Kommersant: How Russia Went on a Diplomatic Offensive and How It Could End
"Behind closed doors, more radical ideas are also discussed."
Machine translated from Russian.
Russia simply has nowhere else to retreat, Russian President Vladimir Putin said at the final press conference. Therefore, Moscow went on the offensive. So far, it is happening on the diplomatic front. The active phase will begin without swinging: in January, the first round of negotiations with the West on security guarantees will be held. It depends on them whether geopolitical tensions will increase, or the temperature will be brought down.
The Ukrainian Dead End
In 2021, hopes that negotiations on the settlement of the conflict in the Donbass could end with solid agreements finally collapsed. Those hopes really were there. They appeared after the change of power in Kiev and Volodymyr Zelensky became the president of the country, declaring his main goal to achieve peace.
There were many signals that Moscow fully admitted the possibility of rapid progress on the Minsk agreements.
The preparatory work included significant exchanges of detainees in 2019. Among others, the director Oleg Sentsov, convicted in Russia, went home then, as well as Ukrainian sailors detained after the incident in the Kerch Strait in November 2018. The Russian side did not meet the previous Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko halfway in these matters. And Volodymyr Zelensky played along.
In December 2019, a summit was held in Paris in the “Normandy format” (Germany, Russia, Ukraine, France) – the first for Mr. Zelensky. And for now, the last one. The quartet leaders approved a list of steps that should be taken to implement the Minsk agreements.
In addition, at the beginning of 2020, the curator of the Ukrainian direction was changed in the Kremlin. Vladislav Surkov with a reputation as a “hawk” was replaced by Dmitry Kozak, who is considered a supporter of compromises. And this was also interpreted in favor of the fact that the case could move from the dead point. Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration Kozak and Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Andriy Yermak initially interacted successfully.
They managed to agree on the creation of an advisory council within the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) on the settlement of the situation in eastern Ukraine – a platform where representatives of the unrecognized republics of Donbass and Kiev could directly conduct a dialogue on a variety of issues.
But as soon as the information that Kozak and Yermak had agreed, sealing the agreement with signatures, became public, the Ukrainian opposition accused the president’s team of treason. Andriy Yermak withdrew his signature.
Soon after, all sorts of negotiations began, both in the TCG and in the Normandy format.
President Zelensky’s team then concluded that any compromise on Donbass and especially the implementation of the Minsk agreements in their current form could cost them not only their ratings but also their power in general. And they began to take into account this internal conjuncture.
Kiev, under Petro Poroshenko, we can say, did not raise the issue of the return of the Crimea, while Vladimir Zelensky made it one of the central points of its foreign policy. The “Crimean Platform” was created for the purpose of which is to force Russia to return the peninsula. Ukraine has adopted a new foreign policy strategy. Its priorities are “countering Russia’s aggressive policy” and the course towards membership in the EU and NATO. On the problem of Donbass, the following position was adopted: this conflict is a war with the Russian Federation. And the issue should be resolved in negotiations with the Russian side, and not with Donetsk and Lugansk.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that he was ready for such negotiations with Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin responded by saying it was not against such contacts. But they could not discuss Donbas, which Russia considers an internal Ukrainian conflict, but ony issues of bilateral relations. At this point, the topic of organizing a Russian-Ukrainian summit has faded.
Moscow began to actively respond to Kiev in the autumn. In September, the unrecognized republics of Donbass announced the beginning of economic integration and the mutual abolition of customs. In November, Vladimir Putin, by his decree, opened access to the Russian market for goods produced in the DPR and LPR. The representative of the Russian Federation in the TCG, Boris Gryzlov, called it a response to Ukraine’s non-compliance with the Minsk agreements.
It is necessary to understand as follows: since it is not possible to return the self-proclaimed republics to Ukraine, it is necessary to at least improve the economic situation there.
The geopolitical response was also not long in coming. Russia, despite the repeated requests of Kiev, Berlin and Paris, flatly refused to hold a new summit in the “Normandy format” until the Agreements of the Paris meeting were fulfilled by the Ukrainian side. Moscow did not agree to the meeting of foreign ministers of the Normandy Four member countries. Instead, the Russian Foreign Ministry shocked Western diplomats by publishing correspondence between Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his German and French counterparts. It followed from it that the Russian Federation would not conduct any negotiations in the “Normandy format”, while it is called a party to the conflict in the east of Ukraine or trying to involve in the implementation of the Minsk agreements.
A new approach was formulated with regard to Ukraine. It was outlined by Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev. In an article published in Kommersant in October , “Why Contacts with the Current Ukrainian Leadership Are Meaningless,” he wrote: “Ukraine has no value on the line of direct confrontation between Western forces (including potentially military) and our country. There are no fools to fight for Ukraine. And it is pointless for us to deal with vassals. Business must be conducted with a suzerain.”
It is now clear that Dmitry Medvedev’s article did not appear by chance. Clarity was brought by Vladimir Putin, who announced that Russia needs legal guarantees from the West for its security. They concern not only Ukraine, but it affects it directly: Moscow insists that the neighboring country forever remain non-aligned. At the same time, no one is going to ask Kiev’s opinions. Russia intends to talk with the United States and NATO.
Against the background of the impasse with the settlement of the conflict in the Donbass, the Russian authorities increasingly began to pay attention to the intensification of military and military-technical cooperation between Western countries and Ukraine.
From the statements of Russian officials, it follows that Moscow has begun to seriously fear the transformation of Ukraine into a “quasi-NATO” – a springboard for an offensive against Russia, albeit without formal integration into the alliance.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told about what exactly caused concern to the Russian side: “The desire of the North Atlantic Alliance to involve the Ukrainian armed forces in its military activities poses a security threat, taking into account Kiev’s attempts to solve the problem of Donbass by force.The military development of the territory of Ukraine by NATO countries continues. The situation is aggravated by the supply of helicopters, attack unmanned aerial vehicles, anti-tank guided missiles by the United States of America and its allies.”
According to him, the United States and NATO as a whole “purposefully increase the scale and intensity of training activities for troops near Russia.” “Increasingly, they involve strategic aviation, carrying out conditional launches of nuclear missiles at Russian facilities. The number of their flights near the Russian borders has more than doubled. NATO pays special attention to the transfer of troops to the eastern flank of the alliance, including from the continental United States,” said Sergei Shoigu. Russia also drew attention to the frequent military maneuvers of the United States and its allies in the Black and Baltic Seas.
“What they want, they do,” Vladimir Putin described the actions of Western countries. And he warned: “What they are now doing on the territory of Ukraine and plan to do, it is not thousands of kilometers from our national border – it is at the threshold of our house. They need to understand that we simply have nowhere else to retreat.”
In response, Russia decided, as Vladimir Putin put it, to create “tension.” Significant forces were transferred to the border with Ukraine, which, of course, did not go unnoticed by the United States and its allies. At the same time, a diplomatic offensive followed. On November 18, Vladimir Putin instructed the Foreign Ministry to seek from Western countries the provision of “serious long-term security guarantees” to Russia.
On December 1, the President of the Russian Federation specified what kind of guarantees he was talking about: “In dialogue with the United States and its allies, we will insist on developing specific agreements that exclude any further NATO advances to the east and the deployment of weapons systems that threaten us in close proximity to the territory of Russia.” On December 7, he discussed this topic with his American counterpart Joe Biden. And already on December 15, Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried, who flew to Moscow, was handed over to the Russian Foreign Ministry the drafts of two documents prepared by the Russian side: an agreement with the United States on security guarantees, as well as an agreement on security measures for the Russian Federation and NATO member states.
These documents contain two key demands of Russia, made public by Vladimir Putin: the non-expansion of NATO, primarily at the expense of Ukraine, and the refusal to deploy weapons and forces near the borders of the Russian Federation. However, Moscow demands a lot more: that NATO countries stop military cooperation with post-Soviet countries and withdraw their forces to the positions of 1997 [The year of NATO-Russia Founding Act], and the United States withdraws its nuclear weapons from Europe and stops interfering in Russia’s internal affairs. But although Russian diplomats say that the submitted documents are “not a menu” and should be considered as a whole, it is the first two demands that are singled out by Russian officials as key.
Contrary to the usual diplomatic practice, the drafts of both treaties were actually immediately posted to the public after being handed over to the addressees. With a warning: Moscow needs an answer “immediately”, otherwise it will have to resolve the issue in a different way. It was not directly stated which one, but the wording presented by officials was clearly aimed at emphasizing Moscow’s resolute attitude: “a military-technical alternative”, “restoring the military balance”, “creating NATO counter-threats in places where they do not expect”. “The answer can be very different. It depends on the proposals that our military experts will make to me,” vladimir Putin himself said on this occasion.
The combination of “diplomacy plus intimidation” eventually proved successful. At least in the first stage.
Although many in NATO, having familiarized themselves with the documents submitted by Russia, and – as reported by the Western media – twisted their finger at the temple, they did not dismiss them on the fly. Joe Biden was the first to publicly declare his readiness to discuss Russian concerns. At the same time, he announced a format that would be quite suitable for Moscow: the five leading NATO countries (actually, the United States, as well as, presumably, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, France) and Russia. However, other members of the North Atlantic Alliance, primarily Eastern European, as well as Ukraine, reacted angrily to this, insisting that its fate should not be decided without its participation.
As a result, Washington proposed to discuss this topic in three formats at once. Bilateral Russian-American (the first consultations are scheduled for January 9-10, 2022 in Geneva). In the NATO-Russia Council (meeting scheduled for January 12). And within the framework of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (the meeting will be held on January 13).
The agenda of the upcoming consultations was discussed by Presidents Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden during a telephone conversation late in the evening on December 30. The conversation took place at the initiative of the Russian side and lasted almost an hour.
For Moscow, the most important thing is the bilateral track with Washington. The Russian authorities are convinced that if they agree on something with the United States, American allies and partners will adjust. Moscow considers consultations within the framework of the Russia-NATO Council and the OSCE as a tribute to the United States to its transatlantic commitments, but does not expect any results from them, but on the contrary, sees in them the danger of “obfuscating” the issue.
The Russia-NATO Council did not meet for a year and a half, largely because the Russian authorities did not see a desire on the part of Western partners to discuss their proposals in the field of ensuring security in Europe, and did not want to once again only listen to the alliance’s claims on Ukraine.
In the OSCE, the practical results are even worse: over the past 20 years, ministerial sessions have ended without the adoption of a joint political declaration, since 57 countries fail to reach compromise language on foreign policy topics. It is hardly possible to expect that in the case of Russia’s proposals affecting many sensitive issues, the OSCE participants will prove themselves more negotiable.
In this situation, Moscow is betting on Washington and personally on President Joe Biden. U.S. officials have already called some of the Russian proposals “useful,” but some were immediately described as “unacceptable.” However, it is not yet clear which of Moscow’s demands fall into which category. There are no guarantees that the parties will be able to find a generally acceptable solution to the non-expansion of NATO (at least at the expense of Ukraine) and the non-deployment of weapons and forces near the Russian border. Meanwhile, the United States and its allies are preparing to present Russia with their own list of grievances at the January talks, and it is unlikely to be short.
This means that the option of escalating the conflict cannot be ruled out. Russian officials never tire of repeating that Russia is not going to invade anywhere. At the same time, they make it clear that they will not leave unanswered a possible offensive by the Ukrainian armed forces into the Donbas or a provocation against the civilian population of the unrecognized republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. Kommersant’s interlocutors in the state structures of the Russian Federation say that the ideas are being discussed in a variety of ways, including, for example, the recognition of the independence of these subjects with the official introduction of the Russian armed forces there. However, behind closed doors, more radical ideas are also discussed.