The topics of Russia’s plight and future prospects came up again and again last week, in the December 7 video-conversation between Presidents Joseph Biden and Vladimir Putin, at the Summit of Democracies that the Biden administration organized and hosted on December 9–10, as well as during this year’s Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony, held on December 10, where Dmitri Muratov and Maria Ressa gave traditional lectures. Muratov’s remarks were foreboding for the leadership in the Kremlin: Although the world seems to be turning away from democracy toward dictatorship (Novaya Gazeta, December 10), he recalled Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov’s assertion in his 1975 Nobel lecture, when the Soviet Union also appeared to be going strong, that dictatorships had no future, because without human rights and civil liberties there could be no progress. The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 delivered positive proof for that thesis. However, in Putin’s Russia, this anniversary only increases Moscow’s urge to reconstitute its position of power, which was undercut three decades ago by that happenstance “geopolitical catastrophe” (Izvestia, December 8).
The Kremlin made a particular point of disputing the words of US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland—preparing for yet another trip to the Russian capital—who asserted that Putin may be contemplating a restoration of the Soviet Union as a way to mark his legacy (RIA Novosti, December 8). According to Moscow, Russian policy is inspired entirely by peaceful regional integration in various formats, from the Commonwealth of Independent States (in fact, entirely dysfunctional) to the “Union State” between Russia and Belarus (RBC, December 8). A gradual but far from benevolent takeover by Russia is, indeed, “progressing” in Belarus, however: and the latter’s failed attempt to “weaponize” migrants from Iraq against Poland and Lithuania—likely with Moscow’s assistance (see EDM, November 11)—has now led to requests from Minsk to deploy Russian nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, December 9).
Acute as the crisis around Belarus is, it is Ukraine that presents a greater and graver problem, not least because the sustained Westward drift of this crucially important neighbor defies and undercuts all Russian ambitions for re-integrating the post-Soviet space. Moscow applies every “hybrid” instrument at its disposal to destabilize Ukraine, but direct military pressure is seen as the most impactful and indispensable lever (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, December 9; see EDM, December 9). In order to make this pressure convincing, every subsequent threat of invasion needs to be supported by a stronger grouping of forces, even if General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff, has indifferently described the still ongoing massing of troops as “routine maneuvers” (Mil.ru, December 9). Denials are intended only to intensify the uncertainty, and Nobel laureate Muratov warned with utmost concern that the power-holders in Moscow “are actively selling the idea of war” (Carnegie.ru, December 9).
Days earlier, the two-hour-long virtual conversation between Biden and Putin was supposed to discharge tensions at the snow-covered Russian-Ukrainian border and deescalate the wider conflict; but it is unclear whether these moderate goals have been achieved (Kommersant, December 9). The US President followed up those talks by holding conversations with key European allies and “frontline” North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states, as well as with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy—and these preparations for expanding multilateral aid to Ukraine definitely go against the Kremlin’s intentions (Novaya Gazeta, December 10). Still, Putin appeared pleased with himself for ostensibly compelling Biden to commit to further dialogue. Other Russian officials expressed satisfaction with the apparent US readiness to listen to Russia’s concerns but also complained about the “toxic atmosphere” in bilateral relations (TASS, December 9). These mixed messages were sternly clarified in a recent foreign ministry statement, which formulated Russia’s demands for a legally binding guarantee of no further NATO enlargement and insisted that the Alliance must “officially disavow the decision taken at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest about ‘Ukraine and Georgia becoming NATO members’ ” (Mid.ru, December 10).
This Russian position is so clearly unacceptable for the US and NATO that the Western allies are left guessing as to what Moscow really seeks to achieve in the “serious dialogue” it purportedly so desires. In any bargaining, it makes good sense to start with somewhat exaggerated claims—but not with such a patent, non-starter (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 9). One plausible guess is that Russia wants a commitment on the reduction of NATO exercises and other activities in the Black Sea, where several risky incidents were registered in the last couple of years; whereas, in the Baltic Sea, which had seen plenty of tension in the aftermath of the aggression in Donbas, the situation has notably stabilized. Putin’s remark to his top brass—that a US combat vessel could be observed either through “binoculars or the cross-hairs” of an anti-ship weapons systems—betrayed his angst about perceived threats to his Sochi residence (Kommersant, November 2).
Another and more worrisome possibility is that Moscow plans for a breakdown of talks with NATO, seeking to demonstrate to various risk-averse Western audiences that Russia’s “legitimate” concerns were rejected and the blame for a new escalation to the conflict lies squarely with Ukraine. The next spasm of hostilities could be triggered by an interruption of natural gas transit through Ukraine, facilitated by the launch of the Nord Stream Two pipeline; and the shortage of supply in the European market underpins the expectation that the new German government would be reluctant to take resolute action (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 9). Ukraine is seen by the Moscow leadership as an ultimate test of Russia’s claim to “Great Power” status; while for the US, it is a peripheral problem, distracting from the pivotal power contest with China. Meanwhile, for Europeans (though with some possible exceptions), it is not a prize worth fighting for (Meduza, December 8).
Such perceptions reflect Putin’s personal transition from a pragmatic “operative” to a self-deluded autocrat and the parallel degradation of the government into a court always eager to whisper and trumpet the messages the ruler wants to hear. The courtiers amplify Putin’s impression that each conversation with Biden signifies a victory that exploits the Western propensity to compromise and erode NATO solidarity. This choir of self-praise leaves no moment for contemplation on the fact that each apparently effective resort to military pressure forces the West to commit more strongly to containment and to plan for more forceful counter-measures. Decision-making in the Kremlin is increasingly influenced by its own propaganda, in which there is no need for reflection on the degeneration of the Soviet Union 30 years ago.