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New Atlanticist January 11, 2022

What will Putin do? An expert guide to this week’s high-wire diplomacy with Russia

By Atlantic Council experts

With tens of thousands of Russian troops apparently poised to invade Ukraine at President Vladimir Putin’s signal, the shot clock for serious diplomacy is running out.

On Monday, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with her Kremlin counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, for eight hours in Geneva. The NATO-Russia Council convened in Brussels on Wednesday, and multilateral talks sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) took place in Vienna on Thursday. All failed to produce any breakthroughs.

As the tensions ratchet up, our experts parse through the details, signals, and developments to distill what this moment means for Europe and beyond.

Jump to an expert reaction

Barry Pavel: Five policy principles to follow

Daniel Fried: A moment of truth

Melinda Haring: No surprise—non-starters on the table

John R. Deni: Exploit Putin’s latest mistake

John E. Herbst: Putin’s play for tension

Peter Dickinson: Don’t expect deescalation any time soon

Ben Judah: Invite Liz Truss to Brussels

Damir Marusic: For Russia, Ukraine is just the beginning

Marie Jourdain: How the EU could assert its role

Petr Tůma: Listen to what Europeans are saying

Anna Wieslander: Northern Europe is watching warily

Five policy principles to follow

The Russian Federation under Putin is on the cusp of employing large-scale military forces for cross-border aggression against a sovereign state. It is likely that this action will change the security landscape of Europe in the most significant fashion since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Here are five key principles to help guide US and NATO policy:

  1. Establish dialogue and tailor deterrence. The core US strategy of pursuing dialogue and tailored deterrence—particularly threatening clear retaliation and beefed-up military capabilities closer to Russia—is the right one. But more should be done much sooner in order to deter Putin from launching the invasion.
  2. Threaten what Putin values most. As Putin is trying to cement his own legacy in Russian history, he may care much less about punitive economic sanctions and even increased western military assistance to Ukrainian forces (to support an insurgency against Russian occupying forces). One way around this potential asymmetry of stakes would be to go back to the heart of deterrence—to threaten what Putin values most, and that is his hold on dictatorial power. The United States and NATO should launch a sustained information campaign to inform the Russian people about Putin’s ongoing, massive corruption and theft of billions of dollars from the Russian people for himself, his immediate family, and his cronies.
  3. Look for opportunities. In the pursuit of dialogue, the United States and NATO were wise to rule out Russian demands that impinge on core principles while looking for opportunities to stabilize transatlantic security, for example through resurrecting and adapting arms-control proposals on missiles (especially addressing Russian missiles in Kaliningrad) and through proposals to limit sizable military exercises on a completely reciprocal basis.
  4. It’s not only about “hybrid” threats. While hybrid challenges (e.g., disinformation, cyber, etc.) being continuously carried out by Russia in the United States and Europe remain relevant, this Russia crisis demonstrates that it’s not only about hybrid warfare. This is a classic conventional military buildup threatening the use of raw military power. While it might be accompanied by cyber and disinformation, it’s a reminder that what too many observers consider to be in the realm of last century’s threats—large-scale, cross-border military invasions by aggressive powers like Russia and China—aren’t going away anytime soon. The United States and its close allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific need to continue to strengthen their alliances for such contingencies.
  5. Keep an eye on China/Taiwan. My nightmare defense scenario for several years has been cross-border aggression by Russia or China, and while US and allied forces are flowing to deal with the threat, the other adversary moves opportunistically to threaten another invasion. Even as the Biden administration and US allies are intensively focused on the Russian threat, it would be wise for the United States to engage in diplomacy that makes it very clear that US and allied military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific remain very well-prepared to deal with any Chinese coercive actions vis-à-vis Taiwan.

—Barry Pavel is senior vice president, the director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and a former US national-security official.

A moment of truth

It’s a success of Kremlin diplomacy that NATO enlargement, rather than Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and its threats to widen its war there, has become a central issue. The Kremlin probably recalls the divisions within NATO over Ukrainian and Georgian accession that flared at the 2008 Bucharest NATO Summit and have since lain dormant.

The Biden administration is right to hold the line on NATO’s right to make its own decisions about enlargement. Kremlin complaints about NATO enlargement are disingenuous; its problem is not with potential (and, in fact, nonexistent) threats to the security of Russia itself. From the outset, the United States and NATO have been ready to discuss Russia’s military security as NATO accepted new members and even made—and kept—commitments limiting its military deployments in Europe. The Kremlin’s real problem is that it can’t abide what NATO and European Union (EU) enlargement meant: the realization of a united Europe, with one hundred million Europeans between Germany and Russia finally free after decades of Kremlin oppression and able to join key European and transatlantic institutions. Ukrainians have seen advances in freedom and prosperity to their immediate west since 1989 and, understandably, want some for themselves.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov revealed the Kremlin’s thinking when he called the nations liberated by the fall of communism in 1989 and the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 not free, not sovereign, not liberated—but “territory” (not countries) that were made “ownerless.” Lavrov’s remark is admirably frank; Putin, as the Russian leader has made clear, misses the Soviet Union. He seems to miss its empire in Europe as well, and he wants it back. He wants to intimidate the West into renegotiating the end of the Cold War and surrendering whole countries to Moscow’s control. That’s the meaning of the draft US-Russia and NATO-Russia treaties the Russians published.

If the United States and Europe are steady and make reasonable offers but stand firm in rejecting Kremlin ambitions, Putin may find a way to back down. He controls a propaganda machine and can figure out a way out of his own corner. But the intimidation continues, and perhaps so does preparation for war. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu has reportedly ordered a halt to all military travel outside of Russia (though in response to the Omicron variant of COVID-19). Much will depend on the strength of NATO solidarity. Signs are good so far, but the United States and its European friends and allies will face a moment—more likely moments—of truth in dealing with Putin’s aggressive designs.

Daniel Fried is the Weiser Family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was the coordinator for sanctions policy during the Obama administration, assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia during the Bush administration, and senior director at the National Security Council for the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Non-starters on the table

No surprises so far. The Russians went into the talks snarling and have insisted on security guarantees that are non-starters for the United States. There’s little room for real negotiation. The Russian side seemed to be open to discussion but only to a point, which confirms what we knew all along: Putin will make the final call.

—Melinda Haring is the deputy director of the Eurasia Center.

Exploit Putin’s latest mistake

Vladimir Putin has yet again made a strategic error, not dissimilar to his 2014 invasion of Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea. Those moves decisively pushed Ukraine westward, reversed twenty-five years of declining American military presence in Europe, ended NATO’s pacification, and demonstrably stunted Russian economic development in the vital oil and gas sectors. Today, the reasons offered by Moscow for its massive build-up near Ukraine’s borders are absurd; no policymakers in Washington or Brussels have been seriously discussing Ukrainian membership in NATO recently, nor have they been planning for the installation of missiles—hypersonic or otherwise—in Ukraine. NATO’s limited missile-defense system is no match for Russia’s arsenal, and NATO’s exercises in Eastern Europe pale in comparison to the size and scope of Russia’s. Putin’s actions therefore are most likely aimed at boosting his domestic standing.

This was reinforced by the results of the first full day of negotiations in Geneva. Even though Sherman made clear that most of Russia’s demands of the West are complete non-starters, Ryabkov kept the door open for further negotiations. This gives Putin maximum decision space and allows him to appear magnanimous, statesmanlike, and powerful in the eyes of Russians.

How can, and should, Western diplomacy continue to unfold this week? First, the West should insist that if Russia wants to talk about missiles, it can start by immediately offering intrusive inspections of its military facilities in the exclave of Kaliningrad—where it has deployed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty-violating SSC-8 missile. Similarly, if Moscow wants to limit military exercises by NATO, it can start by returning to compliance with the Vienna Document, which was designed to promote military confidence-building, and the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. These agreements offer ready-made tools to de-escalate and stabilize security in Europe. 

But given Putin’s domestic challenges, I doubt the Kremlin will choose these obvious off-ramps because they are not as likely to strengthen Putin domestically as much as open confrontation will.

John R. Deni is a nonresident senior fellow with the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a research professor at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. The views expressed are his own.

Putin’s play for tension

Monday’s talks between the United States and Russia in Geneva took no steps to ease the crisis created by Putin’s decision to mass troops on and near Ukraine’s borders. That is no surprise. Putin is trying to intimidate the United States, NATO, the EU, and Ukraine into making concessions by threatening a large, conventional military offensive in Ukraine. But what he is asking for—a guarantee of no NATO enlargement and no NATO weapons on the territory of NATO members that joined the Alliance after the fall of the Soviet Union—is unacceptable for both the United States and NATO. And Deputy Secretary of State Sherman made that clear in Monday’s talks.

Putin has a dilemma. He is threatening military action unless his unacceptable terms are accepted. But he also worries that the United States, NATO, and the EU would respond to such military action with punishing sanctions, more weapons to Ukraine, and strengthening of NATO forces along the border with Russia. While he threatens a major invasion, he controls the crisis. By actually escalating, he exposes himself to a major counterpunch that he can likely manage, but at major cost. While Putin has been a serial predator since the cyberattack on Estonia in 2007 and his war against Georgia in 2008, he has avoided aggression where he knows the costs are high.

What does this mean? First, of course, let’s see what the talks at NATO and the OSCE bring. But the factors in play suggest that Putin has an interest in maintaining a high level of tension for some time.

—John E. Herbst is the senior director of the Eurasia Center and a former US ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

Don’t expect deescalation any time soon

This week’s talks have not produced any major surprises, but they have provided a welcome opportunity to send a message to the Kremlin of Western unity and resolve. By presenting a list of entirely unrealistic security demands, Putin hoped to divide and weaken the West; so far, his gambit appears to have had the opposite effect. The ball is now back in his court, and he must react to the wholesale rejection of his ultimatum. 

It remains impossible to rule out a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Putin also has a range of other options to consider, such as cyber attacks and localized military offensives in the east or south of the country. One thing is clear: We should not expect to see signs of de-escalation any time soon. In a speech to Russian diplomats in November 2021, Putin indicated that he intended to maintain a sense of heightened tension in Russia’s relations with the West “for as long as possible” as a form of aggressive deterrence. The easiest way for him to achieve this is by continuing to threaten a dramatic escalation in his war against Ukraine. Meaningful compromise is impossible, given the nature of Russia’s demands; nothing short of Ukraine’s complete capitulation would satisfy Putin, who regards the country’s ongoing democratization and Euro-Atlantic integration as an existential threat to the future of his own authoritarian regime.

Instead, the possibility of a major European war will remain until Ukraine’s status as part of the Western world is no longer in doubt.  

Peter Dickinson is the editor of UkraineAlert.

Invite Liz Truss to Brussels 

There has been an element of pathos to see both British and EU officials continue to plug away at their Brexit disputes as if there is not a care in the strategic sky. Meanwhile, the poor state of their relationship is holding them both back on the Ukraine crisis. 

Britain, with a fresh vigor under new Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, has been the most active major European country in defending Ukrainian sovereignty. However, bad ties with Brussels are hampering its ability to build coalitions with EU member states to support Ukraine. Meanwhile, Brussels is not helping itself with such poor ties to London. The UK diplomatic and intelligence networks in both Kyiv and Moscow continue to be a prized asset with significant capacity. Britain has been providing Ukraine with significant military aid. Brussels, however, is finding out last when it comes to either British moves or new information. 

There is no breakthrough in sight over the most intractable legacy issue of Brexit—Northern Ireland. The EU and the United Kingdom need to look at this crisis and think about where they want the relationship to be. Brussels initially wanted to conclude an EU-UK foreign policy, security, and defense agreement that could have seen British diplomats attend meetings of the EU Foreign Affairs Council as observers. The EU should begin discreetly inviting them to informally consult these meetings on matters to do with the security crisis in Eastern Europe. Following this, the UK foreign secretary should be invited, in the same manner that US secretaries of state have been in the past, for an informal breakfast before the meeting; that could go a long way in setting a precedent.

—Ben Judah is a senior fellow with the Europe Center.

For Russia, Ukraine is just the beginning

This is not a crisis having to do with Ukraine, but rather an attempt by a revisionist power—Russia—to rewrite the European security order itself. 

Let us turn to the narrow question of Ukraine first. Brutally put, Ukraine’s future is in its own hands. Should Moscow choose to invade, if Kyiv is willing to send its youth to fight the Russian war machine, the West should, of course, support it with arms. The best deterrent to future adventurism is if Russia finds an invasion of Ukraine costly, bloody, and excruciatingly painful. It should be made abundantly clear that no amount of Ukrainian sacrifice will cause the Western cavalry to be called in, but if Ukrainians are ready to fight, the West should stand by to assist.

Similarly, if Kyiv feels compelled to sue for peace given these realities, the West should not stand in the way of its capitulation. The idea that sovereignty is a universal right was a conceit sustainable only as long as the unipolar moment held. It is clear that the valuable lessons Thucydides taught millennia ago have been forgotten or ignored by the post-Cold War generation.

Ukraine, however, is just a sideshow—a by-the-way target as Russia pursues its ultimate goal. Moscow’s December 17 demands were not a maximalist list to be whittled down during negotiations; Russian diplomats repeatedly asserted that it was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. We should take the Russians at their word. If one does, it becomes clear that neither a successful invasion nor a peaceful subornment of Ukraine will be the end of the story. 

If Putin is intent on drawing an iron curtain across his periphery, the West must rise to his challenge, and fast. NATO ought to be preparing for a protracted standoff with Russia at its members’ borders. Instead of working to de-escalate a situation that the Russians themselves created, NATO should be ramping up its forces up and down its eastern flank, from Poland and the Baltics to Romania, even as Russia musters its forces around Ukraine. Western leaders should also stop treating crises, such as the ones on the Poland-Belarus border or the brewing secessionism in Bosnia, as unrelated events. Such chaos may not be remote-controlled from Moscow, but it is certainly being instrumentalized.

Damir Marusic is a senior fellow with the Europe Center.

How the EU could assert its role

European security is a European matter: “We are no longer in Yalta times,” EU High Representative Josep Borrell said during his January 5 visit to Ukraine. It is clear that Russia intends to discuss Europe’s fate directly with the United States, which is more than just the dismissal of Europeans as legitimate interlocutors. Moscow cannot accept its relegation behind Beijing, the essential strategic competitor of the United States. Bilateral discussions—such as the two Biden-Putin talks in December and the gathering of top US and Russian diplomats this week—are already Russian victories in that regard.

Yet the United States actively reassured Europeans when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States wouldn’t “do or commit to anything about Europe without Europe”(although he didn’t completely alleviate their concerns). For instance, Biden’s debriefing to his fellow members of the NATO Quint (France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom) following his December 7 discussion with Putin fed other European countries’ fears that they’d be cast aside. 

In any case, the sequence of events demonstrated that Biden has learned his lesson from the Afghanistan crisis: maintain unity with the Europeans. While many are quick to show the differences within the transatlantic community regarding the right approach toward Russia, the Group of Seven (G7) proved them wrong on December 12, when foreign ministers (including those from France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom) said in a statement that “any further military aggression against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe cost in response.” From that point of view, Russia, eager to play bilaterally, has so far failed in dividing the transatlantic community. 

Ensuring continued close coordination with Europe and the EU will be essential in the coming weeks to deny Russia the possibility of settling a new security architecture exclusively with the United States. In the meantime, the EU is not an observer at the OSCE, nor a participant in the Normandy Format talks among Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France. The EU must demonstrate what it can bring to the table: The bloc was not invited to the NATO Foreign Affairs meeting on January 7, even though it retains some of the key instruments to respond if the situation were to escalate further. Russian concerns over the Ukrainian course are as much about Ukraine’s potential future membership in NATO as its deepening ties with the EU (including an association agreement and seventeen billion euros of EU support since 2014). The EU’s legitimacy as a key interlocutor is also at play in this crisis.

Another observation about the potential longer-term consequences is the impact on French-Russian relations at a critical point, during which France holds the presidency of the Council of the EU. Paris has always defended a dual approach toward Moscow: firmness and dialogue. It is also cautious to avoid fueling escalation with Russia. Yet the lack of tangible results from the bilateral France-Russia strategic dialogue since its launch in 2019, Russia’s behavior in Europe (such as the poisonings of Sergei Skripal and Alexei Navalny, support to Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and the denigration of the Normandy Format) and parts of Africa where France is involved (the reported deployment of private Russian paramilitary troops from the Wagner Group in the Central African Republic and Mali) put Paris at a crossroads with Moscow. That’s all the more true during an election year in France.

In this context, the EU must first be more united in its policy toward Russia; the coming Strategic Compass provides such opportunity. On Ukraine, it could implement the assistance measure adopted under the European Peace Facility in early December, which intends to “help strengthen the capacities of the Ukrainian Armed Forces” (particularly on medical and cyber issues). The EU could go further in launching a Common Security and Defense Policy mission in Ukraine (but exclude any training of the Ukrainian military to avoid fueling escalation with Russia). Furthermore, a new joint declaration on EU-NATO cooperation could emphasize the areas of cooperation highlighted by the ongoing crisis that the partners need to deepen, such as information sharing or hybrid threats.

Marie Jourdain is a visiting fellow at the Europe Center and previously worked for the French Ministry of Defense’s Directorate General for International Relations and Strategy.

Listen to what Europeans are saying

EU foreign ministers, joined by their defense counterparts, are gathering Thursday and Friday in Brest, France, for an informal meeting known as Gymnich—and there should be a lot of talk about Ukraine. So far, the group has not been able to produce an appropriate response, yielding to the perpetual discussions among the twenty-seven member states—as if there wasn’t a looming war at European doorsteps with potentially enormous consequences, including yet another refugee wave flooding the already fragile continent. Do we need a new “aha moment,” as in 2014, when Russia shot down a Malaysian airliner with more than three hundred people on board, finally convincing those EU members still opposed to measures to deal with Moscow’s involvement in the eastern Ukraine conflict?  

The EU should bring real and tangible support to Ukraine. Sure, you can always claim that such engagement may further intensify the tensions. Yet this is the approach that led Europe to where it is now.

For example, there’s an ongoing discussion about the establishment of an EU military advisory and training mission in Ukraine, focused on reform of the military education system. Europeans have been talking about it for more than six months. One major country is blocking it. (To give you a hint, think of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.) 

The same applies to sending armaments and other help to Ukrainian forces, following the US lead. Europe should support Ukraine’s resiliency, hybrid and cyber warfare capabilities, or information operations—and do so systematically, not in sudden spasms as it is now. Even if a diplomatic solution is reached today, the issue won’t disappear as long as Putin is in the Kremlin. Europe is dealing with a long-haul Russian strategy, and its duty is to make Putin’s plans too expensive economically and politically.

In case joint US-NATO efforts to find a diplomatic solution fail, the EU should prepare tough sanctions, closely coordinated with the United States (which is fortunately happening now). If things get nasty, the EU may consider approaches that helped the Americans defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. 

Europe has the tools to deal with Russian malign behavior in the neighborhood. What it is missing is a political will. However, there’s a potential for change now. The current situation can help EU countries that had previously favored their economic interests and bilateral relations with Russia to pay more attention to what Central and Eastern Europe are saying, with their closer exposure to Moscow. They will be on the front line if Putin decides to invade Ukraine. In the long term, the Eastern Partnership format may also gain new relevance, especially regarding the so-called Associated Trio: Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia.

European leaders have to increase their contacts with their Ukrainian counterparts. It’s commendable that EU High Representative Josep Borrell is showing more interest in Ukraine than his predecessor, recently visiting Kyiv as well as the line of contact—which separates government-controlled areas from those of Russian-backed rebels—along with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. It’s time for change. 

—Petr Tůma is a visiting fellow with the Europe Center and a Czech career diplomat.

Northern Europe is watching warily

​​Northern Europe is at the frontline of any major conflict between Russia and Europe, which is why it’s watching warily both the build-up of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border (and in Belarus) and the results of this week’s talks. Any concessions on NATO’s open-door policy, exercise patterns, or troop presence are unacceptable—both for allies and close partners Sweden and Finland.

Allies in the region have started strengthening deterrence, which is key for this region, since Russia has military supremacy and distances are short. Denmark, for instance, has decided to add a frigate to NATO’s standing naval force and four F-16 fighter jets for air-surveillance and the defense of Baltic airspace. The United Kingdom, which leads NATO’s enhanced forward presence in Estonia, has used the Joint Expeditionary Force—trained to deal with grey zone scenarios in the Baltic Sea region—for consultations, while Defense Secretary Ben Wallace visited both Sweden and Finland this week. 

For non-allied Sweden and Finland, it is important to be active by clearly marking red lines toward Russia and by demonstrating their usefulness as security providers in the region. Since both are interoperable with NATO, plugging into allied deterrence measures is a realistic option if the situation were to deteriorate. Russia’s behavior has sparked intense debate about joining NATO in both Stockholm and Helsinki— but to actually apply is a different story.

—Anna Wieslander is the director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council and a former Swedish defense official.

Further reading

Related Experts: Barry Pavel, Daniel Fried, Melinda Haring, John R. Deni, John E. Herbst, Peter Dickinson, and Ben Judah

Image: Russian and US flags are pictured before talks between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman at the United States Mission in Geneva, Switzerland on January 10, 2022. Photo via REUTERS/Denis Balibouse.