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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

If Vladimir Putin were really preparing for a large-scale military invasion of Ukraine, it is then most likely that no one would know anything about its preparation until the very last moment.

However, the situation of today is entirely different. We see demonstrative movements of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine, and they have been going on for several weeks. At the same time, loud and threatening declarations are heard from Moscow, including from those influential agencies that tend to make no public statements at all. It may be concluded that the purpose of these Russian actions is sending a political signal backed up by the demonstration of Moscow’s impressive military strength rather than enabling a direct preparation of the military operation, something often ascribed to Vladimir Putin. So, who is the Russian leader sending the signal to and what is its nature?

Apparently, the signal from Moscow is as follows: if Volodymyr Zelensky succumbs starting an offensive towards Donbass, he will not turn out not to be the Ukrainian Ilham Aliyev of 2020 but the Ukrainian Mikheil Saakashvili of 2008, when he tried to seize South Ossetia through a military blitzkrieg.

Certainly, Russian actions should also be regarded as a signal to the West. For a long time, Moscow has expressed disappointment with the insufficient, as the Kremlin believes, efforts on the part of Paris and Berlin to compel Kiev to fulfill its broad obligations under the 2015 Minsk Agreements and the specific decisions of the Paris Summit in the Normandy format held in December 2019. Observing with growing irritation Kiev’s sabotage of the Minsk Agreements and the clear connivance of these actions by Berlin and Paris, Moscow cannot fail to notice what Vladimir Putin described as “the beginning of military reclamation of the Ukrainian territory” by NATO countries.

These are the origins of the Kremlin’s latest insistence on the West providing Russia with legally-binding guarantees to end any further NATO’s expansion eastward, launching negotiations on a new and inclusive security system in Europe. Of course, this does not remove the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements by the Ukrainian side from the Russian agenda.

It can be assumed that these requirements of Moscow to the West and Ukraine are not so much of “red lines” as requests for further interaction. There can be any requests from the Russian side, but it is necessary to look for compromises within the limits of the possible. In practical terms, for Moscow, this means consistent work to reduce incentives that motivate Ukraine to seek NATO membership and incentives that motivate the alliance to expand its presence on Russia’s western borders.

Recently, there have been all the more articles with headlines screaming “What does Vladimir Putin really think about Donbass?” or “When will the war between Russia and Ukraine break out?” To be honest, I really envy the authors of such publications. All these contributors must have supernatural telepathic channels of communication with the Russian leadership, which allows them to unmistakably predict the Kremlin’s behavior at any time, explaining to the laymen the convincing motivation behind these actions.

Unfortunately, I do not possess such astonishing, magical and somewhat frightening skills—therefore, I can only rely on logic, common sense and event analysis of what have already happened in my often-inaccurate assumptions and sometimes misperceptions. All this together makes me think that a large-scale military fallout with Ukraine is completely irrelevant to Moscow’s plans. The possible political gains from such a war, which are highly dubious, and the inevitable costs, excessive and prohibitive, if not epic, have repeatedly been described in every detail.

Naturally, no one can convincingly prove that Vladimir Putin, somewhere deep down, cherishes no dream of seizing Kiev or of establishing Russian control over the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. Likewise, it cannot be proved that Joe Biden or Kamala Harris have no night fantasies about annexing Canada or about establishing a hereditary monarchy in the United States. However, our dreams are one thing, and practical plans are something completely different.

If Vladimir Putin were really preparing for a large-scale military invasion of Ukraine, it is then most likely that no one would know anything about its preparation until the very last moment. The current level of mobility of Russia’s armed forces and their operational readiness require only a few weeks, rather than several months, for the necessary mobilization. Just think of the so-called “polite people” known in the West as “little green men” in Crimea in February–March 2014. When the activity of the Russian military was noticed on the peninsula, the operation was essentially over. It is logical to assume that any subsequent operation would follow a similar scenario—when numerous philistines would begin to talk about Russian aggression only when the brave Russian special forces were already taking pictures on Teatralnaya Square in Mariupol and entertaining the kids on Sumskaya Street in the center of Kharkiv.

However, the situation of today is entirely different. We see open—I would even say—demonstrative movements of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine, and they have been going on for several weeks. At the same time, loud and threatening declarations are heard from Moscow, including from those influential agencies that tend to make no public statements at all. It may be concluded that the purpose of these Russian actions is sending a political signal backed up by the demonstration of Moscow’s impressive military strength rather than enabling a direct preparation of the military operation, something often ascribed to Vladimir Putin. So, who is the Russian leader sending the signal to and what is its nature?

First of all, this is a signal to Kiev, warning the Ukrainian leadership against a possible resumption of a military solution to the Donbass problem. Moscow appears to be concerned that President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who is losing popularity amid the upcoming elections, may be tempted to take the risk of a “short victorious war” on his eastern border, with all the attendant costs to the population and the leadership of the unrecognized DPR / LPR. Moreover, Volodymyr Zelensky may well learn from the experience of his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev, who took such a risk in Nagorno-Karabakh last fall to become a winner and a national hero. Apparently, the signal from Moscow is as follows: if Volodymyr Zelensky succumbs starting an offensive towards Donbass, he will not turn out not to be the Ukrainian Ilham Aliyev of 2020 but the Ukrainian Mikheil Saakashvili of 2008, when he tried to seize South Ossetia through a military blitzkrieg.

Of course, the authorities in Kiev will declare that there have been no plans, nor preparations, for a military solution to the Donbass problem. However, Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman, said Ukraine has already pulled to Donbass some 125 thousand troops, which is half of the entire personnel of Ukraine’s Armed Forces. Confirming or denying such information is as difficult as reiterating or refuting assessments of the scale of Russian mobilization proliferating in the West and in Kiev.

Certainly, Russian actions should also be regarded as a signal to the West. For a long time, Moscow has expressed disappointment with the insufficient, as the Kremlin believes, efforts on the part of Paris and Berlin to compel Kiev to fulfill its broad obligations under the 2015 Minsk Agreements and the specific decisions of the Paris Summit in the Normandy format held in December 2019. Things went so far as the Russian Foreign Ministry decided to make public the confidential correspondence on this topic between its chief, Sergei Lavrov, and his German and French counterparts. This was a downright non-standard and, clearly, uneasy decision for the Russian diplomacy.

Observing with growing irritation Kiev’s sabotage of the Minsk Agreements and the clear connivance of these actions by Berlin and Paris, Moscow cannot fail to notice what Vladimir Putin described as “the beginning of military reclamation of the Ukrainian territory” by NATO countries. That is, while Ukraine is not de jure in NATO and is unlikely to become a de facto full-fledged NATO member in the foreseeable future, the deployment of the alliance’s military infrastructure in Ukraine has already begun, which possibly poses serious challenges to Russia’s national security.

These are the origins of the Kremlin’s latest insistence on the West providing Russia with legally-binding guarantees to end any further NATO’s expansion eastward, launching negotiations on a new and inclusive security system in Europe. Of course, this does not remove the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements by the Ukrainian side from the Russian agenda.

It can be assumed that these requirements of Moscow to the West and Ukraine are not so much of “red lines” as requests for further interaction. It is obvious that providing Russia with legally-binding guarantees that NATO will not expand is impossible without a fundamental revision of the Washington Treaty of 1949, something no one will agree to in the foreseeable future. It is also clear that the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements will require significant changes to the Constitution of Ukraine, something absolutely unacceptable for most in the current political establishment of the country and, therefore, infeasible.

Professionals working in the field of foreign policy in the Russian government cannot ignore these obvious political realities. There can be any requests from the Russian side, but it is necessary to look for compromises within the limits of the possible. In practical terms, for Moscow, this means consistent work to reduce incentives that motivate Ukraine to seek NATO membership and incentives that motivate the alliance to expand its presence on Russia’s western borders.

There is no other way to achieve these goals, except through measured, albeit quite modest, de-escalation measures, including progress on the demarcation line in Donbass and along the Russian-Ukrainian border. These measures need not be fixed in some treaty—instead, they could be carried out by the parties as unilateral actions taken in parallel. Partly, such measures are already contained in the first paragraphs of the Minsk Agreements; partly, they need to be re-negotiated. This is a long and difficult path for all the parties concerned, but only after embarking on this path can one reach larger and more ambitious tasks regarding the future of European security. This will also make it possible to finally exclude even a hypothetical prospect of a major armed conflict in the center of Europe, as hardly anyone will emerge its absolute winner.

First published in GlobalBrief.

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