In 2008, at a contentious NATO summit in Bucharest in which member states chose not to invite Ukraine to join the alliance, Russian President Vladimir Putin shared a candid moment with his U.S. counterpart, President George W. Bush. “George,” Putin said, “you have to understand that Ukraine is not even a country. Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe and the greater part was given to us.” In July of this year, Putin elaborated extensively on this theme in a long treatise entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” in which he insisted on the cultural and religious unity of Russians and Ukrainians and blamed the West for trying to pry Ukraine away from Russia. His central point: “We are one people.”

That conviction motivated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014, and it has surfaced again in Russia’s large military buildup on the border with its western neighbor. The buildup is leading to alarm that an invasion may be imminent. It has also led to an urgent debate about Russia’s intentions. What does Russia really expect to achieve by amassing troops? Does it think it can push Ukraine to install a pro-Russian government after seven years of military hostilities? Or is it pursuing other aims?

The inscrutability of the Kremlin’s intentions may in fact be their purpose. Russian policymakers have long tried to veil their motivations, keeping their adversaries and rivals guessing in a bid for strategic ambiguity. By contrast, the United States has been more predictable in its approach to the crisis in Ukraine. The Biden administration would do well to take a page out of the Russian playbook and make Moscow wonder—and fret—about Washington’s capabilities and plans. Only then can a reinvigorated diplomatic process—one that puts the United States at the table—work to prevent Russia from pressing its advantage in Ukraine.

GATHER IN THE LANDS

The buildup of an estimated 90,000 troops along the Russian-Ukrainian border has led to fears of a coming Russian military assault on Ukraine, which could be imminent or take place within the next few months. Indeed, the Biden administration has sounded the alarm and is actively working with its European allies to both deter Russia and plan a response to a possible invasion, since there appears to be no other rational reason for the Russian buildup.

To be sure, this is an opportune time for Russia to raise the stakes in Ukraine. The United States is preoccupied domestically with the COVID-19 pandemic and a polarized and dysfunctional political environment. Washington’s major foreign policy focus has also shifted squarely to China. Europe is grappling with the resurgent pandemic. The new German government will come into office this week. France is engrossed in its upcoming elections, and the United Kingdom is still coping with the aftereffects of its departure from the European Union. The migration crisis along the border between Belarus and Poland has also taken the EU’s gaze away from Ukraine.

This is an opportune time for Russia to raise the stakes in Ukraine.

Russia’s focus, however, has never veered from its western neighbor. Beyond Putin, much of the Russian public has had difficulty accepting Ukraine as an independent state since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Putin sees himself in the tradition of Russian and Soviet leaders who believed it was their mission to “gather in the lands”: to recoup Russian territory that, at various historical junctures, had been lost through war or state collapse. Putin continues to relitigate the end of the Cold War. For him, the unraveling of the Soviet Union is an ongoing process that is not over—and can still be rewound.

When he came to power 21 years ago, Putin pledged to restore Russia to its rightful role as a great power. He has subsequently argued that the most desirable international order in a multipolar world is a twenty-first-century version of the post–World War II Yalta system, in which the great powers divided the world into spheres of influence, and smaller states had limited sovereignty. The Kremlin sees its defense perimeter not at the borders of the Russian Federation but rather at the borders of the post-Soviet space; it is therefore crucial to Russia that its smaller neighbors abandon any ideas of joining NATO and the EU. Over the past two decades, Putin has tried to get Western countries to recognize the Kremlin’s view that Russia’s neighbors fall within a Russian sphere of influence. This includes Ukraine, a country that in Putin’s view plays a key role in bolstering—or potentially endangering—the security of the Russian state.

Russia’s current and military massing near the Ukrainian border has raised the possibility of another invasion of Ukraine, which could bring about what Putin has long sought: a new, pro-Russian government in Kyiv and the abandonment of Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO and the EU. The Kremlin may have initially hoped that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who came into office pledging to work out a modus vivendi, would be willing to compromise. But Moscow now sees him as an increasingly hostile adversary. Zelensky has shut down pro-Russian media and gone after Viktor Medvedchuk, a prominent Ukrainian oligarch who is perceived to be Putin’s man in Ukraine. He recently warned of a planned Russian-backed coup against him. The amassing of armor and military personnel is a loud reminder that the two countries remain perched on the precipice of outright conflict even as a Russian-instigated and -backed insurgency in the eastern Donbas continues.

THE INSCRUTABILITY IS THE POINT

But Russia might not really be signaling that an assault on Ukraine is coming. The Kremlin might be using this unprecedented buildup to compel the United States to the negotiating table to discuss a broader range of issues, as it did in March when a similar military buildup spurred President Joe Biden to invite Putin to a summit in Geneva. That meeting reaffirmed Russia’s role as a great power: the Kremlin gained a high-level summit (before China did), an agreement to pursue strategic stability talks, and bilateral engagement on a number of different issues. Biden even declared that Russia was a “worthy adversary.” The two presidents held a call last Tuesday, and there is now talk of another in-person Biden-Putin summit, possibly early next year.

Besides getting Washington’s attention, the buildup also serves other purposes. It increases pressure on Kyiv at a time when Zelensky’s popularity is falling. It unsettles Ukraine’s European neighbors and keeps the United States guessing about what Russia’s real goals are. That ambiguity increases the risk that the United States and Europe will misread Russia’s intentions and miscalculate in their response.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to see what Russia would tangibly gain from a renewed military assault. The conflict in the Donbas has alienated the Ukrainian population in most of the country (the primarily Russian-speaking Donbas itself excepted) and helped consolidate a more unified Ukrainian identity. The Ukrainian military is in better shape than it was in 2014, thanks to Western training and arms. Moreover, the Russian population has little appetite for a war in which there would be significant casualties. The relatively bloodless seizure of Crimea was enthusiastically supported, but the ongoing conflict in the Donbas—in which 14,000 people from both sides have already been killed—is not popular in Russia. It is not clear that a new military assault would bolster Putin’s power at home any further.

Previous U.S. administrations have telegraphed their Ukraine policy.

The Kremlin is keeping the world guessing about its intentions and pursuing a policy of strategic ambiguity. This makes it difficult for the United States and Europe to know how to respond, inhibiting Western action. The Biden administration could follow suit, preparing a range of options with its European allies—including ramping up trade and financial sanctions and enhancing military cooperation with Ukraine—but doing so out of the public eye, ensuring that the Kremlin is uncertain about what Washington’s response might be in the event of a military escalation. Previous U.S. administrations have telegraphed their Ukraine policy. Back in 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama explained to The Atlantic why the United States had not responded more assertively to the Russian annexation of Crimea two years earlier. He said that Ukraine was more important to Russia than it was to the United States, that Washington had no treaty obligation toward Kyiv, and that Ukraine was Russia’s neighbor but was far from the United States. These realities invariably limited the options available to Washington. The Kremlin assumes that this remains the U.S. view and that the use of Russian military force would not be met with concomitant Western force.

Washington has primarily relied on just one mechanism to pressure the Kremlin: sanctions. These are of limited value. Sanctions have imposed significant economic costs on Russia and on some of Putin’s inner circle but have done little to change Russian policy toward Ukraine. Congress has proposed new, sharper sanctions targeting leading Russian officials, state-owned financial institutions, foreigners engaged in transactions involving Russian sovereign debt, and foreigners engaged in transactions in Russia’s extractive sectors—but these sanctions could also affect people and companies not associated with Russia or its ruling elites, including U.S. allies in Europe with whom the Biden administration seeks to improve ties. What is more, the Kremlin expects that more sanctions are coming and may have already braced for them.

MINSK III

Amid the increase in tensions, discussions about possible compromise solutions are circulating. The current basis for a resolution to the Ukrainian-Russian conflict is the February 2015 Minsk II agreement, which was essentially a victor’s settlement imposed on a weak Ukraine. Since then, France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine—in the so-called Normandy Format—have been tasked with moving the process forward. Russia and Ukraine disagree on the sequencing of the agreement, which involves Russia withdrawing its troops from the Donbas in return for Ukraine enacting constitutional reforms that would give more autonomy to the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk republics, which are currently under the control of Russian forces and proxies.

So far, however, the Minsk process has achieved very little beyond the exchange of some prisoners. Ukraine is unwilling to devolve more power to the occupied regions without Russia first withdrawing troops from the Donbas; Kyiv balks at granting special status to these entities, because that could give Russia veto power over Ukraine’s foreign policy decisions. It is also not clear that the Kremlin has any intention of fulfilling the Minsk agreement as currently configured. Many analysts believe that Minsk has run its course.

A possible way out of this impasse would be to rethink Minsk and replace it with a process that includes the United States as a full participant. Russia’s recent behavior, including the current crisis, indicates that the Kremlin would actually like a China-focused Biden administration to direct more of its attention to Russia, as it did during the Geneva summit. The Kremlin, for instance, has suggested opening discussions on a new Euro-Atlantic security system, and U.S. participation in an updated Minsk agreement might go some way toward fulfilling that proposal. This new format could invite the participation of international peacekeepers and institute a clearer agreement on the sequencing of Russian and Ukrainian de-escalation. It would also ensure more sustained U.S. engagement in the region.

U.S.-Russian relations have always been a mix of cooperation and confrontation.

No doubt it will be time-consuming to restart the very challenging process of negotiating a resolution to this crisis. But neither the United States nor its European partners are prepared to consign Ukraine permanently to a Russian sphere of influence. Both want to dissuade Russia from a new military confrontation. The prospect of sitting down with the United States as well as the other three countries in the Minsk process could change the Kremlin’s calculus. It might also change Ukraine’s calculus. If the next arrangement is guaranteed by the United States and its allies, Kyiv may feel less threatened by Russia, pull back on some of its military activities, and reengage with the Kremlin.

There are signs the United States will, in fact, become increasingly involved in trying to stabilize the region. According to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, during the December 7 virtual summit between the two presidents, Biden committed the United States to a more active role in the Minsk process. The U.S. president also said lower-level U.S. officials would meet with their Russian counterparts to engage in discussions about broader European security issues. But Biden also made it clear that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be met with highly damaging economic measures and with enhanced military assistance to Kyiv and front-line NATO states. This dual message of diplomacy and harsh counter-measures should Russia attack appears to have diffused the current crisis and set the tone for the next round of bilateral discussions. But it remains to be seen whether Russia will withdraw any of the troops that now surround the border with Ukraine and whether a revived Minsk process is possible.

U.S.-Russian relations have always been a mix of cooperation and confrontation. Washington can continue to push back against Moscow’s aggressive moves directed against Ukraine while also being prepared to restart negotiations on a way forward. That dynamic of push and pull was how the United States and the Soviet Union dealt with each other during the Cold War, and it remains a possible model for steadying the tense contemporary U.S.-Russian relationship.

Of course, if the Kremlin does invade Ukraine, this model will no longer be relevant. The Euro-Atlantic region will instead be thrust into a new, dangerous period of confrontation.

Editor's Note:

This piece was updated December 8 to reflect Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin's December 7 phone call.

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