From a purely military perspective, a large-scale war between Russia and Ukraine could erupt at any moment. It remains highly uncertain, however, if there is political will in the Kremlin to make such a radical move and engage in a direct military confrontation against its neighbor.
Since 2014, Moscow has been fighting a proxy war in the Donbas – a coal-rich region in Eastern Ukraine – against Western-backed Ukrainian armed forces. But after Russia issued its “ultimatum” to the United States, Moscow’s room for political maneuvers became limited.
Now the Kremlin’s choices are very narrow: war or humiliation.
If Moscow backs down and withdraws its troops from Belarus and Russia’s Western regions bordering Ukraine, the West will undoubtedly see such actions as a sign of weakness. Moreover, it will become crystal clear that Russia was bluffing all the time.
The Kremlin propagandists, on the other hand, would undoubtedly portray such a move as another “geopolitical victory,” but the key question is: could Russia really benefit if it backs down?
There are indications that the Kremlin is ready for de-escalation. On February 14, Belarus’ and Ukraine’s defense chiefs engaged in talks to ease tensions, while the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the Southern Military District completed three-day exercises with reservists in Astrakhan, Rostov, Volgograd, Krasnodar, Stavropol, Crimea and North Ossetia.
In addition, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, once Russian troops finish their drills and return to barracks, the West will declare a “diplomatic victory” by having secured Russian “de-escalation.”
The problem, however, is that Moscow will look weak in the eyes of the Western strategic planners.
From the political perspective, Russia has not achieved any of the goals it has proclaimed over the past two months, when it issued a list of security demands to the US and NATO.
There is no guarantee that Ukraine will not eventually join NATO, nor that Kiev will implement the Minsk Agreement – a ceasefire deal signed in the Belarusian capital in 2015 that effectively ended the military offensive in the Donbas, but not the shelling and sniper fire that goes on to this day.
More importantly, Ukraine now has tons of Western-made weapons, and once Russian troops are back to their bases – thousands of miles from the Ukrainian border – Kiev could launch a military operation against the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic.
Quite aware that such a possibility is realistic, Russian lawmakers adopted resolutions calling on President Vladimir Putin to formally recognize the two entities. Given that a parliamentary committee adopted two versions of the resolution – one submitted by the Communist Party and one by the ruling United Russia party – it is entirely possible that the Kremlin is still calculating and pressuring Ukraine and the West to make concessions.
Neither of the two documents will have a “binding force,” which suggests that the Kremlin is using the State Duma’s resolutions to put additional pressure on the West not to push Ukraine into a military adventure in the Donbas.
At the same time, the Russian policymakers likely aim to assure Russian voters that Moscow aims to preserve its de facto control over the Donbas. Still, it is not very probable that Putin, at least at this point, will sign a decree on the recognition of the Donbas republics.
Such an option, however, will remain on the table in case Kiev, backed by the West, eventually attempts to resolve the Donbas issue by force.
Meanwhile, according to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, the Kremlin will keep trying to reach a deal with its Western partners. The problem for Moscow is that time is not on its side, and Washington does not seem willing to make any crucial concessions to Moscow.
Even though NATO countries, including the United States, reportedly pulled their military instructors out of Ukraine, that still does not mean that the West has abandoned the Eastern European nation.
Moscow’s security concerns
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered 160 troops from the Florida National Guard to temporarily leave Ukraine, which means they could eventually return to the former Soviet republic – possibly once the Russian army completes all of its military drills in the region.
Russian troop movements near the Ukrainian border could be interpreted as part of the Kremlin’s attempts to pressure the US to take Moscow’s security concerns in Europe seriously.
However, given that Washington remains resolutely opposed to any of the Russian security proposals, it is not very probable that the US and its allies will back down just because Moscow has deployed some 120,000 troops in Belarus and Western Russian regions.
At this point, the Kremlin is not showing political will to use the troops to secure its geopolitical interests in Ukraine. It is Russia, rather than the United States, that aims to drag out negotiations as long as possible.
The West has already said no to the Russian “ultimatum,” but Moscow has now issued its own response to the US response on the Kremlin’s initial proposals to end NATO expansion eastward.
The Ukraine saga will drag on, but Russia is slowly but surely capitulating.