While some are debating possible war scenarios, others think that Russia just wants to reach an agreement with the West on a new security architecture across its European borders.
In early December, media reports estimated the size of Russian deployment along its border with Ukraine at around 90,000. After more than a month, those estimates have touched over 127,000 as Western media outlets have aggressively reported on a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.
It’s clear that Russia-Ukraine tensions are escalating, but will Russia really invade its neighbour, which is closely linked to Moscow through historical, cultural, religious and ethnic ties? Or is it just trying to send a political message through military flexing?
Some Western analysts claim that Russia under Vladimir Putin’s leadership could surprise us. In 2014, Russia’s “little green men” took control of the Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in an easy fashion. Now, why shouldn’t Ukraine not be next, they ask.
But Esref Yalinkilicli, a Moscow-based Eurasia analyst, does not expect any surprising moves from either Putin or Russia. “They are very good students of Hans Joachim Morgenthau,” says Yalinkilicli, referring to the Kremlin elite’s realistic political approach.
Morgenthau is a German-born American political scientist, who is one of the founders of the realist school in international relations theory.
However, even some Russian analysts like Vladimir Frolov, a former diplomat of Moscow, see both sides’ positions in the Ukrainian crisis as “incompatible”, describing the Kremlin’s recent deployment in Belarus as a “huge escalation.” Belarus is a pro-Russian western neighbour of Ukraine.
"I think barring a U.S. surrender and their delivering Ukraine to Russia, some kind of a military option is all but inevitable now," the former Russian diplomat said. He also does not have much hope from the upcoming meeting between Russian and American foreign ministers on Friday in Geneva.
While Yalinkilicli does not completely dismiss the idea of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, he thinks that the ongoing Russian deployment along the Ukrainian border mainly aims to increase Moscow’s bargaining power in its negotiations with the West to establish “a new security architecture” across Europe.
He thinks Russia wants to bring an end to NATO’s ambitious enlargement program across Eastern Europe and the Baltic region close to Russia’s western borders, which raises serious concerns in the Kremlin.
Moscow believes that talks related to Ukraine’s membership to the Atlantic alliance is the latest example of the NATO program, which was launched using the collapse of the Soviet Union as an opportunity for a possible enlargement of the alliance in the region.
“The Ukrainian crisis has turned Kiev into a contentious political platform, where both Russia and the Western alliance express their security reservations with each other’s conduct. Ukraine symbolises their war of words,” says Yalinkilicli.
“This is a zero-sum-game and Russia does not want to play it anymore,” he says. “Either respond to my proposition or I will act, Moscow says.”
What Russia can offer
Russia’s Ukraine manoeuvres are directly related to conveying its political message to the Western alliance. “Russia’s biggest deterrent force is its hard power, in other words, its strong military capability to persuade its adversaries to form a new security architecture across Europe to ensure long-term stability in the continent,” the Moscow-based analyst says.
But what is this security architecture?
In December, the Russian delegation shared a package under “security guarantees” with the US, NATO and the EU over its proposition to establish long-term stability in Europe.
According to the package, Ukraine and Georgia, a Caucasian country with a pro-Western government, should not be accepted to NATO membership. Russia and NATO should also not deploy any military forces close to each other’s borders in Europe, the package says. This includes all military bases, means and neutral countries.
Russia also firmly demands that NATO not deploy its military forces in countries which became members after 1997, a date, which signified another level of the Atlantic alliance enlargement program.
Across Europe, NATO should not open any new nuclear facilities and should not give any nuclear weapons to any European countries, asks another demand of the Russian package. This rule also applies to Russia, according to the package.
The Russian proposal appears to fill in a security vacuum, which emerged not only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union but also the US-Russia withdrawals from two crucial military treaties, aiming to monitor the arms race.
In 2019, both countries withdrew from the INF Treaty, which is about the elimination of intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles between the USA and USSR. They also pulled out from the Treaty on Open Skies, which aimed to ensure unarmed aerial surveillance flights over territories both countries have access.
But the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) is still in place between the US and Russia. “If they also withdraw from that treaty, it means going back to the pre-1960 conditions (which were the worst days of the Cold War),” says Yalinkilicli.
This week, Dimitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, gave a hint about Russian plans if their demands are not met by the Western alliance, suggesting that Moscow can deploy its missiles in countries like Cuba and Venezuela, Latin American states friendly to Moscow.
Peskov’s suggestion also evoked memories of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis between the two superpowers. “Current Ukraine crisis resembles a lot to the 1962 Cuban crisis,” says Yalinkilicli.
In its Ukraine policy, the Kremlin trusts not only its army but also the Western’s alliance’s indecisive character, he adds.
What happens in Eastern Ukraine
The region is a boiling point between Russia and Ukraine.
“Eastern Ukraine is under de facto Russian control. Moscow also gave Russian passports to at least 600,000 Ukrainian Russians living in the region. They can enter Russia easily and do everything from marriage to trade activities just like Russians. Last year, Putin also signed a decree, which is about integrating Donetsk and Luhansk region into Russia,” Yalinkilicli says.
Donetsk and Luhansk regions are located in Eastern Ukraine.
“Russian paramilitary forces alongside its Wagner group also operate across Eastern Ukraine. There is no real reason for Russia’s launching a military invasion of the region,” Yalinkilicli says. As a result, the Eurasia analyst finds the Western debate on possible war scenarios superfluous.
“Russia always pursues a realist approach to ensure its political interests. But at the same time, the Russian state always keeps the military option open if it could not achieve results it aims to get through diplomacy,” Yalinkilicli adds.
Luke Coffey, the Director of the Foreign Policy Center at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think-tank, wrote about Eastern Ukraine’s status while debating Ukraine-Russia war scenarios last month.
“The most effective way for Russia to achieve this goal is by keeping the conflict in eastern Ukraine ‘frozen’—meaning that the major fighting stops, but localized fighting remains without a conclusive end to the conflict. That means using the troops on the border as political leverage, not as actual invaders,” Coffey wrote, explaining this non-kinetic scenario.