The December 7 video-conference between Presidents Joseph Biden of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia raised many questions, as both sides were scarce with details. The official read-outs of the meeting confirmed the previously voiced positions, leading many observers to conclude that the talks broke little new ground. Nevertheless, the separate statements by US and Russian officials, combined with extensive media coverage, have provided some helpful insights about the content of the talks as well as facilitated a better understanding of the rationale behind the recent Russian military buildup near Ukrainian borders (see EDM, December 8, 9).
These revelations suggest Moscow came to believe it can effectively instrumentalize the military threat to attract desired attention from the West along with diplomatic concessions on the Ukraine issue—however small they may seem—from the US but also the European Union. Having failed to directly pressure Ukraine, Russia’s strategy is now to apply that pressure indirectly, targeting fears in the US and the EU of a potential war in Europe (Carnegiemoscow.org, December 6; see EDM, December 8). The useful question to ask under these conditions is not whether or not Russia will invade Ukraine militarily but rather what actions are likely to reduce the probability of a Russian aggression, short of sacrificing Ukraine’s sovereignty? To answer this, it is necessary to delve more deeply into the Kremlin’s instrumentalization of the logic of threats (Carnegiemoscow.org, November 29), aimed at creating strategic ambiguity about Russia’s readiness to attack Ukraine.
One could observe a peculiar dynamic in the Russian media space just ahead of the Biden-Putin teleconference. Russian experts targeting Western audiences tended to argue that the threat of a Russian military attack against Ukraine could not be ruled out and that the West should take seriously Russia’s concerns (Carnegiemoscow.org, December 9). In contrast, Russian media content targeting the domestic audience predominantly portrayed the idea of a Russian military operation in Ukraine as “Western hysteria” (Gazeta.ru, December 6). Similarly, Russian officials dismissed any concern about a potential armed invasion into Ukraine, pointing out that Russia had the right to deploy its military forces anywhere on its territory (Kommersant.ru, November 22). This striking contrast is rather atypical of the tightly-controlled information space that the Russian government built over the past two decades. It, thus, suggests that an influence operation was being orchestrated by the Kremlin, aimed at affecting the perceptions and risk attitudes of the Western governments, to make them more accommodating.
In a recent interview that the Ekho Moskvy radio station conducted with the former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, the journalists pointed out that “we sell the Americans their own fears” (Ekho Moskvy, December 8). This came in the context of an observed repeat pattern: Russia brings military forces to the Ukrainian borders, which then results in the West generally and the US in particular rushing to Russia for talks. It happened in April earlier this year, leading to the Geneva summit between Biden and Putin (Swp-berlin.org, July 6). It was replicated again following Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine in November.
The Russian media and expert outlets have also played with the idea that Ukraine represents high stakes for Russia but is of lower importance for the United States—unlike, say, China (Rossyikaya Gazeta, December 8, 2021; Globalaffairs.ru, March 8, 2014). This was explored to increase the credibility of Russia’s readiness to use military force but also to show that Russia does not believe the West is ready to shoulder sufficiently high costs to stop Russia. The conflicting signals that Russia sent about a potential military invasion into Ukraine, along with the messages indicating readiness to accept high costs, created a strategic ambiguity about Russia’s intentions. Given the Kremlin’s belief that the West is risk-averse, the creation of this strategic ambiguity was a deliberate act.
A comparison between the US public read-out of the talks (Whitehouse.gov, December 7) and the Russian one (Kremlin.ru, December 7) reveals some helpful clues. The Kremlin claims that the two presidents agreed to create a discussion format, addressing Russia’s concerns about the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) eastward and its “exploration” of Ukrainian territory. The White House’s version talks about the need for de-escalation and a return to diplomacy as well as the agreement of the two heads of state to task their teams to follow up on this. Moreover, in an unexpected change of heart, the Russian side seems ready to allow the US to join the Normandy Format talks. Even though immediately before the video-conference the Russian president’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, insisted that the Normandy Format was self-sufficient and there was no plan to invite the US to join (1tv.ru, December 7), after that call the Russian foreign ministry accepted such a possibility (Kommersant.ru, December 8).
This radical change of stance aligns well with the Russian conviction that the US can simply order Ukraine to change policy. Moscow’s resistance toward the United States joining the Normandy Format was due to a belief that Russia had more leverage over Germany and France than over the US. This 180 degree turn would indicate the Kremlin believes the US is now open to consider some of Russia’s demands and is ready to push Ukraine toward their implementation.
Russia is pursuing two main goals. One is to put indirect pressure on Ukraine to restrict its use of the Bayraktar TB2 attack drones bought from Turkey (see EDM, November 10). The use of these drones would give Ukraine a high military advantage, raising Russia’s concerns that Kyiv might be tempted to attempt a military solution in Donbas. This would force Russia to intervene, at a high cost. In fact, Russia wants to avoid either losing control over Donbas or being forced to fight Ukraine openly. The second goal was made clear via public statements: compel the West to force Ukraine back into the Russian version of Minsk agreements.
The threat of Russia’s military invasion into Ukraine is only the tool, while the objective remains the same as the one that triggered the Kremlin’s proxy war in Donbas. Russia does not aim to control Ukraine militarily but politically. Therefore, a major trap for the collective West is giving in and accepting the Russian model of conflict resolution in Donbas in exchange for avoiding war against Ukraine. This is arguably the central Russian objective behind its recent massing of military troops around Ukraine, its military threats, and the creation of strategic ambiguity regarding its readiness to attack.