A possible Moscow game plan begins to emerge from the fog of almost war

A possible Moscow game plan begins to emerge from the fog of almost war
Accidents can happen. A Belgian F16 escorts a Russian strategic bomber. / Belgian Air Force
By Gav Don December 17, 2021

One month into the Ukraine “crisis” evidence has at last appeared of what might be Moscow’s ultimate objective.

We insist…

On 10 December, 2021 the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement which contains unusually unambiguous language, for a diplomatic statement at least. After some preambles Moscow said this: “…we insist that serious long-term legal guarantees are provided, which would exclude Nato’s further advancement to the east and deployment of weapons on Russia’s western borders which are a threat to Russia. This must be done within a specific timeframe…”. The statement went on to add some detail to the list of items being insisted upon.


…because Nato has consistently broken its word

With this statement, and its unequivocal demand, Moscow has tabled a simple price for a visible de-escalation of its military stance. To long-term Russia-watchers the price is not much of a surprise, for it is a plain-language restatement of the agreements made several times, and then broken, by Nato members since the re-unification of Germany in 1989. The first of these was the undertaking by Secretary of State Baker to President Gorbachev not to expand Nato “…one inch eastward…” in February 1990 (which followed an earlier meeting with the same agreement between Gorbachev and Chancellor Kohl). The undertaking was implicitly endorsed shortly afterwards by President George H Bush and by Prime Minister Thatcher, and repeated in Moscow by Secretary Baker in November 1990.

That undertaking lasted only nine years, with the accession of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 1999. In 2004 the Baltic states, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Slovenia acceded. This brought two new Nato members to the Black Sea to join Turkey, and brought Nato to within 150 km of St Petersburg.

From a Western perspective these accessions are benign – states which had spent nearly two generations as vassals occupied and governed by two murderous and totalitarian regimes chose to ally together in a defensive structure to prevent that kind of occupation from ever happening again. So far, so harmless, and (the undertakings apart) also so legal.


What would Biden think?

But full understanding of the genesis of today’s Ukraine crisis requires an observer to carry out a thought experiment. Imagine yourself sitting at your desk in the White House, or in Congress. News comes in that Mexico and Canada have joined a defensive alliance against the United States, say with China. A handful of Chinese mechanised and armoured brigades are currently deploying to Tijuana, Monterrey and Montreal, where they are building bases and airfields. Front-line attack and air superiority aircraft are now regularly flying patrols along both your northern and southern borders, and large guided missile destroyers are carrying out Freedom of Navigation Operations in the Gulf of Mexico and only 20 km from your naval base at San Diego.

You check your map, and remember that Tijuana to San Diego is less than 20 km by road, with Los Angeles only another 100 km north of that. You note that LA is one of your main ports. You also notice that Monterrey is only 2,500 km from Washington, and therefore within range of intermediate range ballistic missiles and long-range cruise missiles. These don’t have to be nuclear-tipped – conventional weapons can do serious damage.

How do you now feel? One answer is that you may feel the same way that President Putin feels when he looks at Nato deployments in the eastern states of Nato. Uncomfortable at least, more likely seriously alarmed. The relative locations and distances almost exactly match those from Nato forces and deployments to core Russian assets and targets.

To finish my thought experiment, Ukraine plays the role of the state of Texas (which has only been a state for six generations, less time than Ukraine has been a part of mother Russia). Picture your alarm at the prospect of Texas joining the “Mexico-Canada-China” alliance to experience how President Putin feels at the prospect of Ukraine as a member of Nato.


The 2008 Accession plan is the detonator

Returning to Ukraine, the direction taken by Nato so alarmed Moscow that in 2007 President Putin bluntly reminded the Munich Conference on Security Policy of Nato leaders’ 1990 undertakings: “…and what happened to the assurances our Western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today? No one even remembers them”. The reminder had no effect on Nato policy. Indeed, it had a reverse effect – at its 2008 Nato summit Albania and Croatia were accepted as Accession States, and Ukraine and Georgia were accepted onto Nato’s Membership Action Plan, with the words “We agreed today that these countries will become members of Nato”.

Georgia’s aspirations were quietly ended by its own steps to secure its disputed northern border areas by force. The attempt was rapidly rebutted by Russia, which demonstrated along the way that Georgia was both a strategic liability to Nato and too far away for collective security to have any practical meaning. No-one talks about Georgian membership of Nato these days.


But why now?

In respect of Ukraine, Moscow’s first counter-move was to promote and support a pro-Russian candidate for Ukraine’s Presidency, in the person of Viktor Yanukovitch. Elected in 2010, President Yanukovitch declared quickly for non-membership of Nato, and managed to pass that policy into law in June 2010. A few months later President Yanukovitch extended Russia’s lease of Sevastopol to 2047 (it had been due to expire in 2017).

Thus far, Moscow’s plan to frustrate the 2008 Nato membership action plan was successful. Georgia’s aspirations had been forgotten, while Ukraine was under a leadership which rejected accession. The plan fell apart at the start of 2014 with the Maidan Revolution (or coup, if you prefer), with Mr Yanukovitch being plucked to safety in Moscow by a Russian Spetsnaz team. Moscow needed a Plan B.

Plan B came in three parts. Part 1 was the Russian-backed insurrection in the Donbas, which started within days of Mr Yanukovitch’s departure. Part 2 was the annexation of Crimea, two weeks after that. Part 3 was naturally the consequent reluctance of Nato’s council to carry on with its Accession procedure with a state which was in all practical respects in a state of undeclared war with its large neighbour.

So the situation rested for seven years, until the summer of 2021. What, though, triggered the up-step in tension that we are now seeing? The simple answer is that too little information has come to light to give a fully accurate answer, but now, a month into the crisis, we are beginning to see the blurry outlines of a likely cause.


Kyiv’s Plan Ossetia

That outline appears in the second paragraph of the Russian Foreign Office statement, which says “…the West is using the situation in Ukraine [to encourage] Russophobia and … undermine the Minsk agreements and prepare for a military scenario in Donbass.”

The last phrase is clearly code for Kyiv preparing to settle the Donbas insurrection by force. We don’t have much, or any, corroborating evidence for that assertion, but the question here is not whether Kyiv was preparing an attack, but whether Moscow believed that it was. It is this belief that triggered Moscow’s stationing of the 1st Guards Tank Army 400 km by rail north of Ukraine, and other forces to its east.

We do, though, have corroborating evidence that Kyiv has taken none of the steps required of it by the Minsk Agreements towards giving Donbas federal autonomous and language rights. We also have corroborating evidence that Ukrainian forces in Donbas have been equipped with their small stock of Javelin missiles, and that Nato ships and aircraft have substantially increased the tempo and forward stance of their visits to the Black Sea, patrolling right up to the edge of Russia’s territorial waters and airspace. Taking these together it’s possible to see why Moscow might think an attack was in plan, even excluding whatever more detailed intelligence it must have from the region.

If this analysis is correct then Moscow’s assembly and positioning of formed ground forces can be seen as a clear pre-emptive counter move – “if you attack the Donbas, we will oppose you, probably using the ‘genocide prevention’ permission contained in International Law”.


Harder to get out than to get in

However, Moscow may have found itself in a strategic blind alley. It is all very well assembling and positioning substantial forces away from their peacetime bases, but what does one do next? If Moscow’s position is in fact the one it has repeated many times – compliance with International Law – a pre-emptive attack becomes out of the question. That leaves large forces in a state of apprehension with no end-game. If Moscow were to disperse its forces and return them to barracks that would look like a climb-down, with painful loss of face and credibility. In any case, once the forces dispersed Ukraine could carry on with its Donbas plan in the hope that rapid execution would present Moscow with a fait-accompli.

On the other hand, keeping its forces assembled and poised feeds constant pressure into the relationship between Moscow and Nato members, with the risk that containment breaks down, that someone does something stupid (like firing at an aircraft edging accidentally over a border) and that a hot war starts by accident. Poise also has a cost – the men of Russia’s poised forces have homes and families to go to elsewhere in Russia. The longer they are required to stand ready away from home bases the lower will their morale fall, and the less will they support their leadership. Even Russian soldiers are human.

Finally, as I argued here, Russia’s strategic posture is actually serving to drive Nato’s members closer together.

What that means is that Moscow probably began to look for a way out of the standoff a week or two ago. And that is where we return to the Foreign Office statement.


A new European Security Conference

At first sight the statement is forthright – “we insist…” is not a diplomatic phrase. However, it is neatly drafted to exclude two qualifying parts of a normal ultimatum, namely a timetable, and an “or else…”. In respect of timetable, Moscow states that it is about to table a draft agreement for discussion in an open-ended way, to a specific (but not specified) timetable. That timetable is unlikely ever to become specified. Nato, Nato members and Washington could enter talks knowing that they could be allowed to drag on for many years with no pre-commitments given by either side and no timetable ever specified.

To be sure the West would enter the talks with a clear view of Russia’s desired end-points (including a treaty excluding Ukraine from Nato) but with no commitment to deliver that end-point. Moscow would be able to present the talks at home as “Nato has agreed to our insisting, and all we have to is work out the details”, while Washington would be able to present them as “We are reasonable people who seek peace, so we would rather talk than fight; we will hear Russia’s concerns but we will not concede a treaty, whatever they insist”.

It must be tempting for Nato and Washington to agree to talks. Each day of tension contains its own risk of an accidental escalation. In addition, the crisis has forced Nato members to think hard about what additional sanctions they could possibly bring to bear on Russia if the need arose. It is clear that these boil down to three items – removal of Russia from SWIFT and possibly the Visa/Master Card system, embargo of Russian gas exports to Europe, and embargo of Russian oil exports to Europe and the US.


Because sanctions are a circular firing squad

What looked like powerful ideas at the start of the crisis contain fatal flaws. Western politicians have been briefed that Russia has quietly created its own SWIFT/VISA/Master Card replacement systems, and that where these backups are inadequate, older approaches to payment clearance can still be used.

In the gas market, the European Commission will no doubt have pointed out to Washington that Russia is currently providing some 40% of Europe’s gas supply, that the European Commission’s green energy policy has created a structural energy crisis across Europe, that world LNG prices are painfully high, that European gas stocks are painfully low, and that an embargo on Russian gas would be a severe economic own-goal for Europe, even a winter disaster.

As regards oil, the Commission and European Nato members will also be pointing out that the majority of all Europe’s oil consumption is fed by Russian oil exports, and that even the US is now importing Russian crude. Furthermore, if Russian oil were embargoed, when EU and US consumers began to seek non-Russian supplies, at a premium price and displacing less rich buyers, Russian production would simply flow to those buyers displaced by that search. The global oil market forms a single global equilibrium, and Russia’s oil would be bought by someone if not by the US and EU. The net result would be short-term disruption and price increases, higher profits for Moscow (and Norway, of course) but as the flows within the equilibrium balanced out Russia would sell exactly the same number of barrels, just to different people. We can quantify the financial penalty for European consumers quite easily. With Russian sales to Europe running at around 7mn bpd, a $30 disruption premium for a year would cost Europe’s voters $7.5bn. Ouch.

Gas sanctions contain a political poison pill as well as an economic one. Given Europe’s reliance on Russian gas, gas sanctions would drive a large wedge between the interests of Europe and those of the US, with Europe buying Russian gas against Washington’s will. US gas exporters would love to displace Russia from European markets, adding another dynamic to an already fractious argument.

Sanctions – damaging Nato, the US and Europe simultaneously – would deliver an unexpected bonus prize for Moscow, whose strategy has long been aimed at weakening and dividing Nato. Indeed, one has to ask whether that goal was a core objective of Moscow’s game-plan from the outset, unless the question endows Mr Lavrov with too much foresight.

So, talks about European Security without a timetable or an “or else” might be as much a face-saver for Nato member states as for Russia. If Moscow fails to get a Ukraine-Nato treaty it can withdraw a few years from now with dignity intact. Meanwhile, an agreement to talk buys time for Moscow to apply both carrot and stick to Ukraine’s swithering middle to persuade them to federate with Russia. The stick is ready (Nord Stream 2), as are the carrots (gas, oil money and trade). Moscow just needs time for them to do their work. The West has no real objective other than to de-escalate the situation and to prevent Ukraine from taking rash action in the Donbas. A European Security Process would be a neat solution for both antagonists.


We need to talk about Kyiv

Ukraine’s interests would get little attention in a European Security Conference. With a clear message that an attack on Donbas is certain to provoke a high-intensity response from Moscow, and that the only help it could expect from Nato would be a few plane-loads of Javelins and some knackered cast-off weapon systems, Kyiv would be out of options. Even Nato’s help is now in question – two weeks ago Germany embargoed the supply of some low-intensity weapons by Nato to Ukraine, and I have seen an uncorroborated report of a US sale also being cancelled. Sales by Nato are separate from sales by individual members.

Kyiv’s Nato and EU aspirations would remain theoretically alive, but perpetually deferred. The European Security Conference agenda would naturally include an expectation that Kyiv would implement the Minsk Agreements (which form part of its International Law obligations), and that might even happen, something that President Zelenskiy has been avidly trying to stop, in spite of the binding nature of Ukraine’s commitment. The net result appears to me to be the same as I predicted three weeks ago, and again earlier this year: no war and an ultimate federation of Ukraine with Russia.