The question is now: “What is Putin planning?”
There are tens of thousands Russian troops stationed near Ukraine’s borders. There is also increasing anti-Western rhetoric in Moscow. A Russian diplomatic initiative that seems more like an ultimatum than a serious negotiation. Are these preparations for a major Russian military operation? Is this an invasion of Ukraine? This is a prelude for war?
As most foreign journalists in Moscow I have a phone number for the Kremlin Press Office. However, I do not have a direct line to Vladimir Putin’s mind.
He may be the only one who knows and he keeps everyone guessing at the moment, both at home and abroad.
However, there are some things that are obvious.
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin once called it the “greatest geopolitical tragedy” of the 20th century. He is still deeply upset at the way that the Cold War ended, with Moscow losing influence, territory and empire.
What was the USSR’s collapse? In a recent documentary on state television, Putin stated that it was the disintegration of historical Russia. “We lost 40% territory… a lot of what had been accumulated over 1000 years was lost.”
The Kremlin also resents Nato’s postCold War expansion to the east. Moscow accuses NATO of violating verbal promises not to expand into Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Space. Nato insists that no such promises were made.
Is Russia able to undo the damage done? It seems to be trying.
Moscow wanted America to sign draft security agreements, so Sergei Ryabkov, Deputy Foreign Minister, presented them last week. These agreements would legally guarantee that Nato will cease military activities in Eastern Europe or Ukraine.
These proposals would seem to prohibit Nato deployments to nations that joined the alliance in 1997 or later. Russia also demands an end to NATO expansion in ex-Soviet territory.
In an online briefing, i suggested to Mr Ryabkov the idea that Russia proposes a “complete reassessment” of the Cold War’s results.
He replied, “I wouldn’t call it an examination of the Cold War’s results.” “I would say that we are reevaluating the West’s recent expansion against Russian interests. This has been done in many ways using different resources and with hostile intent. It is enough.
Nato, a defensive alliance, denies any “hostile intent” towards Russia.
Western governments have said that the Kremlin’s behavior is unacceptable. Moscow’s 2014 annexation and military intervention in Ukraine in the east triggered sanctions from Western governments and portrayal of Vladimir Putin’s Russia in an aggressor. This is why Russia’s troop buildup in Ukraine is so alarming.
“We’ll deploy missiles. This is your decision. Dmitry Kiselev is the host of the most popular Russian news program on state TV. He plays an important role in spreading the Kremlin’s message to the general public.
Under Western sanctions, Mr Kiselev also leads the massive state media holding Rossiya Segodnya.
“If Ukraine joins NATO or develops military infrastructure in Ukraine, we will hold America to ransom. We have the military capabilities.
“Russia is home to the most powerful weapons in the world, the hypersonic. They would reach America in the same time as US or British weapons could reach Moscow via Ukraine. It would be the same Cuban missile crisis, except with shorter flight times for the missiles.
“Is Russia ready to use force to defend its redlines?” I ask Mr Kiselev.
“One hundred percent” is Russian for life or death.
“But Russia is dictating its neighbours,” I continued. “You are saying that Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Moldova, all former Soviet republics, can’t have any relationship with NATO?”
“Countries can either be lucky or unlucky to live next to Russia. This is historical fact. They cannot change that. It’s the exact same as Mexico. It’s lucky or not to be near America,” Mr Kiselev said.
He adds that it would be a good idea to coordinate our interests and not place Russia in a situation where missiles could reach them in just four minutes. Russia is prepared to pose a similar threat by positioning its weapons near decision-making centers. We suggest a way to avoid this, and not create threats. If we don’t, everyone will become radioactive ash.”
Is the Russian troop buildup in Ukraine coercive diplomacy or a matter of diplomatic diplomacy? Do the Kremlin want to get concessions from Washington and provide security guarantees without having to go to war? It is a high-stakes strategy.
Andrei Kortunov is the director general of Russian International Affairs Council. This think tank is closely linked to Russian authorities.
There are dangers that something will go wrong if there is tension, if there is a very toxic political atmosphere, and if there are a lot military activities on the ground and in the air, then it could lead to tensions. This could result in a conflict that no one wants.
What happens if there’s a major conflict? Russians were happy with the annexation and subsequent reunification of Crimea. However, Russians are not interested in a full-scale war against Ukraine or military confrontations with the West.
Kortunov says that he doesn’t believe Russians are focusing on success stories in foreign policy, real or imagined. “The Russian agenda is mainly domestic, and the real concerns are related to economic and social problems. If Putin starts an operation overseas, I don’t believe he is in a position of getting a few more points.