Guessing game as US-Russia talks pause for Putin

The Bell

Russia did not get the response it wanted last week from the West about security guarantees in Europe. Russian President Vladimir Putin is now thinking over Moscow’s next move. Whatever he decides will likely raise the stakes, and indicate how far Russia is prepared to go. What will Putin decide?

  • A formal, written response from the U.S. to Russia’s demands was delivered Wednesday. From a summary of the document given by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, it was immediately clear that Moscow would not be satisfied: Russia’s main demand — a halt to the eastwards expansion of NATO — was rejected by both the U.S. and the alliance itself.
  • Moscow’s initial reaction was predictable. The U.S. statement was rubbished by outspoken Russian parliamentary deputies (figures that the Kremlin trusts with the most extreme rhetoric but whose words carry little real meaning). Vyacheslav Nikonov, deputy chairman of the Duma’s foreign affairs committee (and grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov who concluded the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Nazi Germany on behalf of the Soviet Union) said “the West’s answer should be taken as negative”.
  • However, Moscow’s official reaction was rather more restrained. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov re-stated that there had not been a positive response to Russia’s biggest issue — the expansion of NATO. But he said “there is a reaction which allows us to expect a serious discussion about secondary issues”. He was referring to areas including arms control, the deployment of offensive missile systems and transparency on military exercises in Europe.
  • Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists that there was no need to jump to conclusions following the U.S. response, adding that Putin would now analyze the document. He said there was still scope for dialog and hinted that a Russian response would take some time, pointing out that the U.S. spent more than a month considering Russia’s initial proposals.

What happens next?

Experts are divided on what Russia could do next. Foreign policy expert Fyodor Lukyanov told The Bell that he believes Russia will not discuss the topics put forward by the U.S. until there is an understanding on the Kremlin’s core issue — stopping further NATO expansion. To do otherwise “would render the whole Russian strategy pointless,” he told The Bell.

However, Dmitry Trenin, the director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, believes Russia will engage in diplomacy. Trenin argued that Moscow understood from day one it was making impossible demands on NATO and the U.S., and was doing so to pressure the West into agreement on less contentious issues. A diplomatic continuation would mean a blow to Russia’s international reputation, but it would pose no threat to domestic political stability.

What could Russia do? 

Only a small circle of people are likely to understand Putin’s intentions. Analysts can only speculate, and most officials who make statements about possible actions are just struggling to catch the mood in the corridors of power. Nevertheless, from official statements and media reports, it’s clear that several possible alternatives are being considered:

(i) Military conflict with Ukraine

Foreign affairs expert Vladimir Frolov told The Bell that he believes a large-scale war is more likely than not. In his opinion, Russia is attempting to permanently restrict Ukraine’s sovereignty, making the country a vassal state that cannot challenge Moscow. “That could be achieved by diplomacy, intimidating Biden to the point that the U.S. itself forces Zelensky into subordinating Ukraine to Russia,” Frolov said, although he said this was unlikely. The second option, in Frolov’s view, was for Russia to seek to limit Ukraine’s sovereignty via military means and impose a new regime.

For the moment, the Foreign Ministry insists that there are no plans to invade Ukraine. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Thursday that even the thought of war with Ukraine was unacceptable — a statement that helped the ruble climb 3 percent against the U.S. dollar.

(ii) Recognition of DNR and LNR

The expansion of the so-called Union State of Russia and Belarus is one possible Russian strategy, according to expert Trenin. The Kremlin could, for example, recognize the rebel statelets in Eastern Ukraine — the People’s Republics of Donetsk (DNR) and the People’s Republic of Lugansk (LNR) — by formally incorporating them into the Union State. It could also add the disputed south Caucasus regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Earlier this month, the Communist Party called for Russia to officially recognize the DNR and LNR. The Kremlin did not directly back that proposal, but the State Duma included the Communists’ proposals on its discussion schedule for February.

A senior official in the ruling United Russia party, Andrei Turchak, said Wednesday that Russia could start to arm the DNR and LNR. But, his words were promptly disavowed by a far more knowledgeable and influential official, deputy chief of staff Dmitry Kozak, who oversees Kremlin policy on Ukraine. Kozak did not hide his skepticism, or disdain. “I don’t know what prompted Mr. Tuchak to say this, he did not consult with us,” he said.

(iii) Missiles in Cuba and Venezuela

Another issue of obvious disagreement among Russian officials is the deployment of Russian military hardware in Cuba or Venezuela. While this is possible in Venezuela, it is far from clear what Moscow could offer Cuba in return for seriously aggravating its delicate relationship with the United States.

Whatever the difficulties, Russia threatened just such a deployment in talks with the U.S. and NATO. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said earlier this month that he could not rule out the deployment of Russian weapons in either country. Then The New York Times reported that Russian negotiators at talks in Geneva “hinted” at the possibility of deploying nuclear weapons close to the U.S. border. Finally, the day before the U.S. delivered its formal response, Putin demonstratively held a phone call with the president of Cuba.

Despite the saber-rattling, ex-president Dmitry Medvedev, the current deputy head of the powerful Security Council, surprised everyone Thursday by categorically ruling out Russian military bases in Cuba or Venezuela, saying this was “out of the question”.

A show of force

Analyst Lukyanov believes we should expect another escalation: but not an invasion of Ukraine. Instead, he anticipates “a show of force”. In conversation with The Bell, Lukoyanov clarified that a “show of force” could manifest itself as heightened military activity in sensitive areas like the Black Sea, the Baltics, or Belarus. “There will be demonstrations from both sides, as well as statements that talk of determination and combat readiness. These, if you like, are part of the rules of the game. But this does not preclude further discussion,” he said.

Tough diplomacy

The Kremlin understands that any military aggression toward Ukraine would have catastrophic consequences for the whole world, according to Alexandra Filippenko, a senior researcher at the Institute of the U.S. and Canada. In addition, she said that an exchange of letters, oral statements and diplomatic contacts at all levels should be taken as a positive sign. “Yes, it’s hard. Right now, the talks are leading nowhere, but there are talks. It would be much worse if the parties refused to communicate, or communicated through third parties and pretended there was no conflict,” she said. This “tough diplomacy”, in Filippenko’s words, can take “a long, long time.”

Why the world should care: Right now, everything depends on Putin’s response, according to Carnegie’s Trenin: “And here there are many questions, because we cannot know what Putin is thinking. What is his plan? What is his strategy? What options does he see? It’s almost impossible to judge this from the sidelines.”

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