Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


US President Joe Biden on January 2 reassured his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy that Washington and its allies “will respond decisively” if Russia moves to invade Ukraine.

Putin warned Biden that imposing new sanctions over Ukraine could lead to a complete breakdown in relations.  He also said he wants guarantees that any future expansion of NATO must exclude Ukraine and other former Soviet countries, and also demanded that the military alliance remove offensive weaponry from countries in the region.

High-ranking US and Russian officials are due to sit down on January 9 and 10 in Geneva to discuss the crisis. Russia-NATO Council talks and a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are also due to take place and to focus on Ukraine.

Current situation

The show of US support for Ukraine comes days after Biden warned Putin of severe consequences if Moscow invades the former Soviet country. The US leader added that he had "made it clear to President Putin that we will have severe sanctions, we will increase our presence in Europe, with NATO allies" if Russia invades Ukraine.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, after speaking on 26 December with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, urged Russia to "engage meaningfully" in the upcoming talks on the tense standoff between Moscow and Kiev. Stoltenberg said that NATO was "united" and "prepared for dialogue."

Meanwhile the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared “We will not allow our initiatives to be drowned in endless discussions. If no constructive answer comes in a reasonable time and the West continues its aggressive course, Russia will have to take all necessary measures to maintain a strategic balance and remove unacceptable threats to our security.”

Lavrov added “As for residents of Donbas, where hundreds of thousands of our citizens live, Russia will take all necessary measures to protect them. An adequate response will be given to any possible military provocations by Kyiv against Donbas.”

Lavrov stressed the unease of Russia that, after losing Eastern Europe and the Balkans, considers Ukraine the last barrier able to physically and geographically separate itself from Europe and NATO. The possible transition of Ukraine in the “Western Orbit” would surely intensify Russia's “encirclement syndrome”.

Meanwhile, in what can be a move that can further strain relations between Ukraine and Russia, Ukraine on January 1 closed its ports to Russian ships thus denying access to Russian ships (cargo and passenger) to its inland waters.

A comparison between Ukraine and Finland?

In December 1939, Finnish soldiers defending their country against the vastly superior Soviet Red Army achieved a spectacular breakthrough in the town of Tolvajarvi and for 10 more weeks the Finns miraculously managed to keep the Soviets at bay.

Could the 1939 Finnish demonstration give Ukrainians courage to face the prospect of a winter war? Of course, the Finns believed in their government because they knew it to be united, principled and incorruptible.

Creating similar national unity would certainly be difficult for Ukraine, given that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was recently implicated in the Pandora Papers. The self-declared man of the people was found to own offshore companies, which his business partners had used to buy luxury properties in London.

Achieving national unity also won’t be aided by the fact that Ukrainian civil servants have managed to accumulate $ 2.6 billion in Bitcoin.

In any case, the Ukrainians are in a worse situation, especially since their terrain is much less defendable. It’s also terrain where the Russians are used to operating.

Russia and Europe

To succeed in the US – Russia game, the US and its allies need to negotiate with the Russians from a position of strength. They need to credibly deter Moscow in order to open space for real negotiations. That is why the US is communicating to Putin its readiness to ramp up economic sanctions - “like none he’d ever seen”, in Biden’s words, in case of war.

However, it is not clear to what extent European allies would follow suit. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has been calling for caution. Germany’s new governing coalition between the left, the Greens and the liberals, could find itself divided on the issue, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz taking a dovish line and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock pushing for a tough response.

As a matter of fact, Russian natural resources are essential in Europe for keeping lights on and houses heated, for flying airliners and a lot of other things:  a cut-off of Russian gas to Europe would be a catastrophe (freezing out the Europeans similarly to the Armies of Napoleon and Hitler which had to withdraw defeated and frozen).

Anyway, Russia has no illusion that Europe is capable of an independent foreign policy. Putin has publicly stated that diplomacy with Europe is pointless because European politicians represent US interests, not Europe's. Europe appears at once impotent, alarmed and perplexed. Europe needs Russia more than vice versa. The question is whether the other side hasn't already long since bolted the door.

Needless to say, Russia will do its best to exploit any political rifts that might emerge within Europe and NATO. Thus far Putin’s strategy is paying off. Moscow has been transacting with Washington as a near geopolitical peer. At a time, when the US is fixated on rising China, this is no small feat.

Russia and China

In late October, a Sino-Russian fleet of 10 ships conducted an unusual military exercise, nearly circling the Japanese archipelago. Russia agreed to cooperate with China to intimidate Japan because it wanted China to be in its debt.

If Russia seizes eastern Ukraine amid the confusion in Europe caused by the pandemic and oil shortages, the West will doubtlessly strengthen economic sanctions against Russia, even if it doesn’t launch a military counterattack. But if China moves to Russia’s defense, Moscow can avoid isolation from the rest of the world and also obtain basic necessities from China. If Russia can support the livelihood of its people, it can buy time to wait for the situation to change in its favor.

The Russian and Chinese governments both understand that their existence is threatened by US hegemonic ambitions. In order to defeat US plans to marginalize them, Russia and China, the Bear and the Dragon, are closely cooperating on the economic and military fronts. They have also joined their efforts in the energy, space and nuclear sectors.

Russia and the United States

Already in 2014 Putin did maintain that the US, trying to reorganize the world according to its own interests, is responsible for the rise of Islamist terrorism as well as the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Whereas the US cavalry intervenes around the world, Washington reproaches Russia for doing exactly that in Ukraine.

Putin did quote the Latin saying “Quod licet Iovi non licet Bovi” (“What Jupiter is allowed, the Ox is not.”), stressing the US double standard. He went on maintaining: “But the Bear will not ask for permission, he is the master of the taiga and will not cede it to anyone.”

Whereas in the past the Russians considered themselves European, they now realize that they are a distinct civilization subject to concerted Western efforts to destroy it. The birthplace of their Orthodox Christianity is Crimea, their ancient capital is Kiev, with Moscow being the “Third Rome” (after Rome and Constantinople).

If separatists divide Eastern Ukraine the West will have to resign itself to that development. If that happens, then Russia will have succeeded with its strategy for the third time since the end of the Soviet Union. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway republics of Georgia, are under Russian control, as is the Transnistria region of Moldavia. The consequences being that neither country is able to join NATO because any candidate member state must have previously resolved all border disputes with its neighbors prior to accession.

Washington knows that Russia cannot be turned into a vassal state as long as Putin is in office. Therefore, the demonization of Putin and plots against him will continue.

The US is opposing a divided Ukraine, but the US would have reacted badly had Moscow helped overthrow a Washington-friendly government in Mexico. Ukraine will matter much more to Russia than to the US, just as Mexico will always matter much more to Washington than to Moscow. Putin acted to defend what he saw as Russian interests, not to challenge US security.

It might shock some Americans, but not everything that happens in the world is about the US. This is not a serious security threat for US: Moscow's intervention in Ukraine was all about Russia. Russia is not the Soviet Union and Moscow wants respect and border security. The US has no reason to deny the first or challenge the second.

A possible way out?

Paradoxically, rushing arms to Ukraine in hopes of protecting it could end up endangering the country by triggering a Russian attack. And far from boosting American credibility, it will end up eroding it. Having armed Ukraine, the United States will not go further and save it from defeat if that requires fighting Russia. That is the harsh reality.

A neutral Ukraine would satisfy Putin, but Biden would face fierce political blowback at home in the (unlikely) event that he yields to Putin’s demand that Ukraine forswear NATO and strongarms Ukraine into accepting neutrality.

There’s a second option, albeit one that would require big concessions by Ukraine and Russia. The terms for admitting new NATO members, states that they should first resolve “ethnic disputes or external territorial disputes” involving them. This provision could be invoked to defer Ukraine’s entry into the alliance indefinitely, but without shutting the door forever.

In exchange, Russia would acknowledge Ukraine’s inherent right of self-defense including the freedom to acquire arms and receive military training from countries of its choosing. Ukraine would reciprocate by pledging not to permit Western military bases in its territory and to extend that ban to NATO members’ military aircraft and cruise or ballistic missiles. In return, Russia would agree to a demilitarized zone along its side of the Ukrainian border.

This formula doesn’t amount to a comprehensive settlement of the Russia-Ukraine dispute, but it could give each side something to tout as success while tamping down the immediate crisis.


Putin will push for Ukraine to drop or at least postpone any aspirations to join NATO while exploiting the insurgency in the east to stress the issue of the right of self-determination so as to achieve the maximum degree of independence/autonomy/ decentralization for the Russian-speakers.

The violence of what Kiev is calling its “anti-terrorist operation” in Donbas is hardening local sentiment with more civilian deaths and a sense of siege. Many of the fighters in Ukraine are not under Russia control and are not motivated by the sheer lust in fighting: the West should have recognized this fact long ago. It is necessary to deal with separatists, by establishing a working relationship with Russia.

The Ukrainian army alone cannot bring the country under control, and diplomatic efforts have not made real progress beyond a stream of telephone calls back and forth. There is the danger that instability could spread to all of Ukraine (Putin may want a weak Ukraine, but not a chaotic country divided by a civil war): there is therefore the need to resort to the potentials of the NATO-Russia Council and of the OSCE.

We are at a very dangerous crossroads with the confrontation between the two major nuclear powers, namely US and Russia. The worst case scenario remains WW III which hopefully will not occur but, for planning purposes, is not an abstract concept.

Nuclear war has no winner: a USA – Russia nuclear war, fought with less than half of USA or Russian strategic nuclear weapons, would wipe out mankind along with all other forms of life.