Is a Russo-US De-Escalation Feasible?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 184

The stakes were high when Presidents Joseph Biden of the United States and Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation held a two-hour, bilateral video-conference on December 7 (see EDM, December 8). Prior to the virtual summit, pro-Kremlin commentaries in Moscow warned of Russia and the West (i.e., the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—NATO) descending into deeper crisis, reacting to perceived threats and military actions by the other side with actions of their own, and heading in the direction of a possible regional war that could uncontrollably escalate into an all-European conflict—somewhat similar to the situation in 1914 that led to the outbreak of World War I (Izvestia, November 24). US officials and the intelligence community accused Moscow of massing forces on the Ukrainian border, apparently preparing for a possible invasion at the end of January or early February 2022 (see EDM, December 2). Moscow has adamantly denounced such reports as fake news and, in turn, accused the Ukrainian military of “provocations” in Donbas, and insisted the West is supplying Ukraine with weapons and sending troops to the country under the guise of “instructors.” According to the Kremlin-connected Komsomolskaya Pravda daily, “NATO is already at our doorstep in Ukraine. […] Apparently there are up to 4,000 US military personnel and some 8,300 military personnel from other NATO nations deployed today in Ukraine” (Komsomolskaya Pravda, December 3). The outlet did not provide much evidence for these claims; it only listed a number of Western training missions in Ukraine that did not seem to add up to anything close to the inflated number of 12,300 NATO soldiers supposedly deployed against Russia on Ukrainian soil.

Of course, the pro-Kremlin press in Moscow is simply following the Kremlin PR line. Russian presidential spokesperson and deputy chief of administration Dmitry Peskov implied, “Russia does not threaten anyone. We are just taking measures against a [NATO] threat that is creeping up to our borders. We see NATO is beginning to take over Ukraine. For Russia, this is a “red line.” Peskov added, “In any case, Russia is doing what it does [moving troops and weapons] on its own territory. Our soldiers are not deploying at the US border—it is American soldiers who are coming here” (TASS, December 8). In the run up to this week’s video summit with Biden, Putin issued what sounded like an ultimatum: The West (the US) must respect legitimate Russian security and national interests and the “red lines” the Kremlin has drawn on the map, or else Moscow may take “appropriate steps,” which may include some sort of military action (see EDM, December 2).

On their video call, Putin’s position seemed straightforward, while Biden had a difficult conundrum to solve when it came to the US messaging. Washington could in no way act like former British prime minister Nevil Chamberlain, in Munich, in 1938, by giving Putin what he wants (a legal pledge to never ever again enlarge NATO or allow Russia a free hand in carving up Ukraine) in the hopes Moscow would not later ask for more. The US is not treaty-bound to defend Ukraine, and Biden apparently told Putin there are no plans to send in US troops even if Russia invades (, December 9). Washington signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on security assurances of territorial integrity and political independence of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan in exchange for the said countries’ full nuclear disarmament. Ukrainian scholars believe the Memorandum is a binding treaty; but Washington decided it was not legally obliged to use military means to defend Ukraine when the latter was attacked by Russia in 2014. Still the US is required to defend Poland, Romania and the Baltic Republics as fellow NATO member states. If Ukraine falls to Russia, these countries will become frontline states. Chamberlain refused to defend Czechoslovakia “because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”; but the United Kingdom’s defense treaty with Poland forced it (and France) to reluctantly declare war on Germany in September 1939.

At the virtual summit with Putin, Biden tried to walk a tightrope by promising to put together with NATO allies a mechanism to discuss Russian security concerns and “red lines” while not pledging a speedy decision or anything more concrete. An early cold winter has arrived in Russia and Ukraine. The press center of the Southern Military District (Uzny Voyenny Okrug—UVO) reports, “Over 10,000 soldiers in tactical battalion group (TBG) formations have been moved from barracks into winter field camps in 30 training locations” (, December 1). The UVO troops face Ukraine in Crimea and Donbas. The TBGs are apparently being directly prepped to fight a winter maneuver campaign. But the window of opportunity for such an endeavor will be relatively short. In March, the snow usually begins to melt, the rivers and creeks in eastern and southern Ukraine overflow, and offensive armored maneuverable warfare must stop until the flooding subsides. If Washington keeps Putin interested and engaged long enough in the talks over security concerns, as agreed at the December 7 video-conference, a major escalatory winter campaign on the Russo-Ukrainian front could perhaps be successfully avoided.

But will solely playing for time be enough to forestall a larger shooting war? Putin has accused the West (the US) of previously ignoring Russian security concerns: “if they simply begin to listen, it would be a good start.” But Moscow may soon figure out that Biden is in no position to give in and agree to any substantial concessions on security guarantees Putin seems to be demanding. In any case, the US Senate will almost certainly never ratify any legally binding accord giving Moscow veto power over NATO enlargement or possible future military deployments (, December 9). After winter comes summertime. By May 2022, the conditions for a summer campaign on the Ukrainian front will again be conducive. Will a more permanent de-escalatory agreement be in place by then, or will the West still be attempting to bide for time?