Russian President Vladimir Putin sharply criticized Western forces on Thursday for the escalating military tensions along the Ukrainian border. During his year-end news conference, Putin stressed that Russia wants to avoid conflict with Ukraine, but that the onus is on the West to provide security guarantees that it will not expand into the disputed territory. Although there are plans for negotiations in January, the recent movement of Russian troops to the Ukrainian border suggests that the danger of full-scale armed conflict remains imminent.
The Russo-Ukrainian conflict in Donbass began in 2014 when Ukrainian protestors deposed a pro-Russia president and Russian armed forces annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Since then, heavily armed Russian-backed separatists have repeatedly exchanged fire with the Ukrainian government forces. The conflict in Donbass alone has killed over 13,000 soldiers and civilians on both sides. With each country accusing the other of plans to retake the disputed territory by force, the threat of escalation remains great.
The risk of conflict is growing as Russia continues to send tens of thousands of troops to the Ukrainian border. United States intelligence agencies estimate that some 90,000 troops have already been deployed and suggest that this number could climb to 175,000. Although Russia continues to deny plans of a new attack, the troop movements have Western allies concerned. Thursday’s news conference did little to assuage those fears, as Putin laid out a century-long historical justification for the use of force when asked about the prospect of war this winter.
President Putin’s most poignant remarks, however, were directed at the U.S. and NATO. “They cheated. They brazenly tricked us!” Putin said of NATO, who has carried out five successive expansions into Eastern Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union. He went on, “it is the United States that has come to us with their missiles, they are already on our doorstep.” On the matter of providing assurances to the West that Russia will not invade Ukraine, Putin said that it is the West who ought to give guarantees. Last week, Moscow demanded a written pledge from NATO not to expand further east and to close its doors to new members, including Ukraine. “The ball is in their court,” he said.
So far, the greatest hope for de-escalation has come from the Biden administration, which has agreed broadly to negotiations with Russia. President Putin called this a positive sign and said he was hopeful about the prospect of negotiations, which are likely to take place early next year in Geneva. Still, he added that Russia expects quick responses to its demands. According to a report by NBC News, however, it is unlikely the U.S. will give Putin the guarantees he wants.
There is hope that security guarantees will not be the only way forward during January’s negotiations. Analysts have suggested that Putin may be looking for concessions on a range of issues beyond security, the New York Times reports. This makes the course of negotiations somewhat difficult to predict, despite Putin’s strong rhetoric. What is clear, though, is that a response from the West cannot wait.
The Biden administration should take immediate steps to advance an agenda for negotiations in January. It is imperative that Washington work closely with Moscow during this process to forestall a military escalation before the end of the year. It should also ensure that the talking points include a range of both security and non-security related matters fuelling Russia’s fears so as to leave open the possibility for non-violent alternatives. Additionally, the U.S. should shift its rhetoric away from threats of economic sanctions towards an eagerness to hear Russia’s concerns. For the moment, the primary objective must be avoiding the mobilization of Russian troops across the Ukrainian border.
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