Ukraine, Russia, and United States Make Use of Donbas Tension
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Biden’s call to Putin confirmed that unchecked escalation is not part of the new U.S. administration’s plans. Tough rhetoric, preemptive escalation, and the announcement of new sanctions were necessary for Biden to start the inevitable conversation with Russia.
Just as everyone was expecting a new outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine’s war-torn Donbas region, U.S. President Joe Biden put in a call to the Kremlin. It might have been considered a final stern warning if it hadn’t included a proposal for the two presidents to meet in a third country. Still, all is not yet calm on the Ukrainian front.
It appears that leaders on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine border capitalized on the tension there to make contact with the new U.S. administration. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky may have got in first—eliciting a phone call, words of support, and important external legitimation in the eyes of both his own and foreign elites—but it was his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin who finished ahead, with an invitation to meet for a bilateral summit in the near future.
The phone call between Biden and Putin is yet another key difference between the current escalation over Ukraine and that of 2014. Back then, the Russian operation in Crimea was so sudden and secret that even the world’s most sophisticated intelligence agencies were taken by surprise. This time around, troop movements have been the subject of discussion for many weeks.
If the previous escalation was preceded by pro-Russian mobilization in the east and south of Ukraine, giving it the appearance of a civil war, then the current tension looks a lot more like maneuvers ahead of a conventional conflict between two national armies. In this sense, the current picture bears a lot more resemblance to the eve of Russia’s five-day war with Georgia back in 2008 than it does to events in Ukraine in 2014. Just like the situation today, the Georgian war began with a frozen conflict, deadlocked talks, and hopes of resolving the stalemate using force.
Then as now, troops—both Russian and Georgian—were being moved openly, even demonstratively. The Russian army even held drills in the North Caucasus, close to Georgia’s breakaway republic of South Ossetia.
The 2008 war was also foreshadowed by violent clashes in South Ossetia after years of relative peace. Those who see the August 2008 war as planned Russian aggression view those outbreaks as proof of a cunning provocation by Russia that then Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili fell for hook, line, and sinker. Others see it as an attempt to punish Georgia for the democratic, pro-Western path upon which it had embarked.
There are elements of truth in both explanations. Russia had a motive for punishing Georgia, and Saakashvili had a motive for shelling the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali. The deadline was approaching for implementing Saakashvili’s election campaign promises of restoring Georgia’s territorial integrity, and the mixed messages coming from Washington could, in a pinch, have been interpreted as approval. But Russia acted as it did because Saakashvili was constantly trying to secure Western help against his anti-Russian position.
The picture in the Donbas right now is a similar one. Talks have hit a stalemate, and there have been flare-ups along the line of contact, along with a buildup of troops and drills. The arrival of a new U.S. administration that is more friendly toward Ukraine could be seen as a green light for Kyiv to try to retake its breakaway regions in the Donbas, and the idea of a swift military operation to recapture those territories is more popular among Ukrainian nationalists than trying to implement the tortuous Minsk peace agreement. The Kremlin might have calculated all of this as an additional risk factor.
Finally, Moscow now has a motive for punishing Zelensky, similar to the one it had in 2008 with Saakashvili. Zelensky came to power as head of the party of peace, but, having failed to bring peace and with his popularity on the decline, he performed a dramatic anti-Russian about-face. In the space of a few weeks, he went from being a centrist, balanced figure to a typical Eastern European politician, trying to trade on an anti-Russian position in the West. In other words, he is doing precisely what Saakashvili did to annoy Russia back in 2008. Moscow may well be tempted to show him that such a turn of events, not to mention attacking Russia’s friends in Ukraine (through the recent routing
of Viktor Medvedchuk’s business and media empire), comes at a cost which, depending on the circumstances, may even manifest itself as the threat of war.
The same threat of war is simultaneously meant to show the new U.S. administration that there is also a price to pay for its verbal and economic attacks and unconditional support for the Russian opposition, which the Kremlin sees as foreign interference.
Despite all of these similarities with 2008, the main difference now is that it is unlikely that a large-scale war is part of either side’s plans—though serious ceasefire violations always run the risk of unwittingly spilling over into all-out warfare. Kyiv knows it will get both moral support and fortification via sanctions, regardless of who fires first. But the same statements of support make it clear that no one else will fight for Ukraine, just like last time, and resisting the Russian army singlehandedly will be no mean feat.
The Kremlin, for its part, has so far only sent its troops into areas of Ukraine where it could count on the support of most of the local population. The 2014 war showed that there is no obvious demarcation line for that support in eastern Ukraine.
Finally, Biden’s call to Putin and his proposal to meet on neutral territory confirmed that unchecked escalation is not part of the new U.S. administration’s plans. Nor is an amicable deal with Putin behind closed doors. Still, tough rhetoric—including Biden’s affirmative response to the question of whether Putin is a killer
—and a general preemptive escalation were necessary for Biden to start the inevitable conversation with Russia on a different footing to Trump. He must be seen as a leader who will stand up to Putin, and who will not go behind his allies’ back to strike a deal with the Russian leader.
Biden’s meeting many years ago with Andrei Gromyko, best known in the West as Russia’s toughest foreign minister—“Mr Nyet”—has been the subject of considerable attention
in Russia, and strange though it may seem, it may actually facilitate an extremely tough talk and help the two modern leaders get down to business. After all, it shows Biden to be an old-school politician: the kind who knew how to wage proxy wars and fight for dissidents and human rights, all while remaining in regular talks with the enemy. The new U.S. president recognizes that communication with Moscow is inevitable, regardless of who is in the right, because Russia has shown time and again that it knows how to defend itself both when it is right and when it is wrong, and that it has both the manpower and resources to do just that.
This article was published as part of the “Relaunching U.S.-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation” project, implemented in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy to Russia. The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Embassy to Russia.
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
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