Giorgi Bilanishvili, Research Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
Recent developments indicate that the Russian Federation is trying to speak with the language of an ultimatum in order to acquire significant concessions from the West. Its actions also make it clear that the program maximum has not changed and, as before, its goal remains for the West to recognize Ukraine and other neighboring countries of the Russian Federation as Moscow’s exclusive sphere of influence.
This is not the first time Moscow has acted harshly. However, this time Moscow seems much more radical in its actions which is primarily reflected in the threat of a new large-scale military aggression against Ukraine. The notion of Russian radicalism was further reinforced by two draft documents published by the Russian Foreign Ministry on December 17 last year – the Security Assurance Agreement with the United States and the Agreement on Security Measures with the Member Countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
These documents are similar and provide such conditions where an agreement is considered unlikely, even on the part of Russia itself, let alone the West. However, it should be noted that after the publication of these documents, additional fuel was provided for Russian propaganda to reinforce the myth of the “might” of the Russian Federation.
Russian propaganda is trying to substantiate Moscow’s argument by saying that the aforementioned two documents were published shortly after a virtual meeting between Joseph Biden and Vladimir Putin in early December of last year. According to the meeting reports, the US president spoke clearly about the sanctions that the US and its allies would impose on the Russian Federation in the case of a new military aggression against Ukraine. Consequently, it gave an impression that Russia still continued to speak to the West with the language of an ultimatum despite the new US sanctions on an unprecedented scale.
The fact that the US did not refuse to consider the abovementioned agreement on security guarantees drafted by Moscow also reinforced the narrative of the Russian side. On the contrary, it agreed to start a dialogue and, consequently, a meeting was scheduled in Geneva which took place on January 9 and 10 of this year.
Position of the USA
From the outset, the United States has openly stated that it did not accept most of the issues outlined in the draft agreement by Moscow but still considered it appropriate to continue the dialogue with Russia. In addition, just before the Geneva meeting, more information came out about the sanctions Washington, together with its allies, would impose on Moscow in the case of new aggression against Ukraine.
The sanctions included:
- Taking appropriate measures against Russia’s largest financial institutions;
- Taking appropriate measures against Russian high-tech weaponry (fighter jets, air defense systems, space systems);
- Restrictions on innovative technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing;
- Including Russia in the list of countries with the strictest export restrictions.
These new data, along with the previously reported information on possible sanctions against Russia, have made the unprecedented scale of sanctions against Russia even more impressive. The release of this information just before the Geneva meeting was probably not accidental. With this, the US side stressed that Moscow should not expect a compromise.
It was also important that before the Geneva meeting, the US side spoke with representatives of allied and partner countries. Among others, Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, spoke with the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmitry Cullen, while Deputy Secretary of State, Head of the US Delegation on the Negotiations with Russia, Wendy Sherman, communicated with Davit Zalkaliani, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia.
These talks aimed at the coordination and reconciliation of positions while at the same time demonstrating US support to allies and partners. It also underscored that the United States strongly adheres to its pre-declared principle of “nothing about you without you” which in bilateral negotiations with Russia precludes an agreement at the expense of any country.
The abovementioned strategy, which involves the threat of sanctions and the mobilization of joint efforts with allied/partner countries, alongside the dialogue with Russia, is not new. The same strategy was employed by Washington in the 1980s to stop the Soviet military operation in Poland which was successful at that time.
Another nuance of the Geneva meeting should be considered significant. In particular, no new format of negotiations between the US and Russia has been created. The meeting continued the dialogue on strategic stability with Russia which began after the Biden-Putin summit in June last year and so far the parties have already held two meetings in the framework of this dialogue.
After the meeting of the US and Russian delegations in Geneva, the comments made by the Head of the US Delegation, Wendy Sherman, once again underlined the fact that important issues such as NATO enlargement, territorial integrity and the sovereignty of any country and US bilateral cooperation with any country was not a subject of discussion with the Russian delegation. At the same time, the US Deputy Secretary of State reiterated that the United States has a principled position over the Ukraine issue. She spoke about the 100,000 member military contingent mobilized by Russia along the Ukrainian border and the threats posed by it and emphasized that no country has the right to use force to change the borders of another country or prohibit its membership in any alliance.
The Issue of Ukraine
Although the US position on Ukraine is not in doubt and is quite principled and clear, the likelihood of Russia launching a new military aggression against Ukraine remains high. This is due to several factors:
- Moscow likely believes that time is not on its side. On the one hand, Ukraine’s military forces are getting stronger and, on the other hand, Ukraine is moving further away from Russia. Consequently, Moscow probably believes that after a certain period of time its chances to occupy parts of Ukraine by military force will be reduced.
- Russian propaganda has elevated the issue of Ukraine to the highest level. In this respect, the current situation is very similar (even exceeds) to what was happening around Georgia before the Russian military aggression against the country in August 2008. Consequently, the Putin regime will find it difficult to stop its own war rhetoric, at the very least because it may be perceived as a weakness. The strength of Putin’s regime is largely based on a demonstration of strength (often illusory) that it does not want to give up.
- Moscow probably still does not believe in the unity of the West and the possibility of tough sanctions. That is why it is constantly trying to provoke Ukraine militarily and will continue to do so in the future. On the one hand, Moscow’s perception of the weakness of the United States and its allies is based on the West’s reaction to the aggression against Georgia in 2008. Then, the West did not impose sanctions on Russia and even maintained the same level of bilateral relations. While in the case of the United States, as a result of the “reset” policy, relations even improved. Although, the West has acted differently in the case of Ukraine but Moscow probably still thinks that this time it has successfully dealt with the sanctions imposed by the West.
- Moscow likely believes that the withdrawal from Afghanistan has undermined the international positions and the influence of the US. Tensions between the US and China, including over the Taiwan issue, further complicates the situation. In such a situation, from Moscow’s point of view, it will be difficult for Washington to effectively counter another act of Russian military aggression in Ukraine.
The aforementioned arguments do not imply that Moscow will achieve its goal if it decides to launch a new military aggression against Ukraine. Given the circumstances, this will be a very reckless venture that will cause serious damage to the Russian Federation regardless of the outcome.