When I was a boy I used to play chicken with my brothers on the beach. In this version you had your little brother on your back and ran at your friend, who also had his brother on his back. The goal was to knock the friend's brother off the back and into the sand.
Russia and Ukraine/Nato are locked in a similar game, which has already had two rounds and is now threatening to go into a third. For the sake of the analogy, knocking the brother to the sand is to force a deal on your adversary. The danger is that the first round was played with diplomatic pillows; the second with sticks and stones; and the third round, which may start soon after tension skyrocketed in recent days, could be played with guns.
There are two clear camps on the whole showdown. The advocates of the first claim that President Vladimir Putin is afraid of Ukraine’s democracy and wants to destroy it, invade it or at least return it to Russia’s “sphere of influence.” The second group believes that this is all about Nato: that Putin is genuinely concerned about Ukraine eventually joining Nato and Nato placing offensive missiles on Ukraine’s border with Russia that have less than 5-minute flight times and could hit 80% of Russia’s population.
As I have written elsewhere, I am in the second camp simply because this is exactly what Putin says is the problem and he has said it over and over again for more than a decade. (In support of the other camp Putin mentioned to George W Bush once that he didn't think that Ukraine was “a real country,” and that 5,000-word essay he wrote, but not much else.) But for the sake of this argument let us assume that it is all about Nato.
This is not the first time that Putin has asked for pan-European security talks. In 2008 he turned up in Brussels with the newly inaugurated Dmitry Medvedev on his back offering to play chicken and a framework security deal in his hand. He was ignored. Europe didn't want to play and Medvedev left again with nothing to show for the effort.
This time round Putin has forced the issue onto the table by building up his troops on the border. That made the West sit up and take notice. A series of meetings started in January where the two sides laid out their positions, but no progress was made.
I say this round was played with pillows, as we have argued from the start the build-up was simply a way of getting the West to mount up and take to the sand. There was never any intention of going to war in the first round, as it is simply too expensive politically, economically and in terms of human lives. A deal that would have improved everyone’s security was possible at little cost. It would not even have reduced Ukraine’s security as it is already de facto excluded from Nato, as even Nato openly admits that it has no intention of offering Ukraine membership any time soon.
And Putin scored a victory in this round, as the talks he has been asking for, for so long, started in January. That round came to an end after the US delivered its letter at the end of January with a flat “no” to Russia’s demand to ban Ukraine from joining for life.
That closed out the first round but neither brother was unseated, and no one was hurt either.
Sticks and Stones
The second round started in February with a meeting between French President Emmanuel Macron and Putin where the centre of focus changed from getting a guarantee that Ukraine would never join Nato to implementing the Minsk II protocols that have the practical consequence of making the Donbas region fully autonomous and de facto hand Russia a veto over a Ukrainian bid to join Nato.
But in this round there has been a lot of shouting too and tensions surged after US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan gave a briefing on February 12 warning that an invasion could come “any day.”
According to reports both Macron and then the new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz both told Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during visits to Kyiv to accept the Russian version of the Minsk II agreements. The Ukrainian version is a softer de-centralisation of Donbas that leaves Kyiv in charge of its foreign policy.
However, this round also seems to have ended with no one in the sand. Zelenskiy reportedly refused to consider implementing Minsk II on Russia’s terms and has since come out lambasting the protocols as “vapid.” Moscow has long said that Kyiv has no interest in implementing the deal and Zelenskiy has earlier rejected them, calling for them to be renegotiated to improve them on Ukraine’s terms – a demand Moscow has rejected out of hand.
The next day the fighting in the Donbas flared up with the shelling of two kindergartens. That was followed by a string of increasingly alarming events, including the self-appointed heads of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics announcing an evacuation of the cities, the mobilising of reservists and releases of local intelligence showing Ukrainian troops massing on the border ready for an invasion – moves that analysts say mirror similar moves by the US, including the release of attack-plan maps.
All of this was clearly stage-managed by the Kremlin. It has since been revealed that the evacuation order videos and the footage of orphans being put on busses were taped two days before the shelling of the kindergartens happened, which was the reason for the evacuation orders.
Why now? A few days later the world’s top diplomats gathered at the Munich Security Conference. With war looking like it could be days away, once again Putin has forced his agenda onto the international roster – this time in Munich. The move was particularly ironic, as it was in Munich that Putin gave his famous speech complaining about Nato expansion and warning that Russia would push back if it did not stop.
Russia’s tactics in this game of chicken are transparent. In each round it introduces an idea and then uses military escalation to try to force the West into making concessions and accepting its specific demand.
The first round was played with pillows, as it was designed to introduce the demand for a new security deal. The “no Nato” option was never going to fly and could well have been introduced by the Kremlin as a hard position that gives Russia the option of conceding ground in the subsequent rounds.
But in each round Putin is ratcheting up the tension and that means ratcheting up the threat of war. At the same time Washington has been playing a similar game, as its response also has been to keep warning of an imminent invasion alive, despite the fact that each of the deadlines it sets pass with nothing happening.
The flare-up in Donbas was specifically aimed at Zelenskiy as much as at Europe’s leaders. The Kremlin has threatened to scale up the war in the East that has already killed 14,000 Ukrainian servicemen. The law passed last week by the Duma recognising the autonomy of the two breakaway people’s republics there also threatens to allow the regions’ secession from Ukraine in way similar to Crimea’s departure. This is a card the Kremlin is clearly threatening to play if Zelenskiy does not concede the need to implement the Minsk II deal.
The current round has still not played out. As the Kremlin’s goal is to produce a negotiated security deal, as long as the negotiations are still ongoing it will not start a new round of chicken with guns. The Munich Summit was an opportunity to push the Kremlin’s agenda on western leaders. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov (who skipped Munich this year for the first time in years) is also due to meet again with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken next week, so there is a little more road to travel.
But there is an end to that road. And the sudden flare-up in Donbas in the last few days suggests the Kremlin is not prepared to walk very far down any of these roads. If Putin deems the effort to force Minsk II through dead, then we could have a third round of chicken. The third round could be played with guns. One possible scenario is that Putin starts a small war so that the security deal he is after is included in the peace settlement.
Will the third round start soon? It’s impossible to say, but there are plenty of “technical” things that the Kremlin can do in the meantime to keep the pressure on the West. However, while the focus is on getting Minsk II through then the action is likely to contained in Donbas and that could easily include fighting as a way of maximising that pressure.
For example, Ukraine’s intelligence services report that Russia’s secret services have been mining buildings in Donetsk so they can blow them up and use that as a casus belli.
And that is not unlikely at all, as for both the West and the Kremlin the simplest solution to this standoff is to put the Minsk II deal in place.