What to expect over the next few weeks? And what are Vladimir Putin’s goals? Responses from Marie Dumoulin, Director of the Enlarged Europe program at the European Council for International Relations (ECFR).
What is happening to the border between Russia and Ukraine and why are we talking about it now?
The crisis, in fact, has been going on since 2014, but it was a bit off the radar of the general public because it was a low-intensity conflict. However, the fighting never stopped in the Donbass. The change over the last few weeks and months, since it started in the spring, is the strengthening of Russian military capabilities at the borders of Ukraine. This reinforcement, we can see, there are images. What we do not know is the desired end. Is it actually a question of preparing an offensive? And if it is an offensive, then what would be its objective?
” Is it just a matter of stepping up the pressure or rather sending a signal to Ukraine, to Western countries, to the United States? There are a lot of possible hypotheses. “
What is the goal of the Russians?
In this new phase, one has the impression that the Russians are trying to test the reactions of Western countries. Is there unity or does that create divisions? What type of reaction will they adopt in the event of an offensive? Will we limit ourselves to sanctions or can we go further?
Then, it is to put pressure on Ukraine for two purposes:
1. Prevent Ukrainians from having a more assertive posture in Donbass [territoire contrôlé par les séparatistes prorusses dans l’est de l’Ukraine]. The Russians are signaling them very clearly that if they do anything in the Donbass, they are going to fall on them.
2. Make it change its policy and in particular lead it to implement the Minsk agreements [accords de cessez-le-feu de 2015] according to the Russians reading, that is, forcing Ukraine to negotiate directly with the separatists and to make concessions on other subjects, such as theNATO.
Finally, the idea was undoubtedly also to establish a dialogue with the Americans on the European security architecture; Ukraine and its status vis-à-vis theNATO being an element of this problematic. But he’s not the only one, and that’s why Putin wanted to speak directly to Joe Biden. From this point of view, the objective is accomplished, since there was a first contact. The two heads of state agreed that there would be a continuation of discussions on the current crisis between their teams.
So Vladimir Putin got what he wanted by having a meeting with President Biden?
One of his goals was to be able to speak directly to President Biden on these topics which, until now, have been dealt with instead with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. There, the Russians made it very clear that they no longer wanted to talk to Europeans, but that they wanted to speak directly to the Americans. We can consider that the contact of December 7, it is the beginning of this process.
Then, this contact allowed Joe Biden to recall the fundamentals of the American position, namely support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and to point out to Vladimir Putin that, in the event of an offensive military against Ukraine, there would be very serious consequences for Russia. So it allowed both sides to pass messages.
Is the United States considering sending American troops to Ukraine?
I do not believe it is in question. There are American troops in Europe, but in countries of theNATO; and Ukraine not being a member of theNATO, the question does not arise in the same terms. The serious consequences are indeed sanctions, but strong economic sanctions that would really hurt the Russian economy.
It is not excluded, moreover, that there is an increase in military assistance to Ukraine from a number of countries, including Canada, which has already done quite a bit, notably in terms of training, in recent years.
The UK and Turkey could participate as well. This would strengthen Ukrainian military capabilities, which would increase the cost of Russian military action. However, even with military assistance, the Ukrainian armed forces will not be brought up to the level of the Russian armed forces; it is rather political and symbolic support.
The question to which we do not really have an answer is the price the Russians are prepared to pay to achieve their objectives in Ukraine, even if we are not sure about these objectives either. Their ultimate goal is to retain influence over Ukraine and prevent it from drawing closer to Western countries and the United States.NATO; but does it mean maintaining a low-intensity conflict in the Donbass or does it mean other vectors, notably pro-Russian forces in Ukraine and perhaps even within Ukrainian institutions? It is undoubtedly a means which is envisaged by the Russians.
I am not sure that a large-scale military offensive would allow them to achieve their objective, because it would rather strengthen the cohesion of the Ukrainians around their independence.
Moreover, it would have a considerable cost, at the same time economic, military and undoubtedly political also in Russia itself, because the fact of launching a military offensive against a people which is regarded as a brother people by the Russians, it will not be not without political consequences in Russia.
Is there a cost to Russia of maintaining this pressure on the border in the long run?
Yes and no. Because these forces exist anyway and their deployment on Russian territory depends on how Russia sets its own strategic priorities and how it perceives threats.
If what it perceives as a greater threat is its western flank, or if it considers that, in order to preserve its strategic interests, these forces must be permanently stationed at the borders with Ukraine, so, it makes sense to keep them there. It is not excluded that in a few months or weeks there will be a gradual withdrawal [comme ça s’est fait au printemps] without going back to the previous level.
It is also possible that we are in a second stage, where Russia consolidates its military apparatus at the borders of Ukraine and trains itself to rapidly deploy an important apparatus in this region. And then, within a few weeks, it will be able to reduce this device a little, but without returning to the previous level so that, little by little, the threshold where Westerners react is higher and higher.
” We will, in a way, get used to having Russians on the border with Ukraine. “
Is there not, on the side of Vladimir Putin, a calculation saying: since we are no longer dealing with Donald Trump, who was quite unpredictable and could have reacted in an extreme way, but rather with a Joe Biden much more careful, now is the time to take advantage of it?
It certainly fits into Russian calculations, but rather because they perceive President Biden as someone they can talk to. Paradoxically, Donald Trump was more malleable, in a way. President Putin knows that if he can come to an agreement with Mr. Biden on something, it will not be called into question the next day.
So, yeah, there’s that personal element, and there’s also maybe the perception of an America that, looking more to China, is turning away from Europe a bit and would be ready, maybe, to agree to an agreement with Russia to get rid of the problem, as it were.
There may also be the perception of a weakening of alliances around the United States. What happened in Afghanistan obviously left its mark, as did the AUKUS episode. [un partenariat conclu en secret entre les États-Unis, le Royaume-Uni et l’Australie pour contrer la Chine] and the French reaction.
Perhaps the Russians are thinking now is the time to try and play on possible divisions. Moreover, it is not excluded that they think that time is playing against them, since as Ukraine strengthens its military capabilities, the cost of effective pressure by Russia will be higher and higher. .
The comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.