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Ukraine - Will 2022 Be the Year of Vladimir Putin?

Ukraine - Will 2022 Be the Year of Vladimir Putin?
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

This New Year’s eve was marked by a geopolitical paradox. All along 2021, China’s affirmation as a world power and the Sino-American rivalry were the structuring elements of geopolitics. However, the year ended with Russia’s spectacular return to the forefront. In November, Russia started amassing troops on Ukrainian borders. In actuality, the Kremlin issued a quasi-ultimatum to the United States and its allies asking them to provide "written security guarantees". This demand could effectively reverse the post-Cold War balance of power in Europe.

Western powers have agreed to enter negotiations with Moscow. Several meetings between Russia and the United States are scheduled from January 10 onwards. Meetings with NATO and the OSCE are set to follow.

What does Vladimir Putin want?

Over the past few weeks, several explanations of the situation have emerged. We can group these into two main hypotheses, to which we will add a third one:

  • Russia is seizing a favorable moment: the Kremlin perceives the Biden administration as weak, especially since the hasty and poorly controlled withdrawal from Afghanistan. At the same time, Merkel’s departure confirms the weakness of the EU in the eyes of the Kremlin. Russia knows that the status quo in Europe is not in its favor. The Biden administration operates a policy of arms transfers to Ukraine (who also benefits from Turkish drones) while NATO becomes increasingly active in the Black Sea. The "security guarantees" demanded by Moscow go hand in hand with its geopolitical interests: non-extension of NATO to Ukraine and Georgia, non-arming of these countries, withdrawal of forces and equipment stationed there, no deployment of new tactical nuclear weapons. For a presentation of the Russian security demands from a Russian perspective, see Dmitri Trenin’s article in Foreign Affairs.
  • Vladimir Putin is obsessed with Ukraine: he wants to dismember the country at all costs. In July, Putin published an article, underlying the historical unity of the Russian and Ukrainian people. The incessant propaganda by Russian state-controlled media adds another bid to the impression that "Ukraine is not a real country". According to the Russian perspective, a "fascist gang" would rule in Kiev. In a similar vein, Ukraine's estrangement from Russia could only be explained by mounting Western influence. At the height of his career, Vladimir Putin would like to be remembered as a "unifier of Russian lands". Or, as Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss from Carnegie put it, Putin wants to come to a head with his "unfinished business" with Ukraine.
  • Without contradicting these two types of interpretations, let us suggest that the paradox of the Russian return to the stage perhaps finds a resolution in itself: in 2011 and 2012, Vladimir Putin chose to return to a systematic confrontation with the West. The Ukrainian crisis in 2014 confirmed the Russian choice for a "repolarization" of the world. At that time, Putin also realized that he could rely on China, which had become almost as powerful as the US. Perhaps the Covid-19 crisis made him understand that "repolarization" is already underway, but around a China-US axis that risks marginalizing Russia. And this is precisely what Putin is not prepared to accept.

What does Vladimir Putin want after all? "To finish the job"? Carve up Ukraine by sending in troops? Acquire additional territorial pledges or even go as far as Kiev? No one can rule that out.

What does Vladimir Putin want after all? "To finish the job"? Carve up Ukraine by sending in troops? Acquire additional territorial pledges or even go as far as Kiev? No one can rule that out. In such a scenario, demands for "security guarantees" should fail in order to justify military action. They are unacceptable to Western powers. Having succeeded in raising the stakes, can the Russian president not fall back on the option of negotiation? If he succeeded, he would gain recognition of a sphere of influence and the reconstitution of a "buffer zone" between Russia and NATO. This second scenario is little different in terms of results from the first one, but more comfortable as it avoids the cascade of economic sanctions that an attack on Ukraine would involve.

It is likely that President Putin did not choose between these two scenarios. As usual, Putin and his spokespersons blow hot and cold when it comes to this issue. One day Putin welcomes the reaction of the West. Another day, he accuses it of preparing an attack on Russian territory from Ukraine. The Kremlin is waiting to see what the strategy of the US administration will be. Biden - himself a witness of the Cold War - has a third scenario in mind: he can undoubtedly spot the weaknesses that lie behind the rants of his Russian counterpart. The American President probably expects that a real discussion with Russia, if successful, can only result in a mutual "give and take" - a situation that would allow to restabilize the security situation in Europe. 

The internal Russian dimension

To what extent is Russian domestic policy a factor in the equation? For some, Putin’s priority would be the preparation of his re-election in 2024. To that end, he needs to restore a public image tarnished by the calamitous management of the Covid-19 pandemic. With more than one million deaths during the pandemic, Russia had one of the highest death rates in the world. A new success in Ukraine, whether through aggression or successful negotiation, would allegedly restore Putin’s image as statesman. Others point out that, on the contrary, any external adventure would be unpopular in Russian public opinion. The authorities in Moscow are cautious when it comes to taking public opinion against the grain. It might explain the weakness of the vaccination campaign in the country. This could also relativize the risk of a military option. 

However, at least since the first few months of 2020, Putin’s regime has been engaged in a strategy of foreclosure of Russian society. This is illustrated by the relentless crackdown on Mr. Navalny and his partisans. Independent media are being phased out. The recent prohibition of the Memorial human rights group marks a point of no return in the asphyxiation of any spirit of independence from power in Russia.

The ban of Memorial goes far beyond simple repressive measures. It touches upon the very anthropological foundations of Putin's regime. Post-Cold War Russia has not experienced de-communization. There were no equivalents to the Nuremberg Trials for Stalin's crimes. The founders of Memorial, the great Andrei Sakharov and his colleagues, had this strong intuition: the truth had to be established about the crimes of the past to prevent them from being repeated in the future. Is this not precisely where we are now? The current regime is going very far in the rehabilitation of Stalin. For instance, under Yeltsin's presidency, Russia shed light on the Katyn massacre. Now, official historians have come as far as to deny Russia's responsibility in the event. 

The ban of Memorial goes far beyond simple repressive measures. It touches upon the very anthropological foundations of Putin's regime.

In her striking book, Les Amnestiques (Flammarion 2017), the author and journalist Geraldine Schwartz showed how the awareness of the Holocaust in the 1980s had severed any link of nostalgia between the German population and the Hitler era. The ruling clan in the Kremlin appears to want Russia to go the other way when it comes to Stalin's regime. Against this backdrop, the Kremlin's grand maneuvers around Ukraine take on a particularly disturbing light. The Memorial ban encourages threats to Ukraine's territorial integrity to be viewed as something far more serious than a bluff aimed at initiating reasonable negotiation.

Where are the Europeans?

Another area of ​​concern is the seeming absence of Europe from the negotiations. As in the good old days of the Cold War, Putin is doing everything possible to ensure that Europe is only the backdrop for his bilateral discussion with Biden. 

Certainly, Biden clearly displayed his attachment to the EU and the European allies from the "Quint" (Germany, France, Italy, United Kingdom). Of course, NATO and the OSCE will be part of the landscape as well. A good part of the current "European security architecture" results from agreements concluded in these fora: Charter of Paris, NATO-Russia Basic Agreement, Vienna Document, Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), etc. Nonetheless, it will be the discussions between Russia and the US that will determine the outcome of the confrontationt. Also, the Americans shouldn't be taken too literally when they say that they won't negotiate over the heads of their allies.

Therefore, what will count is not only the basis for the negotiations, but also the settings in which they will take place.

Therefore, what will count is not only the basis for the negotiations, but also the settings in which they will take place. It is far from certain that the US will succeed in twisting the arms of Poland, the Scandinavians, the Balts, France or Germany as easily as it once did. Divided, the Europeans weigh nothing. If they form a united front against the United States, the Alliance will be weakened. Either way, the game will be easier to play for the Russians. That is why close consultations between European partners and the US would be absolutely crucial. 

Nonetheless, the EU should not be sidelined. A failure of the negotiations could lead to an attack on Ukraine. In this case, it will be the European Union which will be called upon to make the main effort. While NATO is unlikely to fire a single cannon shot, the EU is the main actor when it comes to sanctions against Russia. The format of the negotiations should reflect that reality.

What "format" should the negotiations follow?

  • One solution could be to make room for the "Normandy format", since it includes all major actors directly concerned: Ukraine, Germany, France and Russia. Given the important role of the EU in the conflict, the Normandy group could be supplemented by a representation of the EU. For example, the EU's external action service (EEAS) already proved to be a good negotiation partner in the nuclear negotiations with Iran. If negotiations between the US and Russia are supplemented with these actors, we end up with a "contact group" made up of: Germany, France, the US, Russia, Ukraine and the EEAS. The format would be small enough to allow for real discussions, while including an official representation of the EU. Because France currently holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, it should attach particular importance to a fair representation of the EU at the discussions. 
  • Negotiations with Russia on European security do not exhaust the paradox with which we began. Putin has no interest in finding Russia marginalized in the great power play between China and the US. For that reason, the White House would be well advised to accept another request from the Russian president: convening a meeting of the five permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, United States, Russia, United Kingdom) at the level of heads of state and governments. This format certainly comes with its own shortcomings: which agenda should be discussed? Would China be interested? The trail is nevertheless worth exploring.

Will 2022 be the year of Vladimir Putin? To tell the truth, that seems difficult to picture, as there the international scene is terribly rife with varied actors and problems. 2022 will certainly be the year of the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which is sure to give a third term to Mr. Xi. It will also be the year of mid-term elections in the US, which will undoubtedly be unfavorable to the American Democrats. Finally, it might be the year of some kind of outcome to the Iranian crisis. What is certain is that the Russian President will make sure that he is not forgotten, for opportunistic reasons no doubt, but also perhaps for reasons relating to the basic dynamics of his regime. 


Copyright: Alexey Nikolsky / Sputnik / AFP

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