Putin’s Ultimatum: A High State Poker, or a Chess Gambit?

By the end of September, after the relatively short pause that followed the Biden-Putin June summit in Geneva, tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine returned to boiling point. According to international media reports, confirmed by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, Moscow has stationed considerable numbers of troops and military equipment along Ukraine’s borders, which ignited concerns in the West about the likelihood of a direct Russian invasion.

In early November, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense estimated that Russia had already deployed about 90,000 soldiers close to Ukraine. Some experts even considered worst-case scenarios, in which Russia seizes and totally occupies the territory of Ukraine. Russian officials have repeatedly refuted accusations of a planned military attack, maintaining that, whether the West likes it or not, Moscow will continue to conduct military drills on its sovereign territory.

Geopolitical Game

As Russian military units continued to amass along Ukraine’s border, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov issued an ultimatum to the US and NATO. The Kremlin demanded NATO pull out its military infrastructure from Central and Eastern European member states, as well as commit to legally binding guarantees that the post-Soviet republics, including Ukraine, would never be accepted into NATO, and the Alliance would stop all forms of military cooperation with them. Put differently, holding Ukraine as a hostage, Vladimir Putin wanted the West to accept new old rules of the geopolitical game with the post-Soviet area exclusively a Russian sphere of interest, and the CEE states as a semi-buffer zone.

Most likely, the decision to take the path of an ultimatum was taken by the Kremlin in September 2021. This seems obvious when we compare two articles on Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Deputy Head of Security Council Dmitri Medvedev. In his text, posted in July 2021, Putin outlined a rather arrogant and chauvinistic approach to the history of Ukraine, essentially refusing to consider it a sovereign and independent state. However, he mentioned that Russia was open to dialogue with Ukraine on any, even the most difficult, issues. Three months later, an article by Medvedev appeared in the Kommersant newspaper. It was not about history, but the personal qualities of Ukraine’s president. Resorting to abusive expressions, Medvedev described Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a weak, totally dependent and covetous ruler. But the main idea of ​​the article, by contrast to Putin’s, was that Russia will not negotiate with Ukraine until a “sane” (read: pro-Russian) leader comes to power in Ukraine.

Change in Russia’a approach

This change in Russia’s approach toward Ukraine does not seem to be the result of well-considered foreign policy calculations, rather it represents constant improvisation, as evidenced by numerous inconsistencies in the Kremlin’s actions. For instance, on 10 November 2021, during the OSCE Forum for Security Co-operation in Vienna, the head of the Russian delegation Konstantin Gavrilov complained that in September and October the Russian Foreign Ministry had sent a draft joint statement by the leaders of the Normandy format, but France, Germany and Ukraine allegedly ignored this initiative. A week later, when the Russian Foreign Ministry released its correspondence with members of the Normandy format, it turned out that, in fact, the Western diplomats had regularly replied to the Russian proposals, which means that Gavrilov misled the participants of the Forum.

Another example is Vladimir Putin’s recent contradictory statement on Donbas, which Russia had always formally recognized as an integral part of Ukraine, considering the Minsk agreements the only way for its full political and economic reintegration. On November 30, 2021, speaking at the Russia Calling Investment Forum, President Putin referred to the separatist-controlled territories of eastern Ukraine as “so far unrecognised republics”, hinting that he might soon recognize their independence. But in this case, the balance of political gains and risks for Moscow would be absolutely negative since it would ruin the Minsk Agreements and make the West more enthusiastic about providing military and financial assistance to Ukraine. Besides, in light of the lack of consensus on that issue within Russian society, it would hardly boost Putin’s approval ratings.

In the meantime, the Communist Party has already submitted to the State Duma a draft resolution on the recognition of the breakaway Ukrainian regions. But given that the Kremlin often uses the political parties representing the “systemic opposition” to test the reaction of wider audiences, it appears that Putin’s hints are unlikely to be followed by any real actions.

How Can Putin’s Ultimatum Be Explained?

If this scenario, with the recognition of the separatist statelets, is not plausible, then how can Putin’s ultimatum be explained? What is behind the Kremlin’s current actions?

As a rational actor, the Russian leadership, in its foreign policy efforts, goes as far as the circumstances allow, and, at the same time, refrains from taking actions that would seriously threaten its ability to project power. Consequently, we can single out three main factors that, among others, determine Russian foreign policy today.

The first factor is Russia’s status as a nuclear power. The decision-makers in the Kremlin are sure that their huge nuclear potential almost completely precludes the possibility of a large-scale military response to any of Russia’s provocative actions. The significance of this factor, however, is unjustifiably exaggerated by many Western politicians, especially in Germany and France, who tend to perceive the conflict with Moscow through the prism of the Cold War. The history of the 20th century taught them that the excessive strengthening—or weakening—of the USSR brought the world to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe. They reasonably believe that the possible collapse of a nuclear power would not make the European continent a safer place to live. Hence, many Western leaders prefer to turn a blind eye to the Kremlin’s reckless behavior and avoid, when possible, responding with new economic sanctions.

Of course, Moscow effectively exploits this inertia in Western political thinking and, at every opportunity, spooks its counterparts with the possibility of a nuclear war. And it always brings the desired dividends. A recent notable example is the statement on preventing nuclear war and avoiding arms races adopted, at Russia’s request, by the five permanent UN Security Council members. Actually, the current level of tension in Russia-West relations is much lower than during the Caribbean crisis, and the present global situation does not require the adoption of such statements.

But the mere thought of the possibility of a nuclear war with Russia invariably continues to paralyse the will of Western statesmen. They seem not to notice that, in the last 60 years, the world has changed considerably. Yes, among Soviet leaders there were many fanatical believers in the communist utopia, which they were ready to do a lot for, but they did not open the “nuclear briefcase” in 1962. The current Russian leadership has considerably less incentive to even think about it. Compared with their Soviet predecessors, Putin’s generation of policymakers is more pragmatic and perfectly integrated into the Western world, where they used to have bank accounts and tangible assets. Therefore, Putin can endlessly move hundreds of thousands of soldiers along the borders, or even conduct limited military operations against neighboring states, but he will hardly start a fully fledged conflict with the West.

The second factor is the chronic lack of integrity among Western states. Even when the Kremlin’s responsibility for threatening continental security is evident, there will always be someone who will propose a special framework for dialogue with Russia. For instance, in the aftermath of the 2008 Georgian-Russian war, the independent international fact-finding mission, led by Heidi Tagliavini, found that Russia violated international law when attacked the Georgian territory, but it entailed no consequences for the Kremlin. In 2014, the West responded to the annexation of Crimea with soft and sometimes symbolic sanctions. When the Skripals were poisoned by Russian special agents in 2018, such countries as Austria, Portugal, Greece, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Slovakia, Cyprus and Malta refused to demonstrate solidarity with the UK. Accordingly, the West has accustomed Moscow to constant concessions and compromises.

the third, and most important, factor is the gradually deteriorating economic situation in Russia. The average real income of households had been growing steadily until 2013. Since then, they have decreased by more than 10%. In recent years, Rosstat, the Russian state statistics agency, has frequently changed the methodology for calculating indicators to gloss over the disappointing state of affairs in Russia’s stagnant economy. Officially, the inflation rate is about 8 per cent, but the real situation is different—Russian retailers suggest that it could be twice as high.

Over the long period of Putin’s rule, society has accumulated fatigue from Russia’s constant involvement in international conflicts, and at the same time, the demands to solve domestic problems have grown markedly. A record 63 per cent of the population fear the onset of an economic crisis in the country. What really bothers people is not Ukraine’s NATO aspirations, but rising prices, poverty and endemic corruption. The government, in turn, has intensified its propaganda campaigns to divert public attention from the domestic agenda, but the problem is that the daily talk shows covering Ukrainian “radical nationalism” no longer generate “patriotic waves” of the magnitude sought after.

New Impetus into the State Propaganda

Hence, by escalating tensions with the West over Ukraine, the Kremlin is desperately trying to infuse new impetus into the state propaganda. The target audience is the older generation of Russians who grew up in an atmosphere of anti-Americanism. For them, the global confrontation between Moscow and Washington is part of the stability they lost with the collapse of the USSR. That is, actually, why Putin needed direct and, more importantly, public contact with President Joe Biden. Russian state media presented their meeting in Geneva as a sequel to the confrontation between the USSR and the USA during the Cold War. Putin’s anti-Western confrontational narrative is also in great demand among the Russian diplomatic community, as well as security and law enforcement agencies. For all of them, this simmering between Moscow and Washington represents a favorable opportunity to justify additional expenditures from the state budget.

As a final observation, it is worth mentioning that in all previous cases of Russia’s involvement in armed conflicts—Georgia, Syria, Ukraine—Putin did his best to make sure that the element of surprise was on his side. Not once has the Kremlin rattled its sabres before sending its troops to a foreign state. Paradoxically, the louder the ultimatums sound from the Kremlin, the less a real armed invasion seems likely.


Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

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