A Russian soldier takes aim along the Ukrainian border. Photo: Facebook

Russia and the United States are making deals about Ukraine behind Kiev’s back.

The two rival powers see the Eastern European country merely as a political object, and in the near future they could strike a wider arrangement about eastern Ukraine’s coal-rich Donbass region. The contours of a potential agreement are slowly coming into view.

After this week’s “virtual summit” between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart Joe Biden, the Kremlin signaled that it could welcome the involvement of the United States in the Normandy Format – a platform for negotiations on a peaceful settlement of the Donbass conflict.

The Normandy Format talks involve representatives of four countries: Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France. Indeed, the potential involvement of the US – Ukraine’s top backer – could boost chances for the implementation of the Minsk Agreement, signed in the Belarusian capital in 2015.

The deal effectively ended offensive military operations in the Donbass but positional warfare is still ongoing.

The Kremlin claims that Kiev has deployed as many as 125,000 troops to the region, in an alleged attempt to recapture territory now under control of the Russia-backed self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic.

At this point, Moscow seems determined to protect its proxies in the event of a potential Ukrainian offensive.

“Any provocations by the Ukrainian authorities to settle the Donbass difficulties militarily will be thwarted,” said the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces General Valery Gerasimov.

His statement was a clear warning to Ukraine and the West that Russia is ready to intervene in case Kiev launches a large-scale military campaign against Russia-backed forces.

Ukrainian servicemen gather near an armored personnel carrier stationed along the front line during confrontations with Russia-backed separatists near the small town of Volnovakha, Donetsk region, on June 23, 2021. Photo: AFP / Anatolii Stepanov

The West and Ukraine, on the other hand, warn that Russia has mounted its military numbers near the Ukrainian border to 120,000, including the deployment of army, air force and naval troops. Rumors are flying that Russia could invade Ukraine as early as January or February, although Gerasimov denies any such plans.

From the Kremlin’s perspective, Russia achieved most of its political and military goals in 2014 after Moscow annexed Crimea, a territory with huge offshore gas and oil reserves.

Soon after the controversial referendum on the status of Crimea, the self-proclaimed coal-rich Donbass republics declared independence from Ukraine. But the Kremlin still refuses to recognize those entities, even though their economies have been de facto integrated into Russia.

Thus, it is still questionable if Moscow is interested in another land grab. In 2014 Russia could have seized not just Crimea and the Donbass but also all other Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, from Kharkov in the east to Odessa in the south.

At the time, following the Euromaidan regime change in Kiev, Ukrainian Armed Forces were on the brink of collapse, but Russia did not use the opportunity to establish control over the entire southeastern part of Ukraine.

It is therefore improbable that Moscow will try to do it in 2021 or 2022. Russian policymakers are well aware that the Ukrainian Army has been modernized and equipped with sophisticated US-made Javelin anti-tank guided missiles and Turkish-produced Bayraktar drones.

More importantly, it is very dubious if Russia, amid global economic and energy crises, is ready to occupy more Ukrainian territory and “feed” millions of perceived as disloyal Ukrainian citizens.

It is far more likely that Moscow and Washington will continue to negotiate the future of Ukraine, although both sides will keep flexing muscles as part of new Cold War military diplomacy.

On December 8, Putin said that it would be “criminal inaction” for Russia to stand by and let NATO move into Ukraine, raising fears in the West of a “major war” in Eastern Europe.

Still, despite harsh rhetoric and thunderous threats, Russia and the United States will not fight a direct war over Ukraine, at least not any time soon.

The future of the Donbass conflict, which is already effectively a proxy war between US-sponsored Ukraine and the Russia-backed Donbass republics, will hinge on Putin and Biden’s ability to strike new and bigger deals.

There are indications that the two leaders have already made progress on certain issues. For instance, the most recent version of the US National Defense Spending Act for Fiscal Year 2022 does not include a provision to bring sanctions over Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, built to ship fuel into Europe.

On the other hand, the US House of Representatives approved a 2022 annual defense spending bill that includes $300 million in aid for Ukraine. Even though such a measure worries Russia, the country’s powerful energy giants such as Gazprom, Lukoil, Rosneft, among others, still have no reasons to fear Western sanctions.

According to US officials, even if Russia invades Ukraine, Washington will likely not impose any restrictions on Moscow’s energy business. It is, however, entirely possible that the West will soon impose certain “preemptive” sanctions on Russia – although an invasion may never take place – that will undoubtedly impact on the Russian economy.

It is energy exports, rather than fears of alleged NATO expansion eastward, that are mainly driving Russia’s foreign policy. That is why a potential return of the Donbass – where coal production is de facto controlled by Russia and its proxies – to Ukraine would represent a greater loss for the Kremlin than the Eastern European country’s potential NATO membership.

Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”