Russian President Vladimir Poutine (front) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Vladimir Zelensky) attend a Normandy Quatre summit in the Murat lounge of the Elysee Palace; the so-called Normandy Four format talks involve representatives from Ukraine, Germany, France and Russia discussing a settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Mikhail Metzel | TASS | Getty Images
Russia’s relations – or, more precisely, its clashes – with the West have focused on one country that has been a particular flashpoint for clashes in recent years: Ukraine.
It is back in the spotlight again this week with a series of high-stakes meetings taking place between Russian and Western officials, centered on trying to dispel heightened tensions between Russia and its neighbor.
A particular question at the moment is whether Ukraine – a kind of border country between Russia and the rest of Europe, and aspiring to join the EU – could one day become a member of the Western military alliance. NATO.
It is a possibility that Russia vehemently opposes.
As the Council of Russia prepares to meet with NATO officials in Brussels on Wednesday, CNBC has a guide explaining why Russia cares so much about Ukraine and how far it might be willing to go to prevent it. Ukraine to join the alliance.
Why is Ukraine important?
Relations between European neighbors hit a low in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, and it supported a pro-Russian uprising in the east of the country where low-intensity fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian troops have continued since.
However, tensions have escalated further in recent months, amid several reports of Russian troops massing on the border with Ukraine, prompting much speculation that Russia is preparing to invade the country.
Russia has repeatedly denied its intention to do so and the US, EU and NATO have warned Russia that they will respond, as President Joe Biden told President Vladimir Putin during his speech. a phone call on December 30, decisively if Russia invaded Ukraine further. “
How far the West will go to defend Ukraine is a big question, however.
What does Russia want?
Last month, Russia made several main demands of the West regarding Ukraine, among other security issues, in a draft security pact.
As part of this, he demanded that the United States prevent further NATO expansion eastward and not allow former Soviet states to join the alliance.
In the draft pact, Russia also demanded that the United States “not establish military bases” on the territories of ex-Soviet states that are not already members of NATO, or “use their infrastructure for any military activity or develop bilateral military cooperation with them. . “
Although not mentioned by name in the draft pact, Ukraine is an obvious target for the Russians; Ukraine is a former Soviet republic, as are Belarus, Azerbaijan, Moldova, and Armenia, among others. The former Soviet states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are already members of NATO.
Russia has already, and often, expressed its aversion to US missile defense complexes in Poland and Romania in Eastern Europe and the strengthening of the NATO presence, in terms of “battle-ready battle groups” , as NATO describes them, in the Baltic States and in Poland. .
For their part, the United States and NATO have already said that demanding that Ukraine not be admitted to NATO, or that it cancel NATO deployments in Eastern Europe, are “Not launched,” in the words of US Assistant Secretary Wendy Sherman who led the United States. delegation in talks with Russian officials in Geneva on Monday.
While noting that the United States had rejected Russia’s security proposals, her Russian counterpart Sergei Ryabkov said the talks, which lasted around seven hours, were “difficult” and signaled that the demands of Moscow had not changed, telling reporters “it is absolutely obligatory to make sure that Ukraine will never – never – ever become a member of NATO.”
With no clear progress in the talks on Monday, hopes are based on further talks between Russian and NATO officials in Brussels on Wednesday, and further talks Thursday at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Vienna.
Why is Russia doing this?
Putin made no secret of the fact that he believed the breakup of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe for Russia, describing it as the “greatest geopolitical tragedy” of the 20th.e century.
Ukraine is of particular importance to Russia given its geographical location – it is a bulwark between Russia and the eastern EU states – as well as symbolic and historical significance for Russia, which is often considered as a “crown jewel” of the former Soviet Union. Empire.
Putin praised Ukraine’s cultural, linguistic and economic ties with Russia, describing Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” last year. He even wrote an essay on the subject, titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”.
Sentiment is not pervasive in Ukraine, with the country’s government led by President Volodymyr Zelensky looking west for economic aid and geopolitical strength, especially in the years following the annexation of Crimea by the United States. Russia in 2014.
Ukraine has repeatedly expressed its desire to join the EU and NATO, which represents a geopolitical kick in the teeth of a resurgent Russia struggling to maintain power and influence in the region.
Many strategists and close supporters of Russian policy believe that Putin, who has been in power alternating between prime minister and president since the end of 1999, has a strong desire to invade Ukraine.
Maximilian Hess, a researcher at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told CNBC on Tuesday that “Russia is not just seeking to ban Ukraine from joining the alliance – which it has been seeking to do since Ukraine’s bid to join the alliance. Action Plan for NATO Membership (MAP) in 2008 – but also to remove Ukraine from the Western sphere of influence to which it has moved since the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014. ”
“NATO membership is particularly symbolic, but neither would Russia accept a situation in which the West significantly extends its military support to Ukraine.”
How far is Russia prepared to go?
One of the biggest questions facing Western officials is how far Russia is willing to go to stop Ukraine’s drift towards Europe and the West and to strengthen and expand its presence and its influence in the country as it is.
In talks on Monday, the Russian delegation insisted that there were no plans to invade Ukraine, but analysts are not so sure.
Angela Stent, director emeritus of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University, told CNBC on Tuesday that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could still take place. “Let’s say, 50-50 for now,” she said, adding that it could be a “more limited invasion” rather than a massive one.
“This danger is still there,” she said.
Maximilian Hess agreed, noting that “I think Russia is ready to go to war, but I don’t think the Kremlin would want a war far beyond the current fronts. The risks of encountering sustained resistance from the guerrillas would be very high, especially if they went beyond the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, ”he said.
Russia, however, needs a “credible invasion threat” to stay, especially since that is what played the key role in bringing the United States to the table, Hess added.
“The risk of a renewed or expanded Russian invasion – Ukraine is of course already facing an ongoing Russian invasion of Crimea and a proxy occupation of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk – has never completely diminished over the past 8 years and it is unlikely that after these talks, maintaining the ability to restrict Ukraine’s potential success is still seen as the key to the Kremlin’s long-term self-preservation, ”he said. commented.
Meanwhile, Tony Brenton, former British ambassador to Russia, told CNBC on Tuesday that Russia and the United States want to avoid a military confrontation and that Moscow just wants what it sees as its “accommodated” interests.