On the day of the alleged start of the “invasion” of Ukraine, Russia began to withdraw its forces from the border. While all participants in the events can consider themselves to be winners, experts say =”What did Moscow, Kiev and the West get from the tension around Ukraine” />
How did the parties assess the withdrawal of part of the Russian troops
On Tuesday, February 15, Russia began withdrawing part of its troops from its western border. Units that have finished participating in the exercises will be returned to their permanent deployment points, the Defense Ministry said. The agency also distributed a video with columns of outgoing military equipment, loading tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled artillery mounts onto echelons.
The announcement of the withdrawal of part of the troops was made in the days when the tension on the Russian-Ukrainian border reached its highest point. Western media, including Bloomberg and Der Spiegel, cited sources predicting an invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine on February 15 or 16. Western politicians, including the White House, have officially announced that a war could break out in the coming days. More than forty countries announced the departure of their diplomats from Ukraine and recommended that their citizens leave the country.
Moscow's statements about the withdrawal of part of the troops were met with caution in the West. There are no signs of a de-escalation of the crisis around Ukraine in connection with the start of the withdrawal of Russian troops, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.
US President Joe Biden addressed the Americans and Russians on the evening of February 15. Biden called the de-escalation possible, but noted that Washington has not yet been able to confirm the departure of Russian troops from regions near the border with Ukraine. He again did not rule out an invasion, and warned of possible sanctions, but called for a chance for diplomacy.
In Ukraine, they gave a different assessment. “We managed with our partners to keep Russia from any further escalation. Today is already the middle of February, and you see that diplomacy continues to work,— Foreign Minister of Ukraine Dmitry Kuleba reacted to the news about the withdrawal of Russian troops.
Information about the beginning of the return of Russian troops to the garrisons after the completion of the exercises is positive, but the situation should be monitored, said Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto.
“We hear that individual units are withdrawing, and this is a good sign. We hope this trend will continue,— German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said at a press conference following talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader reiterated that Russia does not want war.
“I don’t think we are at the end of this story and that there will be no escalation. After all, only today the State Duma adopted an appeal to the president on the recognition of the self-proclaimed LPR and DPR, and the exercises continue, moreover, a similar situation already happened in the spring— then, too, the escalation seemed to have ended, but in the autumn it began again, — said RBC consultant International Crisis Group Oleg Ignatov.
Putin, after negotiations with Scholz, said that he was not planning any actions that would violate the Minsk agreements. Such a violation in Kiev called the possible recognition of the independence of the self-proclaimed republics. The limited withdrawal of Russian troops from the border with Ukraine is a clear, albeit preliminary, sign of de-escalation, Alan Kafruni, professor of international relations at Hamilton College, told RBC.
What Moscow got
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on February 15, in talks with his Polish counterpart Zbigniew Rau, noted the readiness of NATO and the United States to discuss proposals put forward by Moscow on security guarantees in December last year, including the non-deployment of intermediate- and shorter-range missiles in Europe and the transparency of NATO military exercises. The swiftness with which NATO has changed its mind about Russian security initiatives suggests that “all is not lost,” Lavrov said after the talks. Nevertheless, Moscow has not yet achieved the main thing from the West— NATO non-expansion guarantees and an arms embargo on Ukraine.
In addition, there is no progress in negotiations on a political settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Since the beginning of this year, two meetings of advisers to the leaders of the Normandy Four countries have already taken place in Paris and Berlin. (Russia, Ukraine, Germany, France), but both— without results.
“Russia got a lot of attention and a huge interest in communicating with Russian officials, got the negotiations it demanded from the West. The West did not agree to key Russian demands, but agreed to the very fact of negotiations, and most likely they will continue. Quite specific proposals were received from the United States, — says Ignatov. In the Ukrainian direction, Russia has achieved little, because its key requirements for the implementation of the Minsk agreements are not being met, Kiev cannot implement them, the expert continues. In general, maintaining the uncertainty of the situation allowed Russia to take a step back with saving face, he believes.
As a result of diplomatic initiatives and military deployment, Russia has achieved several goals, Kafruni agrees. First, it sent a signal to the US and NATO that Ukraine's official or “de facto” entry into NATO is a red line that will lead to huge costs for Ukraine; secondly, more generally, the European security architecture— and especially the status of Ukraine— is now a subject of negotiation, and not a sphere of sole decisions of the United States, Professor Kafruni said.
What Ukraine and Western countries got
Since the beginning of the crisis, Western countries have increased arms supplies to Ukraine. The Minister of Defense of the Republic, Alexei Reznikov, almost every day posts new photos of military transport aircraft delivering weapons and ammunition from NATO countries on social networks. The US and UK supplied anti-tank weapons (Javelin systems and NLAW guided missiles) and air defense systems (Stinger anti-aircraft missile systems). Washington also allowed the Baltic countries to transfer to Ukraine their ATGM and MANPADS systems. Estonia will give Javelin to Ukraine, and Latvia and Lithuania— Stinger. Poland announced its intention to donate Grom MANPADS and other weapons to Ukraine. Readiness for deliveries was also expressed by the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. In early February, Reznikov announced that Ukraine had received a license to produce Turkish Bayraktar attack drones.
According to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from the moment the thesis about the impending Russian invasion of Ukraine appeared, from 25 to 30 airborne weapons have landed in it. It cannot be said that this is a lot, the diplomatic interlocutor of RBC noted, and made a comparison & mdash; in early January, Russia needed 150 flights to transfer the contingent to Kazakhstan. However, the increase in supplies still worries Moscow. Here they believe that one of the reasons why it was beneficial for the West to support the narrative about the impending Russian invasion, — this is an opportunity to deliver weapons to Ukraine faster as a result. “The help that was supposed to last a year was delivered in a few months,” — noted the interlocutor of RBC.
“Ukraine in this situation is the winner. It has received more Western weapons, more Western support, and the image of Ukraine as a victim of the conflict with Russia has strengthened. Now this is how the Western public perceives it, — says Ignatov. The withdrawal of Russian troops will not be perceived in Ukraine as a weakness, says Vasily Kashin, deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University Higher School of Economics.
“It's like you put a knife to someone's throat, the person got scared to death, and then you removed the knife. Will he take it as a weakness? he asks rhetorically. In favor of the fact that panic actually reigned in Ukraine, in his opinion, is evidenced by the departure of deputies of the Verkhovna Rada and businessmen from the country and a record outflow of capital. “Russia has dealt a serious blow to the economy and the state system of Ukraine, is in dialogue with the United States, and even some signs of progress are already visible. So the pressure has reached its result, — adds the expert.
US President Joe Biden, according to Ignatov, has successfully consolidated allies in Europe, and if there is no war, he will be able to say that the solidarity actions of the West stopped it.
Russia is ready for the United States to declare victory, Lavrov noted on Tuesday: “The West, if it hasn’t said it yet, will definitely say:“ You see, how we pressed them, how Biden clicked, they immediately got scared and fulfilled our requirements».
According to Professor Kafruni, the current crisis, on the contrary, has demonstrated the lack of unity within NATO. “Despite the dramatic and inflammatory rhetoric emanating from London and Washington in particular, there is widespread recognition in most European capitals, especially in Paris and Berlin, that the threat of Biden sanctions will be devastating not only for Russia, but for the European and the world economy»,— he said.
Does the threat of sanctions remain
The US administration and the EU authorities have repeatedly repeated that in the context of the Ukrainian situation they consider economic sanctions as a tool to contain escalation, which cannot be applied in advance.
In particular, Washington's approach was to “wire” all possible sanctions and their economic consequences for Russia, which may occur in the event of an invasion of Ukraine. Although Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently called on the EU to impose preventive sanctions on Russia, there have been no clear signs that the West is ready to move away from the chosen line. Last week, the UK government, following this approach, expanded its powers to impose anti-Russian sanctions, extending the threat to state-owned enterprises and companies in strategic sectors of the Russian economy, while emphasizing that this is a potential tool in case the Ukrainian conflict escalates. And US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, at a briefing on February 11, in response to a question about possible sanctions before the invasion, reiterated that his administration adheres to the previous strategy.
Nevertheless, there is evidence that limited new sanctions against Russia are possible without a full-fledged military escalation of the conflict. In January, Biden warned that Russia could use unconventional tactics against Ukraine, such as cyberattacks or offensives by units “not wearing Russian military uniforms.” According to the President of the United States, such attacks are in the “gray zone” will also become a trigger for a possible response from Washington, including sanctions. Even in the absence of a military conflict, measures such as a ban on the participation of American investors in the secondary market of Russian government debt and blocking sanctions against high-ranking officials, state institutions and financial assets of Vladimir Putin supporters are more likely, the international rating agency Fitch indicated in February.
Everything will really depend on actions in the “grey zone”, such as cyber attacks, destabilization of the Ukrainian government, disinformation, possible recognition of the DPR and LPR, Maria Shagina, a visiting researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Relations, a specialist in sanctions, told RBC. In the case of such actions, targeted sanctions may be introduced (“on-duty” visa bans or freezing of personal assets), but these will not be those “nuclear” sanctions. options like shutting down banks from the SWIFT system or a ban on the supply of American technology to Russia, which were discussed in the press, she said. The problem is that EU members cannot reach a consensus in any way, they considered non-military actions as a trigger for sanctions, she added.
How tensions grew along the border with Ukraine
- The continuous escalation of the situation on the border between Russia and Ukraine has been going on for more than three months. In October last year, Western media began to report that Russia was building up its military presence on the western border. In November, The New York Times, citing sources, reported that American intelligence had warned European colleagues that “there was little time left” to prevent Moscow from launching military operations in a neighboring country.
- Not only Western politicians, but also Russia played to escalate. On November 18 last year, Vladimir Putin instructed the Foreign Ministry to seek from the United States and NATO “the provision of Russia with serious long-term security guarantees.” For this, he declared, it is necessary “as long as possible” keep the West in “a state of tension.” A month later, Moscow, in an ultimatum form, handed over to the United States its security requirements— among them was the demand to guarantee the non-expansion of NATO, including the non-inclusion of Ukraine into the alliance.
- Moscow has never spoken about the intention to invade Ukraine, but did not rule out that, under certain conditions, a forceful response is possible. “If a constructive response [to Moscow's demands] is not followed within a reasonable time <…>, then Russia will be forced to take all necessary measures to ensure a strategic balance and eliminate unacceptable threats to our security,” — Lavrov said late last year.
- Moscow has also hinted and continues to hint that it can change the status quo in another way. At the end of January, First Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council Andrei Turchak said that Russia should provide support to the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics in the form of the supply of certain types of weapons. On February 15, the State Duma voted to ask Vladimir Putin to recognize the independence of the DNR and LNR.
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