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How to push the geopolitical pause button on Ukraine

26 Jan 2022 - 16:13

Claustrophobia. That word probably best describes the state of mind of today’s Russian Federation. Security experts and pundits in Moscow ceaselessly stress that threats to Russian security have traditionally come from the West. This has fed the feeling that ‘the West’ can never be trusted and that Russia will always bear the brunt.

This explains why the Kremlin feels encircled by NATO’s eastward push. Vladimir Putin's entourage even fears that the West may ultimately aim for some form of regime change in Moscow itself.

This deep-felt sense of insecurity not only informs Russian military manoeuvres towards Ukraine, but also makes it difficult to avoid a potential military escalation. Today, the risk of miscalculation by both Russia and the West has become dangerously real.

Yet, we should realise that the movement of Russian troops towards Ukraine may not be so much part of a serious, well-thought-out plan of attack, as an externalisation of an anxious former Great Power crying out for geopolitical attention.

Most likely, Moscow itself no longer knows how to get out of this predicament. NATO would be falling into a trap if it were to respond militarily to Moscow’s provocations. Still, it is also impossible to just give in to outlandish and bullish Russian demands. The real way out of this dangerous game of poker lies elsewhere.

Kiev needs to realise that NATO-membership is not feasible for the time being

Where does Ukraine’s geopolitical future lie? Could Ukraine become a meeting place between West and East, rather than a strategic battleground? Instead of having to choose, Ukraine should have access to economic opportunities from both West and East.

In terms of security policy, Kiev needs to realise that NATO-membership is not feasible for the time being. Kiev should not be formally allied, but must have its territorial integrity guaranteed by both camps – West and East; this time in a more binding variant of the Budapest Memorandum.

This memorandum – signed at an OSCE conference in Budapest on 5 December 1994 – included security assurances against threats or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Consequently, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine gave up their nuclear weapons between 1994 and 1996.

The memorandum was originally signed by three nuclear powers: the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States. China and France gave somewhat weaker individual assurances in separate documents. However, the formal status of the Budapest Memorandum has always been questioned; was the document legally binding, for both Washington and Moscow?

Paradoxically, Western governments are currently reaffirming the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and arming it with ‘defensive weapons’. Russia on its part seems to “dig into” its position since 2014 that “it has never been under obligation, to force any part of the Ukraine’s civil population to stay in Ukraine against its will”.1

The Ukrainians may hope to recapture the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk provinces – which they lost in May 2014 – with US weapons and Turkish drones. In October 2021, Ukraine attacked the so-called ‘contact line’ with Turkish drones. Moscow will not accept this, since it is a failure of their destabilisation strategy. The danger here, therefore, lies mainly in miscalculation by one of the two sides.

That danger is real, as the Minsk II peace accords of 20142  were never implemented. More autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the withdrawal of heavy weapons, a new constitution in Ukraine; nothing from the peace agreement was realised. Russia plays the card of protecting Russians in its near abroad to retain influence. The ‘military balance’ that Moscow created is in danger of being undermined.

The current Western arms build-up is designed to rebalance the power equation in Eastern Europe and to reassure NATO and EU allies. The question remains what the endgame looks like.

From a geostrategic perspective, this would mean that the country would de facto acquire the status of a buffer state

At some point, the West will have to demand a gradual dialling down of tensions, for example through a road map of gradual, reciprocal withdrawal of forces and military assets. This could open the door to the first stage of a renewed process to re-implement the Minsk II accords.

There is, of course, a danger that Moscow would like to renegotiate the terms of these accords. That would be a bridge too far. In addition, it would be wise to push the geopolitical pause button on Ukraine. Its current geopolitical limbo has created a situation in which the country risks being torn apart.

Apparently, both Washington and Moscow feel Ukraine is more important than they themselves realised in 1994. They are now willing to commit military assets to defend Ukraine in some fashion.

Would Ukraine’s security then not be better safeguarded if a more stringent form of the Budapest Memorandum could be negotiated, later sanctioned by the UN Security Council? From a geostrategic perspective, this would mean that the country would de facto acquire the status of a buffer state.

Next to this, East-West relations urgently need to address issues on which compromise is needed. Efforts to start nuclear and conventional arms control and disarmament negotiations should again be intensified. The collapse of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty on short to medium range missiles3  in Europe as well as the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty creates a dangerous security environment in Europe.

Imagining a new institutional framework should be part of a broad road map towards a future world order in which Russia has a more constructive role to play. The way ahead will not be easy and paved with mistrust on both sides. But it would also be helpful if the West would be willing to admit that it has lacked empathy to understand Russia’s desires and concerns after 1991, and made its own mistakes. Now is the time to set this right.


David Criekemans
Associate Professor in International Relations at the University of Antwerp (Belgium)