The publication of the so-called "draft treaty between the United States and the Russian Federation on legal security guarantees" launched a new round of escalation between the West and Russia. In fact, Moscow has gotten a head start and has begun to gradually raise the stakes in a game that has been going on since the mid-2000s.
The goals of the Russian political leadership remain known to us.
The tactical task is to finally "close" the question of Ukraine, convincing the US and the EU to force the Ukrainian authorities to implement the Minsk agreements, especially the part that concerns the autonomy of Donbas, amnesty and the holding of elections in the occupied territories. Back in early December, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov openly stated this .
Ultimate formulation of the issue of "Minsk-2" by Russia took place after numerous negotiations between Russia and Western countries. This suggests that either they have already reached agreements on forcing the Minsk agreements, or they did not agree, and Russia decided to go for broke, taking advantage, on the one hand, of the unfavorable situation around Ukraine, and on the other hand, feeling the support of China, and playing on the idea of an "alliance with the PRC", which is not beneficial to the United States more than the incline of Ukraine to a compromise.
The strategic task of the Russian Federation is to persuade the United States and Europe to agree in principle on a new security architecture, in which Russia will receive its role, a zone of influence recognized by all and will be perceived as an equal player in the new world order. Putin has been achieving this since the mid-2000s, when he embarked on a course of opposing the post-1991 unipolar liberal American world order, which, from the point of view of the Russian post-Soviet elites, did not correspond to their interests and did not suit a number of states. Over the past 20 years, this world order has been slowly crumbling under the weight of numerous problems associated with internal cultural and ideological imbalances in the United States itself, the growing crisis of representative democracy in Europe, the difficulties of the post-communist transition in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the rise of regional powers and the refusal of the hegemon itself from its predominant role as "world gendarme". Therefore, in 2021, when the collapse of this world order has become obvious to everyone, and the transition to a new system of international relations has just begun, Russia enters this game, first trying to close its long-standing gestalt with Ukraine and NATO.
Timing shouldn't surprise anyone. Now there is a rare situation when Russia gets the opportunity to act, believing that the risks are minimal. The energy crisis pushed gas prices upwards and sharply worsened the situation in Ukraine. The gas ring bypassing Ukraine began to be gradually launched in 2020, first from the Turkish Stream, and next year Nord Stream-2 will also start operating. Neither the EU nor the US are planning any sanctions against them next year (even the defense budget signed by Biden does not include it). In addition, Europe is going through a period of political leaders change: the old heavyweights-Euro-optimists are leaving the stage. They are often replaced by either unstable followers who cling to the remnants of centrist rhetoric, which find fewer supporters among the young public, or pragmatists-realists who know how to count and negotiate.
Finally, the change in US foreign policy was a key factor in pushing Putin into action. The anti-Chinese consensus of the American elites has opened up a new role for the Russian Federation - the "joker" in the American-Chinese confrontation. For Moscow, this is a chance to bargain for the best conditions for itself in the new security architecture - the role of a situational, even point-like, partner of the West in the field of regional security and strategic stability. Not a friend-partner, but the main thing is that a partner, recognized as “different” in relation to everyone else, is a separate center of political influence.
I already once wrote that the Americans do not view Russia as a complex, mortal threat to themselves in all spheres. Accordingly, the United States treats them as a secondary adversary with whom it is possible to talk if it is necessary for the implementation of a super-task. I highly recommend this text to those who want to understand the meaning of what is happening now, and why 2022 will be very difficult and serious for us.
The energy crisis in Europe serves as a good background for the intensification of Russia's military-political maneuvers. For the fourth day in a row, Moscow has not booked capacities for gas transit through the Yamal-Europe pipeline, and as representatives of the Ukrainian GTS Operator reported, Russia has reduced the volume of gas transit through Ukraine by 20%. At the same time, 41% of the gas injected this year in gas storage facilities was already used in Europe. It is clear that Russia's reduction of gas pumping through Ukraine is a deliberate game aimed at putting pressure on the Europeans, who, because of this, are forced to withdraw gas from European storage facilities in record volumes.
In addition, the Russian game is designed not only for a momentary effect, but not for the next year in full. From March 2022, 7-8 power units of our nuclear power plants will begin to be decommissioned at once due to the fact that it is necessary to load them with fuel. This will lead to an even greater burden on the national energy grid in the face of high prices, Russian pressure and uncertainty in the Belarusian direction, where only a chronic confrontation looms on the horizon.
After the publication of the document, there is no doubt that Russia will raise the stakes, up to and including an armed escalation on the territory of Ukraine. The Kremlin's presentation of the question looks like this:" Here is our ideal vision of the future of the European security system, you either start negotiations with us on this basis, or we will force such a situation, but without you." Direct threats that began to sound from the lips of Putin and Shoigu are a way of pressure, escalating the situation in order to quickly convince the West to start negotiations, and at the same time show that the Russian Federation is not joking, and, if necessary, resort to forceful pressure, they will do it ...
Armed escalation can take many forms. A full-scale invasion by Russia in several directions, in my opinion, remains an unlikely option and the most extreme way for Moscow: it is too risky, expensive and costly. In addition, such a development of events will negate all the efforts of the Russian Federation over the past 7 years, aimed at positioning itself as a mediator, and not a participant in the conflict.
However, a local escalation along the demarcation line in Donbas, sabotage, limited military strikes on infrastructure, shooting down a drone or shelling a city is a very real threat that Russia is capable of, relying on controlled militant groups in the east. Moreover, V. Putin's press conference on December 23 showed that the risks are real, and the Russian Federation is serious about acting.
The scenarios for the development of the situation with Russia in 2022 are as follows:
- The West and Russia agree to "force" Ukraine to comply with the Minsk agreements. In this case, we are automatically faced with a choice: to accept post-facto their agreements and go to a painful peace, or reject them, provoking an armed escalation. The implementation of "Minsk-2" is expected to trigger significant political and economic crises in our country due to the autonomy of Donbas, financial costs and protests from part of the population;
- The West and Russia do not agree, and the Russian Federation decides to exert pressure with the help of force. In this case, another round of power confrontation awaits us, from the results of which it will be clear in whose favor the situation will change. In the event of a quick victory for Russia, they will be able to persuade the West to negotiate and sign the conditional "Minsk-3", which in fact will be "Minsk-2" on Moscow's terms. In case of failure, Russia will face increased sanctions, and we will get a chance to change the agreements in our favor, and find an acceptable compromise (the "collapse" of the Russian Federation in this case should not be expected, as many might think). If the conflict drags on, 2022 could plunge the country into an even greater economic and financial crisis;
- Talks in January between the West and Russia end with some kind of interim agreements, and passions subside without definite results. This is the best option for us, because it allows us to "pull time" and "loop through" again. However, if the time is wasted or for the next populist "quick wins" and shallow PR, then we go to a new circle with scenario 1 or 2;
- The Ukrainian authorities themselves propose a formula that suits both the West and Russia. In this case, it is possible to avoid the use of force, but this will require making difficult decisions, including a compromise on Donbas and Crimea. For no other option will be acceptable both for the West and for the Russian Federation. In addition, this scenario is possible if the government has a vision for resolving the situation, an action plan and the will to make painful but necessary decisions for the sake of some perspective in the distant future, including going against a part of society.
Unfortunately, we enter 2022 unprepared and weak. Our authorities prefer to ignore the energy crisis, hoping for a sharp drop in prices by summer. The military threat from the Russian Federation seems to be perceived, but due to indistinct communication, part of the society either does not take the statements of the authorities seriously, or does not want to hear about it for the thousandth time. In domestic politics, the focus is now shifted towards petty, internal disputes such as the appearance of a deputy minister of education or the silly image of a Ukrainian woman in the popular Netflix series. The main political players are busy fighting each other against the backdrop of the war launched by Volodymyr Zelenskyy against part of the national oligarchy in the fall.
In its forecast for 2022 , our Institute for the Future concluded that at least eight foreign policy processes will have a direct impact on Ukraine: political transit in Belarus, the threat of Russia, conflicts within the European Union, electoral shaking in Turkey, restructuring of regional alliances, energy difficulties , the confrontation between the United States and China, the crisis in Ukraine's perception of the West. Unfortunately, we are not fully prepared for any of these challenges. Because they demand from us not just some kind of panic mobilization or even personnel reshuffles. They require a qualitatively new policy as such, including foreign and domestic.
I usually don't write such suspenseful and stressful lyrics. But the situation is very serious. Yes, and my colleagues and I analyzed the situation this year back in January , when we issued our first analytical note on the foreign policy of the Biden administration. There is nothing to add.
I want to hope that next year the difficulties and challenges that we will certainly face will not become traditionally "unexpected" for us, and we will have time to take a number of painful and difficult decisions to bring Ukraine out of the abyss of a chronic political crisis, institutional malaise and economic stagnation.
Tags: Ilya Kusa / Russia's invasion of Ukraine / Vladimir Putin / war in Donbass / Minsk agreements / ORDLO / Joseph Biden / Ukraine's relations with the United States / Ukraine-Russia relations / Ukraine-NATO / OSCE