Over the past year, tensions between Russia on one side and Ukraine and the West on the other, have flared, fuelling fears of another armed conflict. The two sides have exchanged accusations of provoking a military escalation and there has even been an ostentatious movement of troops towards the frozen theatre of war in eastern Ukraine.
Despite the hostile posturing on both sides, for now, it seems the game of brinkmanship has ended in a stalemate. To understand why this escalation took place and how it exposes fundamental deficiencies of the US strategy in the former Soviet space, it is important to look back at how events unfolded over the past year.
The standoff began almost immediately after US President Joe Biden took office in January this year. This coincided with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky abruptly turning from the compromise-seeking dove he had been known as into a Russia hawk. In what appeared as a coordinated effort, Biden and Zelensky attempted a more assertive policy vis-a-vis Russia with the goal of achieving tangible results for Kyiv, which has been at war with Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine since 2014.
With Biden in office, Zelensky launched a legal attack on Putin’s Ukrainian ally, Viktor Medvedchuk, a local oligarch who presided over a key media holding. In February, he issued a decree sanctioning Medvedchuk and banning his TV channels, which had helped his Opposition Party – For Life overtake Zelensky’s Servant of the People in opinion polls in December 2020.
Simultaneously, the Ukrainian leadership, aided by influential think tanks in the US, embarked on a PR campaign for Ukraine’s membership in NATO. Zelensky also attempted to bring the Crimean issue back in the spotlight by issuing a decree on de-occupation of the peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014.
Feeling that the opposite side was trying to upset the delicate equilibrium achieved at the end of the hot phase of the war in 2015, Putin responded in March in his trademark heavy-handed manner – by deploying a menacing military force at the Ukrainian border.
This came just two weeks after a paper was published by a NATO-linked think tank, the Atlantic Council, outlining a set of recommendations for the Biden administration by a group of top diplomats specialising in ex-Soviet countries. For now, it seems that Biden is closely following its suggestions.
The document envisaged the US taking over the Ukraine peace settlement effort, previously led by France and Germany, and pressing Russia into making concessions. Should Moscow keep showing “intransigence”, it suggested offering Ukraine a roadmap to NATO membership. The document also called for derailing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which is meant to supply Russian natural gas to Germany. For Putin, this a key project that allows him to bypass Ukraine, save billions in transit fees and avoid political headache. For this reason, Nord Stream 2 was and remains a key element of the ongoing brinkmanship game.
The US effort to undo this project was initially championed by President Donald Trump who was hardly known for being particularly worried about the fate of Ukraine. He lobbied for Nord Stream 2 to be sanctioned out of consideration for the interests of US liquified gas producers. His administration dressed this policy in shrill rhetoric, presenting the pipeline as a mighty energy weapon, with which Russia would strangle the Ukrainian economy and bring Europe to its knees.
When Biden took over from Trump, Nord Stream 2 was still far from finished. This gave Washington and Kyiv a window of opportunity to make gains on three fronts: force Russia into concessions in peace talks with Ukraine; with a bit of luck – derail Nord Stream; and least plausibly – get France and Germany on board with regards to Ukraine’s NATO membership. In the beginning, the greatest obstacle to those plans proved to be German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who firmly supported the completion of Nord Stream 2. But she was soon to leave her post, while the German Greens, staunchly opposed to the project, were rapidly rising in the polls ahead of the German legislative elections in September.
Given the importance of the project for Putin, it did not make sense that he would make hostile moves in Ukraine during the pipeline’s construction and certification period, not to mention full-scale invasion. The amassing of the troops was meant to signal what would happen, should the US and Ukraine proceed with pushing his red lines.
The Americans took advantage of Russia’s menacing moves and tried to sell the invasion scare to the German public and political elite to get them to halt the construction of the gas pipeline. They assumed that Putin was bluffing and would not act if the project was cancelled, except he was not. Of course, it was never about a full-blown invasion, which is a figment of the American public imagination. But a limited operation with no major land grabs, aimed at coercing Ukraine into an even more humiliating truce, would have been very much on the cards.
The plan to outsmart Putin failed in the first round. Merkel’s government would not halt the pipeline construction, while the Greens started losing momentum in the election campaign. Fearing that too much pressure could alienate Germany, Biden eventually agreed to remove the US opposition to Nord Stream 2. But he managed to get Merkel to make a vaguely worded promise on limiting Russian energy export capabilities – that could possibly include shutting down Nord Stream 2 – should Russia invade Ukraine.
The construction of the pipeline ended at the beginning of September, whence the four-month period of certification started. In the elections held the same month, the Greens came only third, but that turned them into kingmakers in the new coalition, with their leader Annalena Baerbock eyed for foreign minister -a post she would eventually get.
As coalition talks proceeded, a few escalatory moves – an attack carried out by a Turkish-made Bayraktar drone on pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and US warships sailing into the Black Sea – resulted in an uptick in Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian border. This is when the US embarked on a last-ditch PR offensive, making highly alarmist statements at the highest level and sharing classified intel with NATO allies, which ostensibly proved Russia’s malign intentions.
They overdid it. The scare felt way too real, making one wonder whether the goals the US tried to achieve in this game of brinkmanship were worth risking a conflict between two nuclear superpowers. In the end, Washington failed to push Putin’s red lines, but instead exposed its own, when Biden conceded in early December that he would not send US troops to protect Ukraine. With that being clearly articulated, Putin launched a counterattack by demanding guarantees from NATO that it would not expand into the former Soviet space. As for Ukraine, it is emerging from this turmoil more vulnerable to Russian aggression than it was at the beginning of the year.
There is symbolism in the fact that this escalation unravelled exactly 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is quite ironic that at this very moment the doctrine, which the US followed throughout these three decades and which boiled down to alienating Russia from its immediate neighbours, has finally hit the wall. The only thing it has achieved so far is nurturing Putin’s dictatorial regime and continuing to prop it up by providing it with adversarial legitimacy. The Russian leader thrives on confrontation, from which everyone else is losing. The US would be well-advised to engage in some serious soul-searching before proceeding any further.