Nerves mount over the Russian-Ukrainian conflict – will it be cyber war, a petty raid, a Kremlin puppet in Kiev? Unsteady statements by Western leaders, the evacuation of diplomatic families, extra troops from NATO countries for the neighbors fuel the excitement. And meanwhile we endlessly probe Putin’s brain: what move will the chess master make?
Maybe none for a while. Putin has time on his side. First of all, that of the short term. On February 4, at the opening of the Winter Games in Beijing, the Russian will meet his colleague Xi Jinping, for their first physical meeting in a long time. Ukraine is high on the agenda. As long as the Winter Games last, probably – a matter of courtesy – no acute moves will follow. Above all, however, Putin has the long term on his side, the time of strategic patience. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after his meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Geneva Friday: “I believe we have different interpretations of history.” He looked a bit dirty, while it shows insight. It would help if, with all the justified focus on Moscow’s distortion of facts from the recent past, we didn’t turn out to think that the Kiev (and Washington) version is free of propaganda. In the conflict, two almost irreconcilable stories collide. That’s why it’s stuck.
The message that Vladimir Putin has sent since 2007 with word One thing that instills in America and Europe is that the eastward expansion of NATO and the EU after the Cold War has been a one-off and, as far as he is concerned, a mistake. In the unique constellation of the years 1989-1991, Moscow gave up its veto power over the future of these countries. To the surprise of the then US and West German leaders (George Bush Sr. and Helmut Kohl), Soviet leader Gorbachev agreed to German unification without demanding military neutrality from the Federal Republic in return. The later NATO expansion to include Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries could also be continued.
Putin, perhaps nostalgic but above all a power politician, draws a line. Happened happened, but now stop. Thus, the new frontier countries between the West and Russia, led by Ukraine, openly became the focus of the conflict. „This will not bePutin said sharply in 2008 against NATO boss Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the day after the Western alliance, under pressure from President Bush Jr., promised Ukraine and Georgia future membership. Today Putin, with his concentrated force, says: I still think so.
Of course Putin has no right to veto Kiev’s NATO membership, hence the frustration. But the power. Russia is the world’s second-largest nuclear power and has state-of-the-art cyber and weapons technology. Although the country’s economy is sometimes mocked (‘as big as the Benelux’), oil and gas exports give it a strong strategic position, also vis-à-vis Western Europe. Thanks to wise use of the petrodollars, Russia has very large financial reserves (something true historian Adam Tooze recently pointed out), which will also enable it to withstand severe economic sanctions.
The difference with the years 1989-2007 is the end of American omnipotence. The rise of China changes the power calculus, Putin sees. The US cannot handle two serious conflicts at the same time, with Russia over Ukraine and with China over Taiwan. The priority in Washington clearly lies with China. That’s why Putin waits (according to Kremlin expert Hans Kribbe) patiently as Biden has to acknowledge Russia’s superpower claim with a deal to get rid of the thunder. But we’re not there yet.
The options for the government in Kiev are limited. There is nothing better than the existing Minsk-II agreement from 2015 – negotiated by Merkel and Hollande between Putin and President Poroshenko. In it, the renegade Donbass republics would return to Ukrainian territory, in exchange for their autonomous status in a federal order. Is that model so shocking? Isn’t that how, thus analyst Anatol Lieven recently, unique conflicts were ever resolved, for example in Northern Ireland or Catalonia? Yet it is treason for nationalists in Kiev. Western hawks rarely contradict them.
And would it be so shocking to give Ukraine a neutral status for say thirty years? Isn’t that how Austria, Sweden and Finland – when the border countries between NATO and Kremlin – got through the Cold War, meanwhile quietly orientated themselves economically and socially to the west, to join the EU afterwards? Also a form of strategic patience.
Luke of Middelaar is a political philosopher and historian.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 26, 2022
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