After a year full of weaknesses, Biden enters 2022 with the opportunity to avert one of the biggest geopolitical crises since the Cold War. On Monday, January 10, Russian and American officials met to discuss the large-scale buildup of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border.
As Russia President Vladimir Putin sows a credible threat, the U.S. and the NATO appear to be showing Ukraine that it is on its own.
Russia claims it doesn’t have the intent to invade, but it has built up some 100,000 troops near Ukraine in response to what it says is a threat to its own security from the West, and accuses NATO of trying to invade its backyard by having military ties to Ukraine and has demanded it to halt its reach into eastern countries.
Biden twice discussed the Russian troop buildup with President Putin and warned that Moscow would face “severe consequences,” including unprecedented economic and financial sanctions if he attacked its neighbor. Similarly, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that Russia had to choose between dialogue and confrontation, and warned in remarks to CNN that there would be “massive consequences for Russia if it renews its aggression against Ukraine.”
To lower tensions, U.S. officials said they are open to discussions about curtailing possible offensive missile deployments in Ukraine, and placing limits on U.S. and NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe, if Russia is willing to back down with Ukraine.
At the same time, the White House has urged Russia to help create a positive environment for the upcoming talks by withdrawing its troops from areas near Ukraine. Moscow has rejected the suggestion by asserting that it can deploy its forces wherever it deems necessary on its own territory and describing the buildup as a response to NATO’s “hostile” moves.
Is Russia in charge?
When Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was asked during a press conference last month if he could guarantee that Russia will not invade Ukraine, he angrily replied, “We need legal guarantees of the non-expansion of NATO and the elimination of everything that the alliance has created since 1997.″
Russia had tried to show flexibility for the past 30 years and it was time for the other side to be flexible,” he said. “If they are unable to do this, they will face a worsening situation in their own security,” he sentenced.
Moscow has published two draft agreements outlining its demands to de-escalate tensions. These demands include rolling back NATO deployments in Eastern Europe to some point in the 1990s, meaning that many countries neighboring Russia and formerly under the control of the Soviet Union would be less protected by the alliance.
The Kremlin’s demands, described as unrealistic, have fueled American suspicions that Moscow is seeking to collapse the talks and then use them as a pretext for aggressive action. Russian diplomats have repudiated this claim.
Professor Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, warned that the current negotiations are not taking place between equals because “Putin threatened war to get concessions.”
“This is a hostage situation, not a normal negotiation between earnest equals (…) every time you discuss NATO expansion without also mentioning Crimean annexation (or Abkhazia, etc), you are echoing Putin’s talk points,” he said.
Joseph Humire, a global security expert and executive director of the Center for the Study of a Free and Secure Society, told El American that “Biden has to raise the costs for Russia and has to demonstrate more than words.” “Not taking action or not implementing a measure is choosing to do nothing, and that sends negative signals. Putin is analyzing it very cleverly,” the specialist said.
For Humire, it is time for Biden to take a stronger position, especially after the weakened troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, where he would have shown vulnerability to the world.
“If this is not resolved immediately, the message to the world will be catastrophic. Every regime in the world sees weakness as a signal to act,” Humire said of Biden’s role and lack of action in the face of threats.
What will happen if Russia moves forward
NATO officials told CNN that this is an opportunity for the alliance to establish a firm and unified position: “If Russia does escalate tensions, it will face serious economic consequences. We will use tools that weren’t deployed in 2014.”
Pasi Eronen, an analyst at the Conflict Studies Research Center, said that “capitulating to out-of-this-world demands would make the overall situation much more dangerous, as it would just embolden the Kremlin to act aggressively.”
Humire explained that the war that Putin is imposing is not only conventional with the movement of the military. He assures that information and propaganda is also a kind of war because the Russian president is seeking to change history in his favor so that then all his actions will be supported.
“When Putin increases his military presence he also increases his propaganda and that is what can help him win part of his objectives. Information is also war. Putin has managed to work the perception of Russians in favor of his actions in Ukraine. What is happening is serious, not only because of the military threat, but also because of how the perception is changing. He not only wants to invade Ukraine, but for the international community to back him,” he explained.
“It’s time to speak clearly to Ukraine”
Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, reacted on social networks to Russia’s demands: “Let’s call a spade a spade. Putin demands America, NATO & the EU to accept Russia’s sphere of influence over sovereign neighboring states. But the Cold War is over, and so are spheres of influence. Putin’s demands are illegitimate and harmful to international peace and security.”
In an interview for El American, Cesar Sabas, an expert in international relations and international security, said that “it is time for the United States to speak clearly to Ukraine.”
The specialist explained that he feels that “Ukraine is on its own” and that as Russia mobilizes its troops he does not see the same movement on the part of NATO and the United States: “I do not see any European country mobilizing its troops, much less the United States, which has just left Afghanistan, to defend Ukraine.”
Sabas explained that Russia’s interest is to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO because there are no natural borders between the two countries: “Russia cannot afford NATO troops in Ukraine because that means that Russia would be unprotected.”
What is Russia looking for?
Sabas believes that Russia will not invade Ukraine in the short term because the “real project of the Russians, which is long-term,” is to reunify the “Empire of the Tsars” that was Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.
“If Russia invades Ukraine today there may be a cruel and bloody war that in the long term will not generate unity among the peoples. However, what Russia seeks is to demonstrate to Ukraine that it is alone against the West, to ask it to come closer and reach agreements, and in the long term to expand itself,” the specialist considered.
Humire stated that he agrees with Sabas, but made the caveat that the intention to invade Ukraine is not necessarily separate from showing it that it is alone.
“Russia is preparing to have that option of invading, but I agree that it is also demonstrating that Ukraine has no allies. Ukraine’s main ally should be NATO and it is very weakened […] Putin knows that the threat must be credible, so Russia can think about invading Ukraine at the same time it is demonstrating to it that it is alone,” he sentenced.