In the past several weeks, relations between Moscow and Washington nosedived, with multiple overlapping potential crises and increasingly toxic rhetoric aggravating an already dangerous situation. The Ukrainian crisis has been simmering to one degree or another since Russia took over Crimea in 2014 and sponsored a pro-Russian separatist uprising in Donbas; but recently, it has again taken center stage. United States officials accuse Russia of massing troops on the Ukrainian border and possibly preparing a major escalation or invasion for late January or February 2022—a charge Moscow has adamantly rejected. Still, Russian authorities and pro-Kremlin commentators in Moscow agree a major escalation of hostilities in the region is possible, but they accuse Ukraine and the West of foul play. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking during a session of Russia’s Federation Council (upper house of parliament), denounced “Kyiv” for allegedly brazenly and aggressively threatening Russia. According to Lavrov, Ukraine is positioning troops and heavy weapons on the Russian border and in Donbas. The Russian foreign ministry contends that Ukraine has concentrated some 125,000 troops or over half of its army in Donbas and is preparing to attack (Izvestia, December 1). Russia may be forced to use its military in self-defense, Lavrov warns.
Moscow has simultaneously rebuked the US and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies for supposedly supplying the Ukrainians with weapons, of advancing military infrastructure in the country, building bases there, and sending military instructors and advisors. By advancing into Ukraine, the West (the US) is crossing a “red line” and disregarding legitimate Russian national security concerns. President Vladimir Putin declared that if the West deploys missiles to Ukraine that could reach Moscow “in five to ten minutes,” Russia is ready to counter by deploying a “new naval hypersonic missile, which may reach [Western] decision-makers in 5 minutes, flying at Mach 9 speed” (Militarynews.ru, November 30).
Apparently, Putin was referring to the much-hyped Tsirkon anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile, which was test-fired from a Russian frigate and an attack submarine in 2021 in the Barents Sea. The Tsirkon can be nuclear-tipped and may be used against important land targets. It seems Putin is obliquely threatening to send Russian surface warships or attack submarines to the Atlantic, several hundred miles from Washington, to obliterate the city in a sudden nuclear “decapitation” attack and eliminate the US “decision-makers” before they manage to take cover or flee. The Russian military/political leadership has for some time been implying that the country is purportedly way ahead in the hypersonic/nuclear arms race. Russia has been building up this capability for almost two decades while Washington was not paying attention (Vesti, October 10; Militarynews.ru, September 15).
Putin has been promoting Russia’s newly minted nuclear superweapons and military/technological might particularly since 2018, in an effort to force the West to pay attention, acknowledge Russian superiority and agree to make serious concessions. Russia’s “new” superweapons had, in fact, all been developed during the Cold War but heretofore were never deployed for differing reasons. It is not entirely clear how effective they will be in practice—or if, for instance, Tsirkon-armed Russian naval vessels would actually be capable of annihilating the White House and Pentagon “in five minutes.” Nonetheless, Putin seemingly believes it is time to capitalize on Russia’s declared military superiority. Speaking at the Kremlin on December 1, during a ceremonial reception of foreign ambassadors presenting their official diplomatic credentials, the Russian president announced, “In dialogue with the US and its allies, we will insist on legally binding agreements forbidding the further expansion of NATO and the deployment of threatening weapons anywhere close to Russian territory.” Such guarantees forbidding further NATO expansion must be “legally binding because Western leaders refuse to uphold informal agreements.” According to Putin, negotiations with the West must begin without delay (Kommersant, December 2).
On December 2, Lavrov met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in Stockholm. The two discussed Ukraine and other issues in preparation for a rumored virtual summit between Putin and President Joseph Biden. The ministers did not hold any joint presser. Both the State Department and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued separate statements. The US pledged to continue to seek a diplomatic solution to the Donbas crisis and called on Russia to do the same, to deescalate the tension, warning of serious consequences if Russian troops attack. Lavrov was much more specific. Moscow used the Stockholm meeting to de facto deliver an ultimatum by repeating Putin’s previous day’s statement. As per the foreign ministry communique, “Ignoring Russian legitimate concerns and pulling Ukraine into US geopolitical games while NATO forces are deploying at our borders will have the gravest consequences and will force [us] to take countermeasures to rectify the military/strategic balance.” Lavrov offered an alternative: a long-term agreement to guarantee the security of Russia’s western borders. “Such an agreement must be seen as an imperative demand,” states the communique. Moscow also demands that Kyiv fully implement the Minsk ceasefire accords and negotiate “directly and in good faith” with the Donbas breakaway authorities (Militarynews.ru, December 2).
Russia’s demand that the West “guarantee no more NATO expansion” apparently implicates not only Ukraine but also Georgia and potentially Moldova, Belarus, Finland and Sweden—or any other European country that today is not a NATO member but might qualify or decide to become one in the future. Of course, the West and the NATO secretariat have, time and again, rejected the notion that Moscow has a say or veto power over whether to allow or disallow any sovereign state to join the Alliance. And as such, Lavrov and Blinken did not reach any agreement in Stockholm on this Russian demand; however, they met not to seek concrete agreements on specific issues but to exchange views and prepare the agenda for an upcoming Putin-Biden summit. Although no concrete date has been mentioned yet, the Russian foreign ministry claims the summit could be just days away (Interfax, December 2). During the next meeting of the two presidents, the Russian demands and proposals may be discussed and a decision to deescalate may be achieved. Lavrov announced Moscow will soon be sending out written proposals of the security guarantees it is demanding and will watch whether the West is serious about negotiating a true de-escalation (Interfax, December 2). Otherwise (the thinking in the Kremlin apparently goes), the West must be ready to face the consequences of a possible military escalation.