The Mind and the State of Russia’s President

Published in the Hindu on February 1, 2022

In early January, there was a flurry of diplomatic activity beginning with talks in Geneva between United States Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, shifting to Brussels for a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-Russia Council meeting on January 12, with the finale being the 57-member Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meeting in Vienna the following day. The immediate provocation was the presence of 1,00,000 Russian forces, backed by heavy artillery, tanks and armoured personnel carriers on the Russia-Ukraine border generating apprehensions about an imminent invasion. The diplomacy has continued with meetings and phone calls at the highest levels. In the absence of any forward movement, the situation in Ukraine remains tense as analysts try to read President Vladimir Putin’s mind about Russia’s next move.

Russian problems

In 2008, the Bucharest NATO summit declaration offered an open-ended timeframe for membership to Georgia and Ukraine. Russia was quick to pick up the gauntlet. Months later, citing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s actions in South Ossetia as a provocation, Russia intervened taking over the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

As protests mounted in 2013 against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych who was seen as pro-Russia, Russia annexed Crimea, legitimising it with an estimated 94% vote in a referendum in 2014. For the last seven years, the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk have seen a civil war with pro-Russian militias fighting the Ukrainian forces that has claimed over 10000 lives.

However, troubles come in multiples. Even as President Putin tries to dampen the Ukrainian tilt to the West, he has had to shore up Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko whose move to get a sixth term in office sparked widespread protests, creating new uncertainty on Russian borders.

In the South Caucasus, fighting had broken out between Azerbaijan and Russian treaty ally Armenia over the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh. In end-2020, Russia brokered a ceasefire that has proven to be tenuous. Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan has been expanding his regional role and provided vital military support to enable Azerbaijan to gain the upper hand. In Ukraine too, Turkey has sold drones and other military hardware to bolster President Volodymyr Zelensky’s ability to resist Russian advances. All this even as President Erdogan engages with Russia in the Astana process on Syria and is a client for the S-400 missile defence system.

In Central Asia in early January, protests against the fuel price increases in Kazakhstan led to violence, prompting President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to issue shoot-at-sight orders to the security forces. Mr. Tokayev took over in 2019 from Nazarbayev who had ruled for 29 years but public protests forced him to resign. However, he remained influential, as Chair of the National Security Committee, controlling the defence, intelligence and police sectors through his loyalists. He has since quit and his right-hand man, former Prime Minister Karim Massimov was sacked as head of National Security Committee and arrested for treason. Mr. Tokayev also reached out to Mr. Putin and for the first time since it was set up in 2002, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) has sent a Russian led 4000 strong military contingent to restore law and order and protect key government facilities. CSTO was a Russian initiative and includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Notwithstanding the multiple eruptions in its borderlands, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov captured the Kremlin sentiment when he described the former Soviet territories not as “free, sovereign and liberated nation-states” but as “territories that lack ownership.”

Seeking lost glory

In a sense, Presidents Biden and Putin are both seeking to rewrite history. The U.S. would like a return to the 1990s, its unipolar moment when it set into motion the eastward expansion of both NATO and the European Union as the instrument for ensuring European security. It engaged Russia through NATO’s Partnership for Peace that grew into the NATO-Russia Council with over two dozen working groups covering arms control, non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, logistics, peacekeeping, civil emergencies etc.

Mr. Putin thinks differently. He considers the break-up of the USSR the biggest tragedy of the 20th century and has called the eastward expansion of NATO that added 14 new Baltic and Central and East European member states (in stages) an existential threat. At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Mr. Putin raised the issue of security guarantees for Russia for the first time. He has also described the protest movements (colour revolutions) in former Soviet republics as Western attempts at bringing about regime change. He seeks to push back NATO and restore Russian stature and influence to what USSR enjoyed during the bipolar era.

On December 17, Russia had presented two parallel drafts on security guarantees with the U.S. and NATO. These included a prohibition on any further NATO expansion, removal of all U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe and U.S. troops to be restricted to NATO territory prior to the expansion as in 1997. These would also have curtailed U.S. naval vessels from the Black Sea, Barents Sea in the north and the Okhotsk Sea in the east. These demands were dismissed by the U.S. as “non-starters”; in turn, it proposed talks on arms control, missile deployments, constraints on military exercises and confidence-building.

While declaring that “Russia had no intention to invade Ukraine”, Russian Deputy Minister Ryabkov reiterated that “Ukraine must never, never, never join NATO” and warned of “military and technical consequences that could put European security at risk.” Ms. Sherman maintained that “NATO’s open-door policy was non-negotiable” while Washington hinted at crippling economic and trade sanctions if Russia intervened in Ukraine. The talks in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna ended in a stalemate and brinkmanship continues.

Risks of over-reach

On January 14, over 70 Ukrainian government sites were subjected to a cyber-attack with a warning ‘Be Afraid, Prepare For The Worst’; Ukraine has attributed it to Russia. The same day, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki disclosed intelligence that Russia had pre-positioned special forces and operatives to undertake false flag operations in eastern Ukraine, warning Russia against using it as a pretext for intervention. On January 27, Mr. Biden said he expects Mr. Putin to make a move in February.

In the recent past, former U.S. President Donald Trump was calling NATO a drain on the U.S. and French President Emmanuel Macron had called NATO “brain-dead”. While U.S. President Joe Biden has sought to rebuild alliances, the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan left NATO allies doubting long term U.S. commitments. Barely six months ago, France recalled its Ambassador from Washington, protesting against the creation of AUKUS (a trilateral security pact between Australi, the United Kingdom and the U.S.) that led Australia to cancel its multi-billion submarine deal with France. There were fewer and fewer NATO candidates ready to host U.S. nuclear weapons. The 2008 declaration about expanding NATO to include Georgia and Ukraine was seen as a rash promise that NATO was keen to forget. Even Russia’s takeover of Crimea had been overlooked. But Russian actions in Ukraine have revived NATO, giving it a new lease of life by restoring its original purpose.

On China

The U.S. focus on China and the Indo-Pacific was an opening that Russia sought to exploit but Mr. Biden cannot afford to ignore Europe or be accused of appeasing Russia. Mr. Putin is shrewd enough to know that shifting U.S. focus away from China can’t be in Russian interest; it makes Russia more dependent economically on China because Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline remains frozen and sanctions isolate it from European markets. Further, it gives China a free hand to expand its influence in Central Asia. An overtly antagonistic relationship with U.S. and Europe may also limit Russian options in West and South Asia.

Ultimately, a war in Ukraine is something that neither Russia nor the U.S. want. Both need a way out of the escalatory spiral. The recent talks have brought Russian concerns about NATO’s eastward expansion centre-stage. Now Mr. Putin has to decide which is a greater challenge – a liberally oriented Ukraine or confrontation with a rejuvenated NATO together with an unconstrained China. The choice is clear.


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