A few days ago, the eagerly awaited talks on the security guarantees demanded by Russia took place. In the heated atmosphere, the protagonists dampened expectations before the talks. For the Western part, the time pressure to hold comprehensive consultations had indeed been high. The climate for talks was apparently not as bad as occasionally portrayed, even if one apparently did not get beyond an exchange of opinions.1 Those who had expected much more were probably not quite realistic.
If Russia cannot get the security guarantees it is seeking, then it will ask itself why it should grant them to Ukraine. The latter, in turn, had complained for years that Russia had violated those guarantees it had given at the OSCE summit in Budapest in 1994.2
In the corresponding draft treaties, there is a mixture of cabbage and turnips: it almost seems as if in mid-December someone in the Russian Foreign Ministry or perhaps also in the presidential administration listed the acute problems and formulated proposals for their solution.3 Although the two draft treaties with NATO and the USA address the same problems over long stretches, the formulations and also the order in which they are mentioned differ. This may be interpreted as an indication that different offices in Moscow were involved in the drafting and that there was not enough time to compare the contents. In many areas there is still considerable need for clarification with regard to implementation, and the problem areas addressed are probably material for various discussion formats and platforms. For example, efforts to avoid dangerous incidents as well as to ensure transparency in large-scale military exercises are typical topics for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe OSCE, which has great experience in these areas.4 On the other hand, arms control issues are probably more the subject of bilateral talks, where the OSCE can provide organisational rather than substantive support.5
Danger in delay
It is disturbing that problems of a non-urgent nature are coupled with those that need to be solved quickly. The danger of air incidents in particular must be eliminated quickly now, before another incident like the one in December, in which a Russian passenger plane was endangered by a US reconnaissance plane over the Black Sea, occurs again.6 Such incidents could recur over the Baltic, where air traffic has become denser as a result of the EU sanctions against Belarus, the Black Sea or the East Mediterranean – with fatal consequences. In this light, it would be desirable if progress could be made quickly. For this to happen, this point must at best be decoupled from the others.
For the time being, the Russian government expressed disappointment at the results of the bilateral talks with the USA in Geneva, the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels and the meeting of the Permanent Council of the OSCE in Vienna.7 How far this is a negotiating tactic can hardly be assessed at present. It is standard practice for negotiating parties to present their maximum demands in pithy words at the beginning of a negotiation process and later to make compromises in those areas where concessions are possible. It is clear, however, that Russia expects a written response to its initiative, which, depending on the situation, could indeed also contain counter-proposals. There would indeed also be room for additions and clarifications.
However, Russia will expect a package solution and will not allow a “choose-and-pick” in which the West takes up the points it likes and ignores others. Such a package would have to be put together according to the principle of “do-ut-des”* and, if necessary, contain proposals with which the West accommodates Russia if it wants to reject or weaken individual points of the Russian draft treaty.
It will also be clear to the Kremlin that NATO cannot, for formal reasons alone, grant Russia the right of co-determination on NATO membership. In this context the parties would have to agree on a solution that takes Russia’s security interests into account and allows NATO to keep up appearances.8 However, Russia has probably already achieved an intermediate goal: the young states “in between” must have realised by now that joining NATO would not increase their security but could, on the contrary, put them on Russia’s target list. This means that after all a possible enlargement of NATO to the East is de facto up for disposal. And Kiev, too, should gradually have realised that no immediate military help can be expected from the West to reconquer the rebel republics in the Donbass and Crimea. After years of torpedoing the Minsk agreements brokered by France and Germany, Kiev cannot expect these countries to agree to NATO membership now or in the future.
Options for action
What options for action remain? The talks at expert level will certainly continue. The permanent threats of the USA with further political and economic sanctions against Russia only show that the Americans have hardly any military options for action.9 Not even arms deliveries to Ukraine are a sensible option, because it would be easy for Russia to respond in kind.10 Apart from more victims and greater damage, not much can be expected from such an approach. Washington and Brussels must also be aware that Russia is no more willing to negotiate “at gunpoint” than the West is in the face of a Russian military threat against Ukraine. It is certainly all the easier for the US government to threaten Russia with economic sanctions if it knows that it is primarily Germany that would have to pay for it.
It would be foolish for Russia to directly increase military pressure on Ukraine, because that would only create a pretext for Western intervention. NATO troops in Ukraine, that is the scenario the Kremlin wants to prevent. With the Russian troops currently standing between Smolensk and Rostov-on-Don, an invasion of Ukraine will hardly be possible, even if Western think tanks never tire of claiming just that.11 Russia can, however, refuse to revise the Minsk agreements, which the Ukrainian government wants so much. That would be enough of a signal. In the diplomatic sphere, Russia can escalate further up to diplomatic recognition of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. This would close the door to talks with Ukraine for decades. This is probably only an option in an extreme emergency.
Considering its economic inferiority to the West, it would be clumsy of Russia to allow itself to be drawn into a new arms race. The pattern of the late 1980s is unlikely to be repeated.
In the military field, Moscow can act precisely in those areas that appear in the draft treaties for security guarantees, for example, with the stationing of short and medium range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. Other possibilities include the implementation of patrols or patrol flights of ships and long-range bombers with strategic weapons. This area also includes tests with strategic weapons of all kinds. Another variant is the conduct of military exercises close to the borders of NATO allies, with a number of exercise participants just below the reporting threshold of the Vienna Document.12 In principle, Russia has more freedom of action outside Europe, for example in Syria, Iraq or in Africa and Latin America in general. Russia enjoys particularly much freedom vis-à-vis all non-state allies of the West.
Despite the pithy words currently being uttered by Russian officials, Moscow will carefully examine its options, avoid unnecessary time pressure and proceed in a considered manner. In the past, the Russians sometimes appeared to be a little coarse-minded, but 2014 at the latest showed that they can also proceed in a very fine-tuned manner if necessary. •
1 The former OSCE Secretary General and current Director of the Geneva Centre for Security-Policy, Thomas Greminger, contradicted the prevailing pessimistic assessments in an interview with Swiss Radio SRF: https://www.srf.ch/news/international/usa-ukraine-russland-mit-der-pistole-auf-der-brust-laesst-sich-nicht-verhandeln.(usa-ukraine-russia-with-a-gun-on-its-breast-cannot-be-negotiated.)
2 See on the Budapest summit https://www.osce.org/event/summit_1994
3 See the draft treaties on the homepage of the Russian Foreign Ministry in English at https://mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/rso/nato/1790803/?lang=en&clear_cache=Y and at https://mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/rso/nato/1790818/?lang=en.
4 The Vienna Documentfor Security and Confidence Building Measures is available online at https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/b/e/86599.pdf.
5 Thus, the INF Treaty on intermediate-range nuclear missiles was a bilateral treaty between the USA and the Soviet Union.
6 On the incident before Sochi, see https://twitter.com/attilaXT/status/1467150527368728580
7 See interview with Russia's Permanent Representative to the OSCE; Ambassador Alexander K. Lukashevich, online at https://ria.ru/20220113/obse-1767713301.html.
8 See an article by Samuel Charap of the Rand Corporation proposing a compromise solution regarding Ukraine's NATO membership: https://on.ft.com/3qpc5Cp
9 In particular, with the refusal to commission the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, see https://sputniknews.com/20220117/berlin-warns-of-appropriate-measures-against-nord-stream-2-in-event-of-escalation-over-ukraine-1092318122.html
10 It should be recalled that the border between Russia and the rebel areas of the LNR and DNR in eastern Ukraine is not clearly marked over long distances and is not under Ukrainian control. There is an OSCE observer mission at two border crossings: https://www.osce.org/observer-mission-at-russian-checkpoints-gukovo-and-donetsk-discontinued.
11 The latest elaborate in this series comes from Seth G. Jones and Philip G. Wasielewski of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, see https://www.csis.org/analysis/russias-possible-invasion-ukraine. This is not least to lobby for the US arms industry: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/08/us/politics/think-tanks-research-and-corporate-lobbying.html.
12 The Vienna Document for Confidence- and Security-Building Measures determines upper limits for troops and weapon systems above which military exercises must be announced to OSCE participating States and above which they can be inspected.
* “I give, so that you may give”, ancient Roman legal formula for mutual contracts or exchanges (Editor’s note)
Ralph Bosshard studied General History, Eastern European History and Military History, completed the Military Command School of the ETH Zurich and the General Staff Training of the Swiss Army. This was followed by language training in Russian at the Moscow State University and training at the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Russian Army. He is familiar with the situation in Eastern Europe from his six years at the OSCE, where he was, among other things, Special Advisor to the Swiss Permanent Representative.
rb. Despite reports about rail traffic in Belarus being obstructed by a hacker group, the deployment of troops for the “Allied Resolve” exercise in Belarus continues:
Yel’sk is the last major railway station in the south of Gomel Oblast and seems to be a railway station that is important for cargo handling.2
The size of the city and the train station do not really fit together, the number of daily passenger trains is modest.3
This means Yel’sk is most likely to be used as a supply station for a battalion combat group stationed near the border (Russian Batalionno-tacticheskaya Gruppa, Батальонно-тактическая Группа BTG).
The Republic of Belarus has long criticised the stationing of a US armoured cavalry regiment in Pabradė near Vilnius in Lithuania, 8 km from the Belarusian border. Lithuania is a NATO ally who might not have wanted a comparable formation on the border. But there is less restraint towards the would-be ally Ukraine. Perhaps Russia and Belarus are trying to create bargaining chips by putting a BTG on the Ukrainian border. In a personal conversation with me last week, the Belarusian ambassador criticised that Ukraine had moved volunteer battalions to the border with Belarus. The louder the Ukrainians now protest about the BTG, the higher the price for their withdrawal will be. Even after the Allied Resolve exercise, the Belarusian army can station troops from Babruysk or Minsk in Yel’sk on a rotational basis.
Situation in the Donbas
All this indicates that the statements made by the spokesman for the armed forces of “DNR” Eduard Basurin that the Ukrainian army was bringing in troops are not entirely unfounded. However, it remains unclear, whether it is a question of reinforcements or replacements.
Conclusion: There is still no discernible connection with the tensions on the Ukrainian border and the Donbas. But the situation is becoming increasingly volatile.
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