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As the US is fixated on China, Putin draws Brezhnev’s USSR-style attention in Ukraine; Russia’s push to evict the West from eastern Europe could create a rift in NATO, expert cautions

Russian President Vladimir Putin is shown during his talks with U.S. President Joe Biden via videoconference in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021. The video call between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, during which the two leaders are expected to discuss tensions over Ukraine. (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

These days it feels like the world is back in the days of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Scanning through the national TV channels of Russia, Russia 1 and First Channel, one could not help but feel transported to the 1970s,

At the 30th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, the Russian public is fed a healthy diet of nostalgia for the good old days of order and social stability, says Dimitar Bechev, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, in an opinion published on Aljazeera.

Back-to-the-past seems to be the mood in Moscow’s foreign policy, too. US-Russia summitry is becoming a regular feature of relations, a flashback to the height of the Cold War. On December 30, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a phone call to discuss tensions over Ukraine. Reportedly, each of them issued warnings to the other side but overall the tone was “constructive.”

The exchange came on the heels of a meeting between the two leaders via a video link held on December 7 to discuss a number of issues, including Ukraine. Six months earlier they held a face-to-face summit in Geneva, which resulted in the return of the US and Russian ambassadors to the respective capitals.

For the Kremlin, having Biden’s full attention is a success. It is a clear sign that amassing troops and threatening military action against Ukraine works. During the past six years, Moscow has grown frustrated with the deadlock in the Ukrainian conflict. The Minsk II Agreement forged in 2015 with the mediation of France and Germany has failed to end the fighting.

Kyiv and Moscow are blaming each other for the lack of progress. The Russians are claiming Ukraine has not delivered on its commitment to implement constitutional changes granting broad autonomy to the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics as a step towards reintegrating them. The Ukrainians, for their part, are accusing Russia of not allowing the government in Kyiv to restore control over the Russian-Ukrainian border.

But in engaging with the US, Russia has also raised the stakes. On December 17, the Russian foreign ministry circulated two treaty proposals, one with the US and one with NATO.  They put forward a demand for the Atlantic Alliance to rescind the promise made to Ukraine and Georgia in April 2008 that they could one day join.

The draft furthermore requires NATO not to station large combat forces in its eastern members, as it started doing following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Moscow also wants NATO to commit not to deploy intermediate-range missiles close to its borders.

Last but not least, the proposals call for an end to military assistance to Ukraine, whether provided by the US or through NATO, as well as a halt on alliance exercises involving post-Soviet countries. In essence, Russia wants to turn the clock back to the late 1990s, evicting the West from Eastern Europe and cementing its hegemonic position in its so-called “near abroad.”

In pursuing those goals, the Kremlin is leveraging its military clout. According to estimates, more than 100,000 Russian troops and heavy weaponry are currently deployed near the Russian-Ukrainian border as well as in the annexed Crimean Peninsula. A good part has been deployed since early 2021. An operation against Ukraine is, therefore, not off the table. Putin might be bluffing but should he decide to move against the neighbouring country, he would have no trouble whatsoever.

After the active diplomatic outreach by the Biden administration, in late December, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced talks would be held January 10. A Russia-NATO meeting is taking place two days afterwards. Even if the bulk of the Russian proposals are non-starters for the West, engaging in a diplomatic process is preferable to violence.

If everything goes well, there might be some limited progress too, especially on “deconfliction” in areas where NATO and Russia face off, such as the Black and the Baltic Seas. Over time, talks could yield partial security agreements acceptable to both parties as well as to the likes of Ukraine and Georgia which, contrary to what the Kremlin believes, have interests and agency of their own.

But to be sure, there is plenty of scepticism, too. Some pundits are suggesting that Russia’s publication of the draft treaties, before the actual talks, is a clever ploy to undermine the diplomatic track and create a pretext for military action against Ukraine.

To succeed in this game, the US and its allies need to negotiate with the Russians from a position of strength. As in Brezhnev’s days, they need to credibly deter Moscow in order to open space for real negotiations. That is why, the US is communicating to Putin its readiness to ramp up economic sanctions – “like none he’d ever seen”, in Biden’s words – in case of war.

However, it is not clear to what extent European allies would follow suit. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has been calling for caution. Germany’s new governing coalition between the left, the Greens and the liberals, could find itself divided on the issue, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz taking a dovish line and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock pushing for a tough response. Needless to say, Russia will do its best to exploit any political rifts that might emerge within NATO.

Thus far Putin’s strategy is paying off. Moscow has been transacting with Washington as a near geopolitical peer. At a time, when the US is fixated on rising China, this is no small feat. Brezhnev’s USSR may be long gone and today’s Russia may be a pale shadow of its predecessor, but from the Kremlin’s perspective, it is doing its best to stay in the game.

While boosting presence in the Indo-Pacific to counter China, NATO to agree…

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