Status: 01/31/2022 7:17 p.m
Even after the intensive exchange between Russia and NATO, an escalation must be expected, says expert Fischer in an interview. She explains what scope there is beyond the maximum requirements.
tagesschau.de: For all we know, did NATO and US responses to Russia’s demand for security guarantees bring any movement into the Ukraine conflict?
Sabine Fischer: The fact that NATO and the US agreed to respond in writing to Moscow’s demands, which were handed over and published in December, was essentially a movement in itself. It was the result of the rounds of talks in the second week of January, when talks between Russia and the US took place bilaterally and within the framework of the NATO-Russia Council and the OSCE. The Western side’s willingness to respond to Russia’s request for a written response to the two draft treaties was an important continuation of these talks.
As far as one can conclude from the public statements made by Western politicians, both responses, which are also coordinated with each other and with the transatlantic partners, contain a number of proposals on conventional and nuclear arms control, on confidence-building and transparency measures, especially with regard to European security, and also to re-establish direct channels of communication between Russia and NATO.
The two answers to the demands for written security guarantees were negative, which would primarily mean that NATO should under no circumstances be allowed to expand any further. Here the question is what is Moscow’s next step. We don’t know anything about that yet, because in the end it will be decided by one person, and that is Vladimir Putin. So we have to wait.
Sabine Fischer is a senior fellow in the research group Eastern Europe and Eurasia at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik. Her main topics include Russian foreign and security policy and unresolved conflicts in the eastern EU neighborhood.
What is the Russian answer?
tagesschau.de: However, Putin has explained that these answers are not enough for him. So is the danger of a military escalation in eastern Ukraine still high?
Fischer: Indeed, the Russian side has indicated that it does not feel that its security concerns have been adequately addressed. However, we still don’t have a concrete answer. Moscow has made a close connection between its maximum demands for written, legally binding security guarantees and other steps in the areas of disarmament, arms control, confidence-building measures and also closer cooperation with regard to European security. We do not yet know whether Russia will be ready, in response to these Western letters, to discuss these other issues further, regardless of its maximum demands, or not. If Moscow were willing to do this, further negotiation steps and greater leeway could result.
If they don’t agree to do so, things can quickly become a dead end. But we don’t know that yet. As long as the Russian troops are on the Russian-Ukrainian border and as long as the military threatening gesture is maintained, an escalation must always be expected. But again, it is unclear to what extent Putin will choose to actually use these troops in the context of these direct negotiations. We are in a kind of vacuum right now and we don’t know what the next step of the Russian side will be. But the different scenarios have to be thought through and their consequences questioned.
“We don’t know Putin’s calculations”
tagesschau.de: With a view to Ukraine’s possible NATO accession, Russia has made demands that NATO was hardly able to meet. This makes a response for NATO highly sensitive, but also puts Russia itself in a quandary. Can Russia at some point do anything other than act more militarily in eastern Ukraine so as not to lose face?
Fischer: The danger is there, but whether Putin will lose face and what the cost will depend heavily on the Kremlin’s calculations and the goals it is pursuing. It may be that the Russian side kicked the ball wide in order to reach shorter goals. But it may be that he really insists on these maximum demands, that people really believed in December that NATO could be forced to accept such self-commitments. It depends on this calculation. We just don’t know, and that makes the situation very precarious and extremely difficult to assess.
The problem of opacity
tagesschau.de: If Putin actually thought that last December, wouldn’t he have been extremely badly advised?
Fischer: In that case one would have to assume that he was either very badly advised or that he cut himself off from any form of sound advice. There is always speculation in Moscow that he has become increasingly isolated in the course of the pandemic, that he hardly deals with his surroundings anymore – but that’s all speculation. I’m extremely careful about that. The Russian system is so opaque that we cannot say anything with certainty.
“The escalation comes from Russia”
tagesschau.de: Individual NATO countries want to increase military aid to Ukraine. Is this now unavoidable or does it also contribute to the escalation?
Fischer: The current escalation comes primarily from the Russian side. One must not forget that when looking at Ukraine. I think that Western countries should support Ukraine in its ability to defend itself. In what form, by whom, and how this is embedded in a broader policy aimed at stabilizing Ukraine from within, must be discussed in detail.
tagesschau.de: Is the accusation that NATO forced Russia to act in this way through its enlargements and cooperation with Ukraine justified?
Fischer: In the past few decades, there have certainly been repeated misjudgments on the western side of how Russia perceives developments in Europe, especially in the Russian neighbourhood. The debate in the 2000s, which was also strongly promoted from the USA, about long-term accession prospects for Ukraine and Georgia was problematic in this respect and has enormously fueled the geopolitical tensions in this region. The US withdrawal from the ABM treaty in the early 2000s was also a huge issue from a Russian perspective. And so there were steps that the West took again and again that did not have a calming effect on the geopolitical situation in Europe and especially in the Russian neighborhood.
At the same time, domestic political developments in Russia play a major role in formulating foreign policy. Here we are dealing with an authoritarian political system that has become very hardened. This dynamic has a strong impact on the formulation of foreign policy – for example, in the form of the idea of Russia as a great power in international relations, which must have a buffer zone in terms of influence and security policy. This notion creates a blind spot as far as the sovereignty of neighboring countries is concerned. Moscow denies them the freedom to determine their own foreign policy orientation. Western politics has little influence on this phenomenon and these developments. However, both have a very strong impact on Russian policy towards Ukraine or Georgia and other states in the region. Of course, Russian politics has always reacted to Western politics. But these factors operate more powerfully and explain more of what we see as Russian foreign policy today.
The conversation was led by Eckart Aretz, tagesschau.de