Putin and Ukraine
Vladimir Putin does not want to be remembered as the president who lost Ukraine, the most important state of the old Soviet Union, considered by Russian nationalists to be the original home of the Russian nation, the so-called “Kyivan Rus.” In 2014, without firing a shot, Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula and its important Black Sea naval base, which had been transferred to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in February 1954. This alleged “reunification” was not recognized by the international community. Putin will do everything in his power to ensure that Ukraine does not switch to the side of the Westerners, i.e. does not join NATO, as the government and many Ukrainian citizens are believed to want, as has already happened with some other former Soviet states.
Putin’s claim, which led him in December 2021 to deploy an army on Ukraine’s borders to threaten peace in the West, is based on an important historical precedent. The Russians claim that with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 there was an unwritten agreement between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and then U.S. President George Bush: in exchange for the reunification of Germany and the withdrawal of Moscow’s armed forces from that country, NATO would never expand to include the Warsaw Pact countries, let alone the former Soviet Republics. The existence of this agreement has never been officially recognized by the United States.
According to Maxim Samorukov, a journalist for The Moscow Times, Russia did not intend “to take on the thankless task of occupying Ukraine, but rather to convince the West that it is ready to go to war in order to change a state of affairs that it considers unacceptable.” This concern is certainly not new, but now, in the changed international context, there is no desire to allow its neighbor “to turn into a U.S. beachhead on the Russian border.”
In fact, Putin, with the muscular display of military force – i.e. by deploying about 180,000 soldiers on the borders of Ukraine and in Belarus and dispatching more than 30 ships of the Russian navy to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean – wanted to convince the U.S. and NATO of the seriousness of his demands, which had already been made for some time, namely, to renegotiate the structure of a new political-military order in Europe, which would ensure Russia its own “vital space,” its own zone of influence.
The Russian leader’s demands were summarized in 8 points (from the 9 sent to NATO) in a dossier, a suggested draft, from the Russian Foreign Ministry, sent to the U.S. administration immediately after the video call between Putin and Biden on December 7, 2021. In it, Moscow called for “strong, reliable and long-lasting security guarantees.” It also spoke of “red lines” that the West and Ukraine should not cross. Article 4 of the dossier reads clearly: “The United States undertakes to exclude any further eastward expansion of NATO and to refuse the admission to the Alliance of states that were part of the Soviet Union.” In addition, Moscow wanted a formal, written commitment that NATO would refrain from “any further enlargement of the Alliance, including the accession of Ukraine and other states.”
Russia also demanded that NATO commit itself not to place nuclear weapons or deploy troops in countries that were not part of it before May 1997. In short, as Federico Rampini writes, Putin’s main objective in this clash was to “change the balance of power in Eastern Europe in a direction less unfavorable to Russian interests,” so that countries such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova would remain outside NATO. By achieving these results, the Russian leader “could present himself triumphantly for re-election in 2024.”
The White House declared the package of proposals on security in Europe delivered by Moscow as unacceptable. Not everything, however, was simply rejected. A spokesman for the U.S. administration stated that “there are things we are willing to discuss.” For example, the request to eliminate nuclear weapons located in NATO countries bordering Russia was taken seriously.
On January 26, Biden replied to Putin with his observations. According to U.S. media reports, the president offered a broader dialogue on disarmament in Europe, without, however, questioning the right of Ukraine to choose, in the international arena, the alliances it deems most appropriate, and therefore, hypothetically, to one day join NATO. Although the issue was not on the agenda – and this has been recalled several times in different forums by commentators in the West – nor had Ukraine officially requested it, because being a country whose territory is partly occupied (Crimea and Donbass), it could not do so.
Biden did not give Russia any guarantee on changes that would challenge everything that a democratic and liberal order involves: state sovereignty, inviolable borders, free choice of alliances.