Playing on the brink in Ukraine.. Will the geostrategic environment of the conflict between Russia and the West lead to war?

The rounds of dialogue that brought together Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his American counterpart Anthony Blinken in Geneva, and the Russian talks with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Brussels, did not result in an important breakthrough on all the issues raised between the two sides, especially the escalating crisis in Ukraine. This may lead to a further complication of the crisis, and increased opportunities for Russia to resort to the military option to resolve the crisis, but at the same time it did not end the opportunities for non-military solutions, including reaching understandings that would bypass the mutual escalation between the two sides.

The United States and its Western allies are closely watching Russia’s movements on the border with Ukraine, in light of Moscow’s declaration of its dissatisfaction with the written response provided by the American side regarding its proposals for NATO expansion to the east; Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said NATO’s response to the security guarantees demanded by his country was “ideological.”

In light of the rising expectations of the West for a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the fear of an upcoming war, how can the geostrategic environment of the conflict between Russia and the West be understood? What are the Russian motives behind this escalation? Has Russia’s strategy of playing on the “edge of the abyss” or what the West calls “Russian disinformation” succeeded in reaching the moment of negotiation with the West? What are the possible scenarios for the course of the crisis?

Geostrategic differences between the West and Russia

The roots of the crisis between Russia and the West go back to the post-Cold War era and the uniqueness of the United States in building a new world order that takes into account its interests in particular, as the United States has strengthened the centrality of NATO in ensuring the security and interests of the West. And Russia, exhausted at that time, found itself outside the Western club, and its interests were not sufficiently taken into account, and it was viewed by the Americans as a waning power.

However, since the beginning of the new millennium, Russia has begun to blaze a path for a new approach based – in the first place – on confronting this reality, in light of the improvement in its economic conditions, and its leadership’s possession of political will and popular support, which was represented by President Vladimir Putin taking the reins of leadership in Russia, which is who proved that he possessed a vision different from that adopted by his predecessor in seeking to join the Western Club, and to join the international system led by the United States.

The Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 was a defining moment in expressing the new Russian trends, as Moscow’s reaction to the crisis in Ukraine and the subsequent confrontation with the United States and the breakdown of relations with the European Union point in the same direction.

On the other hand, NATO worked to expand its influence in 4 waves of the accession of Eastern European countries to the alliance, all of which occurred during the Putin era, represented by the annexation of the Baltic states, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria in 2004; Croatia and Albania in 2009; Montenegro in 2017; and North Macedonia in 2020.

Russia was not able at that time to repel these waves, but it now feels that it has the opportunity to improve its position on its western borders, and to anticipate new American steps in seeking to encircle it and subject it to the Western security equation at its expense.

Accordingly, Russia limited its vital space to include the borders of the post-Soviet Union. To this end, it built its strategy based on “preventing the emergence of a hostile environment in its vital space”, which means that its neighbors in Eastern Europe should abandon the ideas of joining NATO and the European Union. Ukraine was a peculiarity in that being a country – from Putin’s point of view – that plays a major role in strengthening or threatening Russia’s security.

Russia’s motives for the escalation in Ukraine

With the unprecedented build-up of its forces on the border with Ukraine and the escalation of the crisis with the West, the Kremlin is seeking to force the United States to the negotiating table to discuss a broader range of issues.

Which partially succeeded when, in March 2021, a similar military buildup prompted President Joe Biden to invite Putin to a summit in Geneva. This is what Russia considered in recognition of its role as a major force that cannot be bypassed in terms of ensuring the security of the West. This is what Biden expressed when he declared that Russia was a “worthy adversary.” Recently, meetings were held at the level of foreign ministers, and Russia’s participation in talks with NATO in Brussels.

However, this is not the only motive for Putin, who seeks – by maintaining pressure on the United States’ European allies – to create a difference in the Western position that allows Russia to strengthen its strategy on its vital security on its western and southern borders, in light of the discrepancy in the Western camp regarding the most appropriate ways to deal With the crisis in Ukraine.

The European parties see the need to continue diplomatic means seeking to reduce tension and prevent the situation from reaching a moment of a military clash that will take place if it occurs on their lands, and will cause them security and economic crises and affect energy supplies from Russia.

These parties also see that they are in need of new crises, and they are trying to address crises such as the Corona epidemic, the migrant crisis, and address the effects of Britain’s secession from the European Union, in addition to the internal electoral elections in many European countries.

In addition, Russia is seeking to consolidate its position in a new international order that is taking shape, in light of an American strategic repositioning and American military withdrawals from the “battlefields” it fought at the beginning of the new millennium.

In this endeavor, Russia focuses on enhancing its importance to China in particular, which has become the center of strategic interest for the United States and its Western allies, as China will need to fortify its international position and strengthen its alliances.

The results of the crisis in Kazakhstan recently contributed to the strengthening of Russia’s importance to China in the Central Asian region, which is a vital corridor of China’s “Belt and Road” project, which at the same time indicates China’s centrality in Russian moves against the West.

Putin’s move is not without motives related to the Russian internal level. As Putin seeks to tighten Russia’s strategic path towards the West, and mobilize the Russian elite behind this trend, given the approaching stage of inheriting power in Russia in light of Putin’s age, it is likely that in the next decade we will be facing a new leadership for Russia, so Putin aims to ensure its continuity in The path he laid his foundations.

Possible scenarios for the course of the crisis

negotiating scenario

The features of the negotiating scenario – which is Russia’s favorite – began to appear in practice at the meeting of the two presidents in Geneva, although the results of the meeting were limited to the start of Russian-American consultations on strategic stability and cyber security, and did not directly address the crisis.

At the same time, the Minsk course aimed at ending the conflict in Ukraine reached a dead end and was even counterproductive with NATO increasing the size and frequency of its military exercises in the Black Sea region, in exchange for the Russian buildup on the border with Ukraine.

In this regard, Russia’s tactic of forcing the United States to the negotiating table has worked. Therefore, based on this initial success, Moscow presented the Americans and their allies with a draft treaty and agreement setting out Russia’s demands on the West on the issue of European security.

In the discussion of the applicability of Russian demands, Moscow’s main demand is that a halt to NATO expansion in the territory of the former Soviet Union is de facto enforced, because the United States and its allies are not prepared to take responsibility for the military defense of their allies, Ukraine and Georgia, and that is unlikely to change.

For the West, the problem is not so much the unresolved conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Donbass, but the potential for direct confrontation with Russia in places where Moscow has real security interests and is willing to use force to protect them if necessary. Meanwhile, the United States has no such interests or the willingness to use force in their pursuit.

Based on this, it is likely that neither Ukraine nor Georgia will be accepted into NATO as long as Russia is able to prevent it. Thus, the threat of Ukraine’s presence in NATO is actually a negotiating illusory threat in the face of high-level Russian demands.

The opportunity for NATO’s presence in Ukraine in the form of offensive weapons, military bases, military advisors, weapons supplies, etc. remains more difficult, and the United States has military capabilities within the framework of the missile shield around Russia, and aircraft carriers are enough to dispense with a direct presence in Ukraine.

Accordingly, the establishment of missile bases may not be a military priority for Washington, as Russia can counter this by providing Russian submarines sailing near the mainland of the United States with Russian hypersonic missiles “Tsirkon”, which is an important determinant. The United States needs a more presence in Russia’s neighborhood.

Conversely, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to agree to an end to military-technological cooperation between Ukraine, the United States, and NATO. Moscow is also seeking to agree on restrictions on the nature of weapons supplied by the West to Kiev, a ceiling that may be acceptable to Russia.

For that to happen, the United States would likely demand that Russia stop escalating Russian military preparations on Ukraine’s borders. However, Russia will insist that any de-escalation be accompanied by restrictions on NATO maneuvers near Russia’s borders in Europe.

Moscow’s demand to withdraw all the military infrastructure deployed in the Eastern European member states of NATO is impossible, as much as it is largely unnecessary, with regard to Russia’s security in light of the military development announced by Moscow with its ability to move Zircon missiles on the American coasts. Also, several thousand American soldiers present in the region do not pose a serious threat to Russia, despite its reservations about its presence, but the matter is negotiable.

The demand for a return to the pre-1997 situation – with the withdrawal of eastern European countries that joined NATO – remains the only high-ceilinged demand, which may be put on the table as a negotiating card, so that it can be retracted later, which indicates Moscow’s willingness to make concessions.

A greater possibility of reaching agreements may lie in engaging in a discussion about the set of Russian proposals and demands, and a willingness to pursue parallel tracks between the two sides. However, the factor of confidence in the possibility of reaching agreements that satisfy Russia’s security interests remains central to this.

The chances of the United States implementing Russia’s demands in the form and timeframe set by Moscow are virtually non-existent. The possibility of agreement remains theoretically possible on two of the three main issues, namely, non-expansion and non-proliferation. But any such agreements will be of a political nature, and not legally binding, given the complexities of the American domestic scene, and the desire of the United States to avoid a dispute within the Western camp.

Western unilateral actions scenario

NATO, on the initiative of the United States, could announce a long-term moratorium on the process of inclusion of new members, for example. Which Biden has repeatedly pointed out is that Ukraine’s membership in NATO is unlikely to be approved in the next decade.

In addition to this, stop deploying medium-range missiles and other offensive weapons, not as part of an agreement with Russia, but as an intergovernmental agreement between Russia and the United States only, which does not need to be ratified in Congress.

The Kalashnikov remains on the shoulder

At the moment, it does not seem that any of the agreement tracks on addressing Russia’s demands have taken place in reality, although there is still a chance to do so.

However, for Putin, the failure of the negotiation track may have a second kind of significance, as Putin has worked to perpetuate his vision on his security concerns in Europe, and this has become clear to everyone, and it requires the West to deal with this fact. In fact, they are the strategic objectives of Russian policy in Europe.

If Russia cannot achieve its goal by diplomatic means, it will need to resort to other tools and methods that rely in essence on the use of military force.

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