Russian troops are camped on the border of Ukraine and tensions are mounting. Photo: Twitter / Fars News Agency

Russia and the West have been actively discussing the Ukraine crisis for more than a month, but so far no deal has been reached. Even though the Kremlin has warned against “endless discussions”, Russian officials continue to participate in various summits with their Western colleagues. 

Representatives from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France met in Paris on January 26 for talks in what is known as the Normandy Format established in 2014 in an effort to resolve the war in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine. The summit lasted for eight hours.

Given that for the past seven years not a single point of the Minsk Agreement – signed in the Belarusian capital in 2015 between Ukrainian authorities, Donbass representatives as well as Russian and European mediators – has been implemented, it is not surprising that the Paris talks did not yield significant progress.

According to reports, Ukraine, Russia and European mediators have agreed to hold a new round of Normandy talks in Berlin in two weeks. The main issue remains differing interpretations of the Minsk Agreement.

Although all sides have reaffirmed their commitment to uphold a ceasefire, in reality, a truce on the ground was never fully implemented. It is thus highly unlikely that shelling and sniper fire in the Donbass will end any time soon.

Ever since the Kremlin issued its “ultimatum” to the United States on Ukraine in December, Russian and American officials have met several times with little effect on reducing tensions.

Even without a war, Russia’s and Ukraine’s economies already face negative consequences. The Russian stock market has taken the biggest hit, falling by 27% in US dollars since the end of October, while Ukraine’s hryvnia currency recently hit a four-year low.

If war really breaks out, the West is expected to impose severe sanctions on Russia which could have a debilitating impact on the country’s banking sector, especially if its banks are banned from the SWIFT money transfer system.

The West will likely impose heavy economic and financial sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine. Photo: AFP

Acutely aware that sanctions could do serious harm to the Russian economy, the Kremlin seems to have agreed to play according to the US rules. Even though Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Moscow has “run out of patience”, the Kremlin has waited for more than a month for the US to respond to its proposals on security guarantees.

Now that the US has finally handed its written response to Moscow, the ball is in the Kremlin’s court. If Russia does not now take any serious action, but rather writes its own response to the US’ response, it will be clear that its military maneuvers near the Ukrainian border were just another bluff.

It is significant that the United States has asked Russia not to publish the content of its written response to Moscow’s demands. If the Kremlin agrees to keep the document secret, it will mean that Washington still has the upper hand over Moscow and that Russia is forced to make concessions to the Americans.

The reason for Russia’s current defensive approach vis-à-vis the United States is not just the Kremlin’s fear of sanctions, but also the fact that the Russian leaders have much to lose in case of further confrontation with the West.

It is an open secret that children of several Russian officials live, study and work in Western countries. For instance, Elizaveta Peskova, the daughter of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, lives and works in France, while Viktor Zolotov, the director of the National Guard of Russia and a member of the Security Council of Russia, has a grandson who studies in England.

On the other hand, the children and grandchildren of Western officials do not live in Russia, nor do Western oligarchs hold their assets in Russian banks, which automatically gives the US and its allies significant leverage over Russia.

Although the United States, Great Britain and other NATO members openly supply Ukraine with weapons, the Kremlin has no mechanism to prevent such a development on the ground.

Moscow cannot even force Kiev to implement the Minsk Agreement, and Lavrov’s frequent calls on the US, France, Germany and other Western powers to make Kiev stick to the deal signed in 2015 clearly demonstrates Russia’s political impotence over Western-backed Ukraine.

Russia’s military is undoubtedly superior to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, but the apparent lack of political will in the Kremlin puts Moscow in a difficult position.

Veterans of the Azov volunteer battalion, which took part in the war with Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of Ukraine, salute during a mass rally called ‘No surrender’ in Kiev on March 14, 2020. Photo: AFP / Sergei Supinsky

Russia still refuses to recognize the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic, and judging by Lavrov’s recent statements Moscow will unlikely make a move in that direction any time soon.  On the other hand, the Russian Duma is expected to discuss the issue in February, but it is President Vladimir Putin, rather than lawmakers, that will have the final say.

Putin, for his part, is not expected to push for the official recognition of the Donbass republics unless Ukraine attempts to restore its sovereignty over the region by force.

The fact that Andrei Turchak, the ruling United Russia party’s general council secretary, said that Moscow should follow in NATO’s footsteps and begin arming the breakaway entities suggests that at least some within the Kremlin do not intend to abandon Russia’s proxies in the Donbass.

The problem for Russia, however, is that it can no longer use “little green men” and other hybrid operations against Kiev. Over the years, the Ukrainian army has gained combat experience and learned how to fight.

In the case of a massive Ukrainian attack, the so-called “people’s militias” of the self-proclaimed Donbass republics would likely have a difficult time holding the front line for more than 48 hours. In other words, it would not take long for the Ukrainian Armed Forces to capture some crucial Donbass cities, namely Gorlovka or Donetsk.

Such a development would put Russia in an exceptionally difficult position of either openly intervening and facing severe sanctions, or only strongly condemning Ukraine’s actions and calling on its Western partners to force Kiev to withdraw its troops.

The latter scenario would mean Russia’s de facto capitulation to the West. But given Moscow’s passive position vis-a-vis the United States, Great Britain and other European powers, Russia will unlikely make the first move in this game of nerves. Instead, the Kremlin will continue to wait.

Various negotiations between Russia and the West will be held at least through mid-February. Meanwhile, Ukraine will continue to receive tons of weapons from NATO countries. If Moscow eventually decides to launch even a limited military operation against Kiev, its armed forces will suffer heavy losses.

Time is not on Russia’s side.

Follow Nikola Mikovic on Twitter at @nikola_mikovic

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.”