Russian-American Escalation: How Did We Get Here? | Conflict
Over the past year, tensions between Russia on one side and Ukraine and the West on the other have erupted, fueling fears of yet another armed conflict. The two sides exchanged accusations of provoking a military escalation and there was even a conspicuous movement of troops into the frozen theater of war in eastern Ukraine.
Despite hostile postures on both sides, for now, it looks like the brinkle game has ended in a dead end. To understand why this escalation took place and how it reveals the fundamental flaws in American strategy in the former Soviet space, it is important to look back on the unfolding of events over the past year.
The stalemate began almost immediately after US President Joe Biden took office in January this year. It coincided with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s brutal shift from the compromise-seeking dove he was known as the Russian Falcon.
In what appeared to be a coordinated effort, Biden and Zelensky attempted a more assertive policy towards Russia in an attempt to achieve tangible results for Kiev, which is at war with Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine since 2014.
With Biden in power, Zelensky launched a legal attack on Putin’s Ukrainian ally, Viktor Medvedchuk, a local oligarch who chaired a key media holding company. In February, he issued a decree sanctioning Medvedchuk and banning his TV channels, which had helped his opposition party – For Life to overtake Zelensky’s People’s Servant in opinion polls in December 2020.
At the same time, Ukrainian leaders, aided by influential think tanks in the United States, embarked on a public relations campaign for Ukraine’s membership in NATO. Zelensky also attempted to bring the Crimean question back to the forefront by issuing a decree on the desoccupation of the peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014.
Sensing that the opposing side was trying to upset the delicate balance struck at the end of the hot phase of the war in 2015, Putin responded in March with his signature brutality – by deploying menacing military force on the Ukrainian border.
This came just two weeks after the publication of an article by a NATO-related think tank, the Atlantic Council, outlining a set of recommendations to the Biden administration by a group of senior officials. diplomats specializing in the countries of the former Soviet Union. For now, it looks like Biden is closely following his suggestions.
The document called for the United States to resume the peace settlement effort in Ukraine, previously led by France and Germany, and push Russia to make concessions. If Moscow continued to show “intransigence”, it suggested offering Ukraine a roadmap for NATO membership.
The document also calls for derailing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which aims to supply Russian natural gas to Germany. For Putin, this is a key project that allows him to bypass Ukraine, save billions of dollars in transit fees and avoid political headaches. For this reason, Nord Stream 2 was and remains a key part of the ongoing game on the brink.
The American effort to defeat this project was initially championed by President Donald Trump, who was hardly known to be particularly concerned about the plight of Ukraine. He pushed for Nord Stream 2 to be sanctioned out of consideration for the interests of US liquefied gas producers. His administration has dressed this policy with sharp rhetoric, presenting the pipeline as a powerful energy weapon, with which Russia would strangle the Ukrainian economy and bring Europe to its knees.
When Biden took over from Trump, Nord Stream 2 was still far from over. This gave Washington and Kiev a window of opportunity to make gains on three fronts: forcing Russia to make concessions in peace talks with Ukraine; with any luck – derail Nord Stream; and the least plausible – to obtain the adhesion of France and Germany to the accession of Ukraine to NATO.
At first, the biggest obstacle to these plans turned out to be German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who strongly supported the completion of Nord Stream 2. But she would soon quit her post, while the German Greens, fiercely opposed to the project , were quickly in the polls ahead of the German parliamentary elections in September.
Considering the importance of the project to Putin, it made no sense for him to take hostile measures in Ukraine during the pipeline construction and certification period, let alone a full-scale invasion. The rally was intended to signal what would happen if the United States and Ukraine continued to push back its red lines.
The Americans took advantage of Russia’s threatening measures and tried to sell the fear of invasion to the German public and political elite to get them to stop construction of the pipeline. They assumed Putin was bluffing and wouldn’t act if the project got called off, except he wasn’t. Of course, there was never any question of a full-fledged invasion, which is the fruit of the American public imagination. But a limited operation without a major land grab, aimed at forcing Ukraine into an even more humiliating truce, would have been entirely possible.
The plan to outsmart Putin failed in the first round. Merkel’s government would not stop construction of the pipeline, while the Greens began to lose momentum in the election campaign. Fearing that too much pressure would alienate Germany, Biden eventually agreed to lift US opposition to Nord Stream 2. But he managed to get Merkel to make a loosely worded promise on limiting Russia’s energy export capabilities – which could possibly include shutting down Nord Stream 2 – if Russia invaded Ukraine.
Construction of the pipeline was completed in early September, from which the four-month certification period began. In elections held the same month, the Greens came only in third place, but this turned them into kingmakers in the new coalition, with their leader Annalena Baerbock in sight for the post of Foreign Minister – a job she would eventually get.
As the coalition talks continued, a few escalating measures – a Turkish-made Bayraktar drone attack on pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and US warships sailing the Black Sea – followed suit. resulted in increased Russian military reinforcement in Ukraine. frontier. It was at this point that the United States embarked on a final public relations offensive, making highly alarmist statements at the highest level and sharing classified information with NATO allies, which ostensibly proved the malicious intentions of Russia.
They exaggerated it. The fear seemed far too real, making one wonder whether the goals the United States attempted to achieve in this scam game were worth risking a conflict between two nuclear superpowers.
In the end, Washington failed to push out Putin’s red lines, but instead exposed his own, when Biden conceded in early December that he would not send US troops to protect Ukraine. With that clearly articulated, Putin launched a counterattack demanding guarantees from NATO that he would not expand into the former Soviet space. As for Ukraine, it is emerging from this turmoil more vulnerable to Russian aggression than it was at the start of the year.
There is symbolism in the fact that this escalation took place exactly 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, marked last December. It’s quite ironic that at this very moment the doctrine, which the United States has followed throughout these three decades, which has boiled down to alienating Russia from its immediate neighbors, has finally hit the wall.
The only thing he has accomplished so far is to feed Putin’s dictatorial regime and continue to support it by giving it contradictory legitimacy. The Russian leader is feeding off the confrontation, from which everyone loses. The United States would be well advised to engage in some serious soul-searching before proceeding any further.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.