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Too proud to pull back? Russia’s Ukraine dilemma

Anton Barbashin argues that Russia’s top foreign policy thinkers are split between moderate attitudes of ‘quit while you’re ahead’ and hawkish views calling for further brinkmanship

2021’s tensions in Russia-West relations have burst into 2022 without any pit stops or hints of denouement. On the upside, there’s been a ramped up diplomatic interaction at different levels that at least creates the sensation that “the conversation goes on” and that any negotiations are better than shooting guns. On the downside, there’s been a tendency to see these talks as mostly fruitless, with European and US negotiators still not showing a clear acknowledgement of the ultimate goals behind Russia’s saber rattling. So, at this point, it is easy to succumb to worst case scenarios and apocalyptic visions. But — at least not yet — these are not happening, making it still worth going back to the question of what Russia is driving with this latest escalation, and so far, we have spotted two fundamentally different approaches emerging from Russia’s top foreign policy experts assessing the situation.

Mischief Managed! It’s time to roll up

The more moderate wing Russian international affairs specialists — among which Andrei Kortunov and Dmitry Trenin stand out — are increasingly suggesting that the Russian leadership should promptly organize a glorious way out of the current situation, declaring victory with whatever they have in hand right now. As the authors note, the Kremlin has finally managed to draw attention to itself, while seriously raising issues that the West has been putting off for the past 30 years. Once again, these thinkers believe, Russia has become a force worthy of keeping Washington awake at night; it has pushed the US into at least debating security in Europe with Russia, including through discussions on limiting the deployment of short and medium-range missiles. Further, it is now already possible to seriously discuss the forms and formats of restrictions on military exercises and maneuvers. In general, apparently, it is now possible to put up almost any adequate list of proposals that will really be seriously discussed: from CFE-2 to any other set of capital letters that will help ensure stability. Is that already a victory? Does anyone really expect that NATO would abandon the open-door policy or change some of its purely internal settings?

Then again, as noted by both Kortunov and Trenin, one can stumble here precisely about Ukraine. It is impossible to decouple any security topic from the unresolved conflict there. And so far, there has been little progress on Ukraine, whether in the form of the implementation of the Minsk agreements or otherwise. That will stick out like a sore thumb, dampening any sense of “victory.” Yet in fairness, the prospect of reasonable progress on NATO (issues of Euro security) + progress on Ukraine is the adequate minimum with which Putin can proclaim his strategic victory and allow Eastern Europe to breathe calmly.

Time to push it through 

Another approach, however, is arguing for doubling down. Supporters of a more conservative views — most notably the voices of Sergei Karaganov, Dmitry Suslov and Fyodor Lukyanov — are de facto accusing their more moderate colleagues of insufficient ambition, urging to them look at the current confrontation as an opportunity for a final divorce from the Western-centric world. Indeed, mantras about the coming multipolar world have been sounding in some circles since 2003, but now, due to various circumstances, the supporters of a “sovereign northern Eurasia” sense an opportunity to finally try to turn theory into practice. Obviously, the rigidity of the Russian position, which foreign policy experts defend, is determined by the general line presented by the president in the second half of 2021 and repeated more than once this year. This rigidity is the result of the belief that the collective West is a myth, and no collective action will follow (especially here they usually point fingers at Germany). President Biden, meanwhile, is too far-sighted to bet on a long-term confrontation with Russia in Eastern Europe; he would rather come to a deal, before pushing headlong to Asia to push back China there.

This group of experts are urging for less coy wording — to call a spade a spade and to finally disengage from the West, universalism and other gifts of European humanism in its current version, in order to completely free Russia’s hands and, in fact, become more like China.

Some are not even shy about some of the proposed forms of escalating pressure on NATO countries and the United States from “cosmic initiatives,” like strengthening Russian strategic power in Latin America, recognizing the DNR and LNR and integrating them together with Abkhazia, South Ossetia and, apparently, Transnistria into Russia. Others wax lyrical about the placement of all the latest developments of the Russian military-industrial complex right next to the border points of the NATO countries. Obviously, most of these initiatives, as well as proposals to activate Russian PMCs around the world and declare cyber war in response to new sanctions, are exaggerations to a certain extent, deliberately brought to the point of absurdity. The idea behind those thoughts is simple — Russia needs to stop being afraid of its status and already stop trying to “return” to the world of the West, which did not accept it in the 1990s-2000s. And for the sake of development of new rules, any means are good, right up to the point of a neo-Cuban missile crisis, if it forces the West to make concessions.

But what is really the case?

It is obvious that neither one group, nor the other, knows what Putin really wants to get from the West and Ukraine, how many action plans he has, and which logic he leans more towards on Tuesday and which on Wednesday. Experts extrapolate their knowledge and experience, the general context and knowledge of the decision makers, along with what part of the information they have access to, to draw their own version of reality, with at least a minimal demand for plausibility and consistency. And yet, both the expert community and perhaps most of the representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry and other negotiators, do not know the entire deck of cards and the value of each of the chips on the table.

The two narratives outlined above are only the most likely approximation to the state of affairs at the end of January 2022. And yet, they are based on two fundamentally different ideas about the goals and objectives of Russian foreign policy – the first, so to speak, is “conservationist” which aims to prevent the spiral of uncertainty and risks from unwinding so much that then it will take several more decades for Russia “to get back from its knees”. The second, “offensive”, defines the current moment in history as critical and a turning point, where inaction and cowardice will then cost more, and almost any risk is justified; potential gains will cover almost any losses.

It should be noted separately that none of them is in favor of unleashing massive hostilities on the territory of Ukraine. For example, Dmitry Suslov rightly notes that “we are talking about security guarantees from the United States and NATO, and Moscow seeks to agree on new rules of the game it is with them, and not with Kyiv. Therefore, the option of a hypothetical Russian invasion of Ukraine in response to the refusal of the United States and NATO to respect Russian “red lines”, which is constantly talked about in the West, really seems absurd and counterproductive”. Almost all experts agree with this interpretation, with some reservations. Even then, a military clash is allowed as a reasonable hypothetical by many. In other words, even the most aggressive experts dissuade Moscow from trying to occupy significant parts of Ukraine. That, of course, does not exclude the limited use of forces, as Moscow has already shown many times over the past few years.

Photo: Scanpix