This will be the year of the great choice, the one that will define this century. Yes 2022 will be the year when Russia will finally choose between the two strategic possibilities that are open to it, that of allying with China against the Western powers or, conversely, that of drawing closer to the European Union and the United States by isolating an overly ambitious neighbour with whom a tête-à-tête would be too risky.
The first option would lead to a tug-of-war between the Democracies and the two most powerful dictatorships in the world. This could be the premises beginnings of a widespread conflagration, but in the other hypothesis, the isolation of the Chinese regime could help reduce its aggressiveness. Of course, this choice will not become a certainty all at once. It will take not one but several years, but December 2021 was not yet over when the great manoeuvres began, first military and then political.
The Russian troop movements on the Ukrainian border are neverending. The message is clear. Russia still considers itself at home in its former empire and the more the days go by, the more this threat to invade Ukraine also shows that, without an army, the Europeans would not be in a position to counter a Russian advance and that the Americans do not consider doing so for a single moment because their priorities are now in Asia.
Facing Vladimir Putin, Ukraine is alone and, having demonstrated this, Russia is making its demands as one would throw down a challenge. We need, declares its president, American “legal guarantees” to be able to exclude any advance of NATO to our borders and therefore any possibility of Ukraine joining the Atlantic Alliance.
Strangely enough, Vladimir Putin is demanding something here that Joe Biden cannot grant him, since the United States cannot take a decision on its own that would engage the 29 other countries of the Atlantic Alliance, let alone withdraw the Ukrainian candidacy in place of Ukraine. What is even more surprising: France and Germany made it clear a long time ago that they would veto Ukraine’s entry into the Alliance, and the Russian President would like to extract from the Americans a guarantee that the two European powers have already given him.
We are in the midst of full diplomatic confusion, and yet things are speeding up. Joe Biden publicly wishes Russia’s “security concerns” to be examined by the Atlantic Alliance. This is a strong gesture. It is a major success for the Russian president who, moreover, obtains the support of China and thanks it by announcing his arrival at the Olympic Games, where the American leaders will not show up. Everything is going so well for Vladimir Putin that he is putting two draft treaties on the table, one for the Atlantic Alliance, the other for the United States, two documents with which he seems to be saying that the West would have to sign them or risk an invasion of Ukraine.
From one dramatic event to the next, everything happens so fast and so densely that the world does not really perceive the importance of the game in progress. Between the forthcoming end-of-year festivities and the reigniting pandemic, we can hardly hear the Americans say that they will not decide anything without their European allies and will make counter-proposals to the Russians before Christmas, but let’s try to summarise the plot in three points.
What Vladimir Putin has demanded of the US is that it recognise the existence of a Russian zone of influence within the borders of its former empire. Xi Jinping immediately supported this demand in the hope of sealing an alliance with Russia to better confront the West. As for Joe Biden, by mentioning Russian “security concerns”, he opened the way for negotiations between the West and Russia on the conditions for stabilising the European continent.
Everything is pushing the United States, Russia, the European Union and the states in the grey zone – those that have left the USSR but have joined neither the Atlantic Alliance nor the EU – to such negotiations.
The United States has a vested interest in reducing the risk of conflict in the European theatre because it does not want to lose credibility by allowing Russia to invade Ukraine, nor does it want to have to fight two wars at the same time, against Russia in Europe and against China in the Taiwan Strait.
As for Vladimir Putin, two decades after coming to power, he prefers to try to keep his hand on the grey zone by obtaining Western assurances rather than by going for a military intervention that would increase his deficits and further reduce his popularity, since Russians are more in the mood for prosperity than for reconquests.
The 27 Europeans, of course, do not want a war with Russia, which would condemn them to call the United States to the rescue without even being sure of the response, or to take note, with lowered guns and full of shame, of a reconstitution of the Russian empire by force.
As for Ukraine and the entire grey zone, they know from experience that Russia can violate their borders and amputate whole chunks of their territory without the West moving a single tank. Neither the United States nor the Europeans are prepared to die to defend these countries and, beyond the bragging, their security can only depend on a compromise between the West and Russia.
Not only do all four parties have an interest in talks, but each of them knows that the other three know, too. The situation could not be more favourable to the opening and success of a negotiation, but the difficulty is that Vladimir Putin has set the bar too high with his unacceptable demands and that the “security concerns”, above all, are not only Russian.
It can be acknowledged that Russia does not want the Atlantic Alliance to camp on its borders, since the Europeans would not want the Swiss Confederation, for example, in the heart of the Union, to join a military alliance dominated by China or Russia. Mr Putin invokes the “raison d’état” to his advantage, but the fact is that the territorial annexations are not Western but Russian; that the troops amassed on the Ukrainian border are Russian, not European or American; and that if Ukraine is Russia’s western border, it is also the EU’s eastern border.
It is the grey zone and the European Union that are under threat, not Russia, and even if an agreement could be reached on the principle of neutrality of the countries in between, what guarantees of non-interference could the Kremlin give to Kiev and Tbilisi? That is for Mr Putin to say, but it will be as difficult to take him at his word as it will be for him to completely relax his military pressure until he has obtained the “legal guarantees” he has demanded from the United States. So yes, everything is leading to negotiations that should now open very soon but there is no guarantee that they will succeed. A failure remains possible. A war and a Sino-Russian alliance are also possible, and they can only be avoided by slowly enclosing the West and Russia in a long dialogue, the success of which would end up being unavoidable for the simple reason that it is.