Can Russia Offer More Than Its Ancient Capital as a Buffer Zone?
It's an ultimatum because it's the absolute maximum they could ever give
I feel there isn’t enough understanding in the West that as impatient and curt as the Russian security guarantees “ultimatum” sounds to the Empire, that for Russia it represents the utmost maximum she could ever offer.
Andrei Martyanov comments that Russia is issuing a non-negotiable ultimatum because it is militarily dominant. It is true that locally in East Slav Europe Russia will always have dominance over any outsider, but that leaves out the more important reason why Russia’s offer is given in non-negotiable form. It is because the red lines of red lines have been reached. There isn’t another step back the Russians can take.
Like it or not, Kiev is the ancient capital of Ukrainians, but also of the Russians. Furthermore, the Russians hold that Ukrainians and Russians are one people* as Putin himself elaborated on at length this summer. You are free not to like this, but it doesn’t change what the Russians sincerely feel.
From 1989 to 1991 the Russians voluntarily and unilaterally dismantled one of the biggest empires the world had ever seen without anyone firing a shot at them, and did it at lightning speed. Nothing remotely similar had ever happened in the entire history of the modern world. The British gave up their empire peacefully after WWII, but they dismantled it to the advantage of the impoverished peoples they had conquered, not the advantage of a hostile and even more powerful empire just waiting to substitute their hegemony for its own. To the extent that the Brits gave up their possessions to another empire, they gave them up to the allied American Empire that they themselves had already fallen under — a very different proposition to voluntarily dismantling an empire while an even bigger one is still gunning for you.
Fast forward thirty years and the Russians are offering to have the land around their ancient capital as a military buffer between themselves and the anti-Russian alliance that speedily gobbled up all the possessions they voluntarily vacated 1989-1991. They are willing for that land and a branch of their own people to be dominated by the West in every way except militarily. Only in that one domain they demand the ‘concession’ that neither they, nor the massive anti-Russian alliance combining 600 million people, exerts military dominance over their ancient capital of Kiev and the original seat of the Rurikovichi.
This is the offer the Russians make and Stoltenberg whines that Moscow dares to think it can decide whether another state joins the anti-Russian bloc. What West fails to comprehend utterly is that the Russians are not in the mood for extensive negotiations, because from their point of view they are making an incredibly generous offer. Quite possibly even more generous than the one they made in 1989.
Beyond offering a Ukraine that is pro-Western and pursuing EU membership but is militarily unaligned and does not permit the stationing of NATO forces or missiles (and isn’t sicced on by NATO to restart the civil war against its ethnic Russians) there simply isn’t another, better Russian offer. More than this the Russians can not give. Since 1989 the limits of what they can resign themselves to have been reached. They have been driven far. Kharkov, where they battled Nazis at their maximum extent into Russia in 1941 and 1943, now lies outside their military domain, controlled by what is becoming an unofficial but actual NATO military colony. The Russians have been driven far. They have been driven to their Not a Step Back phase.
Even given this Russian generosity if I were a NATO (and therefore rabidly anti-Russian) strategist I wouldn’t necessarily accept their offer. First of all the interests and incentives of Imperial institutions like NATO, think tanks, State Department, Pentagon, Congress, and the media, aren’t necessarily the same as the interest of common people across Europe. Secondly, if Moscow makes good on its implied threat to Finlandize Ukraine unilaterally by application of military force there are numerous ways things could go very wrong for it. Not operationally — militarily Kiev is nowhere near a match — but culturally. More bloodletting is almost guaranteed to widen the chasm between these two branches of the old Rus people.
If Moscow takes matters into its own hands then the war that will follow will have been provoked by NATO, but that doesn’t mean that Russia ought to do it. Some commentators are relishing the thought of Russian armor racing once again (as in 1943) across the Ukrainian steppe. I disagree. Wars are a scourge and none more than fraternal ones.
Russia can accomplish much more than just a hostile and eternally resentful, but militarily neutral Ukraine. Russia that is economically dynamic and philosophically interesting can catch into its orbit Ukraine whole and many other countries besides it. But what that would take isn’t a militarily victorious (but culturally ruinous) armor thrust, but bold and wise stewardship (perhaps starting with a gold standard) at home. It is undeniable that in 2014 a big reason why ethnic Russians but also ethnic Ukrainians (not that there is any sharp distinction between the two where both are present) became so animated over the prospect of joining Russia was that at the time Russia was experiencing solid economic growth and seemed to be better-run than Ukraine. Sadly since then, Russia’s economic expansion has considerably stalled. If Moscow is to return to its historic role as the Piedmont of East Slavs it ought to once again make the Russian model an attractive counterproposition to looking to Brussels. There was a time Putin’s men were reformers. Now they are a technocratic pest enserfing their people to QR codes. The road to (unity with) Kiev starts with allowing the kind of Russian society to flourish that other Slavs will look to with envy and pride.
*There is no more difference between Russians and Ukrainians than between the Plattdeutsch and the Hochdeutsch of Germany, the Francien and the Occitan of France, or the Southern and Northern Italians. Properly they are both neither Ukraintsi nor Russkiye, but Rusini — the form of their ancient common name that Ukrainians kept for far longer than the Russians, and that some East Slavs in the Pannonian Plain still keep to to this day.