Kalev Stoicescu of ICDS has written a great commentary on Russia’s demands in relations to the saber rattling on the border to Ukraine. The piece is titled Russia’s President Demands Ukraine in Exchange for Peace, which seems to be a fair way to summarize Putin’s lates list of demands. Stoicescu’s basic argument is that Russia’s demands are horrendous and reflect a worldview that is reminiscent of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
But I do think he gets the Russian logic wrong on this point:
It is far from clear why Russia is in such a hurry. Putin and his closest associates cannot think that Ukraine will join NATO any time soon. NATO agreed at Bucharest in 2008 that Ukraine would become a member of NATO, but there is evidently no consensus in the Alliance to make this happen anytime soon. While Russia’s belligerence could speed up this process, instead of slowing or stopping it, the decisive fact will still be that Ukraine’s territories are annexed or controlled by Russia. A country that does not control its entire territory and borders and is in a state of (undeclared) war cannot join the Alliance. And Ukraine is unlikely to give up Crimea and the occupied areas of the Donbas.
For Russia it is not only about preventing Ukraine from joining NATO. It is about preventing Ukraine from becoming Western in a broader sense. Just six months ago, Vladimir Putin himself wrote a semi-intellectual article ”On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians“ where the central point is that the existence of Ukraine is a historical misunderstanding. If things were right, Ukraine would really be a part of Russia – or at least closely aligned.
But the leaders in the Kremlin have realized that time is not on their side when it comes to Ukraine. For every year since 2014, Ukraine is getting stronger. The nation is more united than ever, and the Ukrainian military is increasing its strength to a point where Russian dominance on the battlefield is no longer guaranteed.
It is dawning for Putin that he will go over in history as the Russian leader who lost Ukraine forever. And that realization is dangerous, because it leads to a mindset of now or never. The choice can easily be framed as either you do nothing and lose in the long run, or you do something bold and hope it can set a new direction. That’s why Russia is in a hurry, and it’s why there may come a war even though nobody really wants it.