As Russia assembles both the means for conducting an attack on Ukraine and the excuses for doing so, its demands for avoiding a conflict are expanding rapidly. How the US, NATO, and the West respond to those demands and the overt military threats accompanying them will have far-reaching consequences for the future direction of Russia as a state, and consequently for the security of Europe.
Russia’s drive to dominate Ukraine and dictate its future stems from Moscow’s implicit assumption of entitlement and exceptionalism. Western optimists may continue to hope for a more benign Russia, one that doesn’t terrorise its subjects or threaten its neighbours. But for as long as Russia remains unwilling and unable to accept that its former dominions are now independent countries, and to adapt as other former imperial powers have done, it will continue to fret, posture, and lash out to assert its former status. The tragedy is that Russia appears fully willing to send young soldiers to die for the sake of dreams of vanished empire.
Ukraine’s existential challenge is that if it becomes a fully independent, fully functional democracy enjoying political, economic, cultural, and social integration with the West, this would be catastrophic for Russia. Nevertheless its current actions around Ukraine are still a symptom, not a cause, of Russia’s trajectory.
Overt and more assertive action
It used to be possible to interpret many Russian hostile actions as defensive in inspiration – whether trying to check what Moscow views as the expansionist threat of the US or Western institutions, or trying to assert Russia’s claimed rights as a ‘great power’. Russia took risks – including in Crimea and Syria – in order to head off anticipated serious defeats or setbacks.
But recent actions by Russia show a more assertive posture, driven more by Russia’s desired outcomes than by defensive concerns. This applies not only to the actions themselves which no longer seek deniability but also to how Russia presents them, no longer aiming to maintain the fiction that they are well-intentioned.
Domestically, Russia has tightened repression still further, moving from containing political opposition to eliminating it altogether. Abroad, its exploitation of Europe’s gas crisis to force through approval of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was overt rather than subtle. Russia has cut all remaining links for talking to NATO. Publication of diplomatic correspondence with France and Germany over implementation of the Minsk 2 accords made plain not only Russia’s disdain for the negotiation process, but also its preferred – and unfeasible – interpretation of the accords themselves. Russia’s preparations for conflict have included testing an anti-satellite weapon, regardless of inevitable international condemnation and hazard to space operations.
Overall, the nature of the Russian threat has changed. Rather than focusing on not losing further ground, Russia now appears confident in its ability to transition to an offensive posture and pursue its own priorities. The pattern indicates that Russia is no longer pretending to be interested in a good, or even functional, relationship with the European Union (EU), NATO, or major Western powers. Instead, it has settled comfortably and publicly into its role as a blackmailer state, overtly stating its demands with menaces. Ukraine is the first target of this new self-assurance. It will not be the last unless Western powers that call themselves friends of Ukraine rise to the challenge.
Moving to the offensive
Russia has learned that when its objectives are unpalatable to the West, aggressive actions are the best way to achieve them. Causing damage has proven the most effective means of getting adversaries to do what Russia wants – even when what it wants is no more than dialogue, recognition and ‘respect’. When Russia is not causing a crisis, there is little incentive for the West to engage with Moscow on its terms.
Unfortunately, this creates an enduring motivation for Moscow to trigger more and deeper crises, in order that the West will come and talk to it. Emboldened by success, Russia now sees that open aggression holds little to lose and much to gain. This confidence leads Russia into setting a lower threshold for what would prompt it to act in Ukraine, and to expand its demands.
Preparations for a military solution in Ukraine will be driven by Russia’s confidence in its ability both to manage such an escalation, and to bend Ukraine to its will through methods other than direct military incursion, such as long-range missile strikes targeting critical infrastructure in order to force Kyiv and its international partners to seek terms.
But the current stand-off also results from failures of cross-cultural communication. Russia appears to believe it had been clearly communicating its messages of deterrence to Western powers, but a persistent lack of clarity over what was to be deterred meant its actions caused only confusion. This in turn spurred greater Russian frustration, and an apparent conviction in Moscow that avenues of communication other than direct military threats had been exhausted. It was not until President Putin’s speech on 18 November that Russian troop movements were explicitly linked with its demands around Ukraine and it became clear what Russia wished to prevent.
Since then, further explicit ultimatums have followed, rapidly expanding in scope and ambition. But few of these are likely to be feasible. Demanding binding guarantees of no further admissions to membership of NATO is incompatible with the most basic principles of how NATO works, as well as with even more fundamental principles which hold that independent sovereign states – such as not only Ukraine and Georgia but also Finland and Sweden – should be free to determine their own policies and futures without being subject to a Russian veto.
This and other demands reflect Russia’s persistent miscalculation that the US can easily direct not only NATO decisions, but also the state policy of Ukraine and other states. But what is more, Russia is conducting a campaign of military intimidation with the aim of preventing any more countries joining NATO – not realising that in doing so, it is demonstrating precisely why countries want to join NATO in the first place.
It is also unclear what Russia thinks it is offering in return, other than the vague implication that intimidatory military build-ups would, at least for the time being, be suspended. Meanwhile Russia calls it unacceptable that missiles which could reach its citie s may be sited in Europe – wishing to preserve a situation where the only missiles holding European capitals at risk are Russian ones.
When the West inevitably fails to comply with Russia’s demands – because it cannot – this will provide Russia’s leaders with further justification for their policy choices, and another excuse if Russia chooses to move to overt aggression.
Decision point with long-term impact
Whether Russia steps up its war against Ukraine will primarily be determined by Western reaction to Russia’s current demands. This in turn will determine Russia’s future actions against other frontline states and further afield. And other powers will watch closely how the US in particular responds to the current threats and gauge its willingness to support its friends and partners against aggression – most notably China when considering its options regarding Taiwan.
The immediate choice facing democratic societies is whether Russia demanding restraints on other countries’ sovereignty is acceptable – and if not, then where, and at what cost, they decide to make a stand against it instead of placating Moscow. Ukraine is the unfortunate focal point of this broader conflict.
Few will wish to be directly involved in defending Ukrainian territory, especially given Russia’s considerable success in persuading influential figures abroad that the alternative to granting its wishes would be major and widespread war, possibly escalating to a nuclear level. But there is no historical precedent to suggest that if Russia’s current demands are met, new ones will not follow.
The West is at a decision point whose effects will be long-term and far-reaching. Resolutely resisting Russian ultimatums – and providing Ukraine with all possible assistance in meeting the likely cost of doing so – is an investment in setting the limits of Russian power. As such, it would also be the first step in assisting Russia’s long-term future away from the path of conflict and confrontation.
Keir Giles, Senior Consulting Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme.