Thoughts of “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men” may be a lovely sentiment nowadays – but not on Ukraine’s border. The Russians are still there, and President Vladimir Putin is making demands with gusto. Moscow’s recent ultimatums are included in a list of security stipulations published by the Kremlin. The Associated Press reported that the Kremlin’s proposals were submitted to the United States the week of Dec. 13, among them a call for “a ban on sending U.S. and Russian warships and aircraft to areas from where they can strike each other’s territory, along with a halt to NATO military drills near Russia.” That sounds reasonable, right? Well, let’s unpack this.
U.S. and NATO warships would be proscribed from entering the Black Sea for exercises because that would put them close enough to “strike” Russian territory. But Moscow’s warships are already ported at Sevastopol in Ukrainian Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. From the Crimean seaport, Putin’s warships are already in position to strike Ukraine. So, an agreement to this demand would be completely advantageous to Russia and totally limit the United States and its European allies.
But what amounts to “orders” by Putin’s government doesn’t stop with allied naval vessel operations, according to Reuters. The Kremlin’s “demands contain elements – such as an effective Russian veto on future NATO membership for Ukraine – that the West has already ruled out.”
Meanwhile, is there a corresponding good-faith offer on Russia’s part? Just the opposite appears to be the case. As a recent article in Military Times explained, “With 120,000 Russian troops now arrayed along the Ukrainian border, officials in Washington and Kyiv are anxiously signaling that a nearly seven-year-old frozen conflict could heat up again.” As retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the former commander of U.S. Army Europe and the current holder of the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies Center for European Policy Analysis, sees the situation: “There is a conflict that is already happening. So, what we’re talking about now is a possible expansion of the ongoing kinetic operations.” At present, those have been limited to brief skirmishes with sniper, machine gun, and grenade launcher fire exchanges between the Ukraine military and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The Russians are upping the ante by attempting to force a rapid response to Moscow’s checklist of demands. As Reuters explained, “Russia said on Monday [Dec. 20] it urgently needed a response from the United States on its sweeping security demands and again warned of a possible military response unless it saw political action to assuage its concerns.” This threat followed earlier saber-rattling by Putin that he will deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles, putting all of Europe at risk.
Over the last several weeks, Moscow has made persistent war-like moves in the region. A recent report by the Associated Press said, “Russia sent a pair of nuclear-capable, long-range bombers on patrol in the skies over Belarus on Saturday [Dec. 18], a mission intended to underline close defense ties between the two allies amid tensions with the West.” These activities give substance to concerns harbored by Ukraine officials that “Russia may use Belarus as a base for attacking their country from the north.”
However, NATO is standing firm in its position that it is not going to “let Moscow dictate the alliance’s military posture,” as reported by Reuters. Underscoring the Kremlin’s hubris, that list of demands provided to the United States and its allies included “withdrawing NATO battalions from Poland and Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, once part of the Soviet Union.” Speaking to troops at a military base in Lithuania, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht made the alliance’s position clear when she said, “We need to solve the current tensions on the diplomatic level but just as well by putting up a credible deterrence.” That means no, NATO and the United States are not withdrawing troops from Poland and the Baltics.
Adding to Lambrecht’s statement, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg commented that Moscow would have to “address NATO’s concerns about Russia’s actions, be based on core principles and document of European security, and take place in consultation with NATO’s European partners, such as Ukraine.”
Putin apparently sensed Russia’s bellicose rhetoric had fallen on deaf ears, according to The Daily Beast, which reported, “After the Kremlin’s ultimatums to NATO appeared to fall flat earlier this week, Moscow ratcheted up the crazy on Tuesday [Dec. 21] with new claims of U.S. mercenaries supposedly preparing a ‘chemical weapons’ attack and threat of unspecified ‘military-technical’ action.” Don’t believe the Biden administration saw that coming.
Regardless of the season, lingering tensions between traditional foes go on. Though the prospect of having Russia as a friend in the European community seemed possible on Christmas Day 1991, when the hammer and sickle was lowered for the last time, such has not proven to be the case over the intervening years. As a result, the United States and NATO must prepare for a troubling long haul.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
~ Read more from Dave Patterson.