Is Russia Only Really Aiming for the Small-Fry Stuff in Its Ultimatum?
Would be good news for peace. Could vibe with Putin's minimalism and risk-aversion
Sergey Lavrov has said that the US reply to the Russian security guarantees draft treaty proposal (aka ‘ultimatum’, aka ‘non-aggression pact’) offers positives on the secondary points but offers nothing on the main points.
So then it’s all over, the negotiations are dead and the dreaded “military-technical means” will be taking over? Not so fast, says Gilbert Doctorow. According to Doctorow Russia was really only ever after the secondary stuff anyway.
The idea is that the military buildup and the ambitious headline demands are a means to get the smaller, secondary stuff. The invasion feint would make DC fear war, the dramatic (albeit not unjust) initial demands would make their fear grow worse. The combination, would cause the DC so much anxiety that it would finally be willing to work with the Russians on the relatively small-fry stuff it rejected before.
Not only would the buildup feint and the headline bombastic demands finally get DC’s undivided attention, but they would also allow Biden to push through the small stuff through America’s incredibly hawkish domestic scene. Biden could claim that he had no less than prevented/deterred a Russian invasion, while also not giving in to Russia on any of its main demands, but only striking deals on small-fry stuff.
Is Doctorow right? Have the Russians learned that managing DC takes requires the bombast and bluster that North Korea is so good at? Perhaps. It’s an intriguing hypothesis.
The Russian major demands are:
- No US troops in NATO members added after the cold war. No new NATO members. No new US troops in old NATO members beyond the 1997 levels.
- No US/NATO exercises or training missions in Ukraine, Georgia, or Central Asia.
The Russian small-fry demands are:
- No intermediate-range missiles in Europe (classified by Lavrov as a “secondary” issue, likely because so far the US mostly doesn’t have such missiles in Europe anyway)
- Protocols for avoidance of incidents in air and sea.
- No large exercises on the border.
- Regular commumication and consultations “to reduce risks of eventual dangerous situations”
- Deconfliction telephon line and other mechanisms of urgent consultation.
It was clear from the start that Biden couldn’t deliver Russia anything formal on the main demands even if he wanted to (even if he was a Russian agent). Normally you assume the major items in a treaty proposal are the deal-breakers, but if Russia was only ever after small-fry then a deal is in the realm of possibility.
How likely is that the real objectives for Russia was the secondary stuff all along? That would be consistent with Putin’s conservatism and minimalism that we’ve seen so far, eg:
- terminating numerous advancing Syrian-Russian offensives because of Turkish objections
- intervening in Donbass only enough to prevent the post-coup government from conquering what the Donbass opposition still held
- tolerating Sakashvili in Tbilisi after he had launched a surprise offensive on Russian troops
- getting back to work with Erdogan after he had ambushed and murdered the Russian Su-24 pilot
It wouldn’t be consistent with the Russian statements that the draft treaty is provided as is with room for talk to hammer out the details, but not as a menu from which demands can be struck down from.
Until now when the Russians said this sort of stuff they meant it. They didn’t engage in teatrics.
If they’re now issuing demands that they later expect to drop. Just to terrify DC, get its attention, and ramp up the pressure then their tactics have definitely changed.
But it would also mean that the scale of their real ambition has not changed. That it remains minimalist and conservative.
On the other hand, if escalating the war in Ukraine is a real posibility then it is what is under the surface that has changed in Moscow.
In other words, taking the Russian ultimatum and military buildup across Ukraine (and there is one) at face value requires one to believe Putin is no longer a conservative and incredibly aversive to risk. Taking them as a feint only requires one to believe Putin has discovered that a little of that North Korea bluffing is the only way to manage a hawkish and decentralized Empire with a weak President. The Imperial President needs to be more terrified of you than he is of the other Imperial institutions to his right. And he needs to have a way to declare victory and save face even as he gives in to you. (Or more precisely as he gives in to common sense and the interest of peace.)
However, it also requires one to believe that Putin launched all of this (remember it has been going on since March) just to get the INF treaty equivalent back to Europe and some deconfliction and non-provocation protocols.
The US rejection of what Lavrov calls “the main issues” could still be useful to Russia if it decides to build up some military presence in Venezuela, Nicaragua or Cuba as it is now (perhaps in a feint) indicating. Having insisted on Georgia’s right to join an anti-Russian military alliance even if this negatively affects the security position of Russia, the US can scarcely object to a Caribbean nation deepening its military ties with Russia.
That said, we should understand that Russian military troops and installations in the Caribbean are not assets. They are victims and targets. Unless Russia installs missiles there (and it won’t), they don’t move the strategic needle one bit, they just represent conveniently located and conveniently isolated (and therefore de facto defenseless) targets.
Their only utility is political and propaganda. They could conceivably cause a domestic crisis for the Imperial President given the hyperventilating nature of US domestic politics. And they could serve as irritants to the Empire.
Anyhow, in conclusion, it all depends on where you think the gravity lies for the Russians. Is the Russian gravity on Ukraine’s transformation into Anti-Russia, is the gravity on Russia’s big-item demands and therefore on US military presence in Europe, or is the gravity for the Russians actually on the small-fry stuff of deconfliction, and a regional substitute for the INF Treaty.