit to discuss and deal with Russia’s legitimate security interests. Bush’s Bucharest declaration was a huge mistake. George Kennan, the architect of America’s Cold War policy of the 1940s and ’50s, called NATO’s expansion “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.”
The Russian statement is also right that, just as the Charter for European Security enshrines the right of states “to freely choose or change the methods of ensuring their security, including union treaties,” it also forbids states to strengthen their position “at the expense of the security of other states.” The U.S. cites the first clause to justify allowing Ukraine to join NATO, at least in principle. Russia cites the second clause to justify its desire to forbid Ukraine from doing so. There must be a way to satisfy both positions on this score—especially since, as President Joe Biden and every other Western leader has said (and as even Zelensky is beginning to absorb), Ukraine, as a practical matter, is not going to be allowed into NATO in the foreseeable future.
Or, as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz put it, after a meeting with Putin on Tuesday, “Everyone must step back a bit here and make it clear to themselves that we just can’t have a possible military conflict over a question that is not on the agenda.”
The Russian foreign ministry’s statement makes some reasonable proposals to revive arms control accords that President Donald Trump repealed. Good, let’s do that. It suggests resolving the Donbass conflict by implementing the 2015 Minsk Agreements. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a similar proposal in a speech before the U.N. Security Council on Thursday (as he and several Russian officials have done in the past). The Minsk accords have never been implemented, in part because Russia and Ukraine hold different interpretations of its rather vague provisions. But fine, let’s convene talks to nail down the language and enforce its terms. Let’s do all the things that both sides agree on; let’s hold talks to forge compromises where we have valid but differing views.
However, the Russian foreign ministry’s statement stresses that its proposals “are of a package nature and should be considered as a whole without singling out its individual components.” If this reflects Putin’s position, if the West has to accept all of Russia’s proposals, as they’ve been presented and not just those bits and pieces it likes, well, then, it might be time to hunker down.
It is hard to believe that Putin set out on this adventure with an aim to invade Ukraine. The way the crisis has evolved, it seems more likely that he amassed the troops, tanks, aircraft, and so forth on Ukraine’s borders to pressure Kyiv into submitting to his will—to reenter Moscow’s orbit or at least to forgo the allures of the EU and NATO. He probably figured that Biden would be too weak and the Western allies too fractured to resist his pressures. In that, he figured wrong.
At that point, some leaders—even some Kremlin leaders in the past—would have looked for a face-saving way out. For a while Putin seemed to be following that course; he may do so still. At the moment, though, it seems he’s incapable of backing down; he may view doing so as an act of egregious weakness.
This crisis has unfolded as a complex mosaic of moves and countermoves, feints and bluffs, lunges and parries of counterintelligence and disinformation. (Future students of crisis management and game theory will have fertile ground for dissertations.) But fancy moves can spawn miscalculation; bluffs, if challenged, can harden into action.
Meanwhile, all of us—the players and the spectators—are in the same unsettling spot that we’ve been in since this crisis got underway: waiting, speculating, but having, really, no idea what happens next.