The month of February will be decisive for the future of Ukraine. Russia has indeed mobilized since December nearly one hundred thousand men not far from their common border. It has also scheduled large-scale military exercises from Wednesday in Belarus, its ally, which will bring its tanks to a hundred kilometers from Kiev. Other naval and air maneuvers are planned in the Arctic, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
These deployments are of great concern. They can create a volatile situation conducive to provocations and misinterpretations. Preventively, the United States and the Europeans have developed a strategy of deterrence by insisting that action in Ukraine would expose Russia to economic sanctions of an unprecedented scale.
The Kremlin, however, is a past master in hybrid conflicts where armed force is only one element of the panoply. The pressure it exerts has several objectives. The first is to block the evolution of its neighbor towards Western Europe, to make it a buffer state, or even to vassalize it. Vladimir Poutine said it publicly: for him, Russians and Ukrainians form the same people, and the independence of Ukraine after the dislocation of the USSR in 1991 is a betrayal of History. The 2014 uprising in Kiev against a pro-Russian regime was a personal setback for the ruler of the Kremlin, who responded by annexing Crimea and sparking a secessionist conflict in the Donbass region. Ukraine continuing despite everything its rapprochement with the European Union and NATO, Moscow demanded a written commitment from the United States according to which it would never be admitted to the Atlantic Alliance. The American refusal, at the end of January, could fuel a victim propaganda according to which Russia would be, as a result, threatened.
The Kremlin’s second objective is to expand its area of influence in Central Europe. Here again, Vladimir Putin retains the vision of the former KGBist who served in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall: that of a USSR protected by “satellite countries”. Reconstituting this glacis is of course impossible: all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (1) have since joined NATO and the European Union. But he is betting on a long-term reduction in American involvement on the Old Continent and on a disintegration of the EU. It anticipates zones of influence within the framework of a future “security architecture” in Europe. Finally, Vladimir Putin aspires to restore a relationship of equals between Russia and the United States, like a nostalgia for the Cold War. A negotiation on the Russian and American nuclear arsenals in Europe could help him there.
To achieve his various goals, the master of the Kremlin relies on conflict. However, the Ukrainian and Western responses have been clever enough for two months not to give him a pretext. By stating from the outset that they would not send troops to Ukraine even in the event of Russian aggression, the United States and NATO deprived Vladimir Putin of an argument of legitimization. This firm and restrained attitude, which combines dialogue and warning, must be maintained during the coming weeks. Hoping, then, the de-escalation.