GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 612, 5 February 2022

Escalation and de-escalation in the Ukraine crisis
Ashwin Immanuel Dhanabalan

What happened?
On 03 February, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He was stated to have discussed the importance of strategic balance in Europe to maintain order and guarantee security and the need to "accelerate" the peace process in Eastern Ukraine. According to a Kremlin statement: "The substantive dialogue on the situation around Ukraine and issues related to the Russian initiative to develop long-term legally binding security guarantees for the Russian Federation was continued. The leaders exchanged views on the current state of affairs, including in the context of recent contacts with several international partners and France's Presidency at the EU Council. Vladimir Putin again emphasized the provocative statements and actions of the Kiev leadership, which run counter to the Minsk agreements."

On the same day, the Pentagon's press secretary, in a press briefing, mentioned: "Russians are likely to want to fabricate a pretext for an invasion, which again, is right out of their playbook. One option is the Russian government…is planning to stage a fake attack by Ukrainian military or intelligence forces against Russian sovereign territory or against Russian-speaking people the - to therefore justify their action. As part of this fake attack, we believe that Russia would produce a very graphic propaganda video, which would include corpses and actors that would be depicting mourners and images of destroyed locations."

On 2 February, the Pentagon Press secretary said in a briefing: "Our commitment to NATO Article 5 and collective defense remains ironclad. As part of this commitment and to be prepared for a range of contingencies, the United States will soon move additional forces to Romania, Poland and Germany." 

Earlier, on 01 February, in a press conference in Moscow, Putin accused the US of ignoring the Russian proposals put forward by Moscow. He was not satisfied with the US' response to Russian demands on NATO's troops and infrastructure removal from Eastern Europe and barred Ukraine from entering NATO. Putin mentioned how: "It's already clear … that Russia's principal concerns were ignored." There was also a call by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for governments to adhere to the 1999 agreement, the violation of which was the basis of the Ukraine crisis.

On 31 January, at the UNSC council meeting, the US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said: "The threats of aggression on the border of Ukraine ... is provocative. Our recognition of the facts on the ground is not provocative." The UNSC experienced a spillover of the tensions at the Ukrainian border as the countries accused each other of being provocative. She further stated how: "The provocation's from Russia, not from us or other members of this council." Russia's UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia responded: "Our Western colleagues are talking about the need for de-escalation. However, first and foremost, they themselves are whipping up tensions and rhetoric and are provoking escalation." Nebenzia also disputed the number of troops stationed at the border.

What is the background?
First, returning to the Normandy format. The return of the Normandy format talks can be seen as the last attempt after the failure of talks at the US-Russia talks, NATO-Russia Council (NRC) meet, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) special plenary meeting, and the recent Geneva talks that were held between US and Russia. The Normandy format seems hopeful in de-escalating the tensions and bringing progress to the situation in Ukraine.

Second, the failure of the Geneva talks. The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on 21 January. The talks were called helpful and agreed to maintain dialogue to resolve the crisis. However, there were no positive responses from either side. After the negotiations, the US did not respond to the Russian proposal; in retrospect, it appears the Blinken-Lavrov talks in Geneva failed to make a breakthrough.

Third, the military escalation. The US announced its redeployment of 1,000 troops and an additional 2,000 troops to Poland, Germany, and Romania had instigated Moscow as they called it a "destructive" step, which heightened tension and reduced the scope for a political solution. Moreover, even NATO has scheduled to extend its Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) units in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, further increasing its military escalation in the region. Furthermore, the US embassy in Kyiv, Washington, had also sent "close to 200,000 pounds of lethal aid, including ammunition for the front line defenders of Ukraine".

What does it mean?
With the revival of the Normandy format talks, one could also revisit the Minsk Protocol, a set of agreements signed in 2014 and 2015. Last week witnessed both escalation and de-escalation; the revival of the Normandy format is essential in this context.