For Ukraine and the West, the stakes remain high

The Kremlin’s goals in dealing with the West go far beyond seeking to return Ukraine to Russia’s sphere of influence.

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Maksym Khylko, director of the Russian and Belarusian Studies Programme at the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism”, Chairman at the East European Security Research Initiative for New Eastern Europe

The Kremlin is stepping up political pressure on Kyiv and its western partners to force them to actually surrender through abandoning Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration and agreeing to a Russian interpretation of the Minsk agreements, which provides for the incorporation of the occupied territories of Donbas with the actual preservation of the current Moscow-controlled puppet regimes into the Ukrainian state The Kremlin also wants to force the US to cut military aid to Ukraine, in particular, to prevent the possible supply of air and missile defence systems that Ukraine needs to protect itself against probable Russian attacks.

Yet, the Kremlin’s goals go far beyond just seeking to return Ukraine to Russia’s sphere of influence. Moscow wants guarantees that American missiles will not be deployed on NATO’s eastern flank, especially in Poland, to which they can be moved from Germany. Vladimir Putin also wants to test whether Washington, being concerned about Beijing’s rising assertiveness in the global arena, is ready to begin talks with Moscow on returning to the sphere of influence in Europe – a kind of “Yalta-2” geopolitical trade-off.

To force Kyiv and the West to make unilateral concessions, Moscow uses the threat of large-scale escalation against Ukraine. I believe that the goals of accumulation of Russian troops near Ukrainian borders are mostly political. The Kremlin likely understands the high price of a possible large-scale war against Ukraine, which would bring disastrous consequences including for Russia itself. But surely the risks of escalation do increase when a lot of armed forces are deployed on the border. Against this background, possible provocation on the contact line in Donbas or on the Belarusian border could result in local hostilities which could then grow to something much worse.

It is unlikely that Putin really hoped that his American counterpart would satisfy all his demands, but he rather wanted to test the possible limit of compromises, and President Joe Biden’s willingness or unwillingness to make concessions, and his determination to oppose the Kremlin’s plans, particularly on Ukraine. According to the post-meeting statements from the White House and the Kremlin, Biden did not promise Putin any critical concessions on Ukraine, instead he reiterated his support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and outlined “strong economic and other measures” which the US and its Allies would implement in the event of further military escalation. This will be taken into account by the Kremlin when considering a possible increase in Russian aggression against Ukraine. However, the question remains whether the announced price of escalation will be considered as too high for Moscow in its geopolitical ambitions and Putin’s personal political plans?

After the Biden−Putin meeting, a temporary reduction in tensions on Ukraine’s borders is likely, but the Kremlin will not abandon its aggressive plans for Ukraine and the whole of Europe. Most likely Putin will try to implement these plans by 2024, before the transition of power to whatever format the latter is planned internally in Russia.

For most of 2021, much of the Kremlin’s attention was focused on the absorption of Belarus. The next year may well focus on Ukraine, being already able to count on Belarusian territory as a strategic bridgehead, and on the Belarusian militaries as a proxy force that can be used both for the creation of threats and provocations, as well as for a military invasion if necessary. This means that Ukraine and its western partners must make the most efficient use of time by rapidly increasing Ukraine’s defence capabilities and developing a set of measures that could make the price of possible escalation unjustifiably expensive for Russia.