Russia’s post-war dilemmas in Ukraine

The challenge for the next two years is that Russia might overestimate the willingness of the US and EU to concede its legitimate demand of equal and indivisible security. 

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Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed a meeting of senior diplomats of the foreign ministry, Moscow, June 14, 2024

In regard of the war in Ukraine, Russia’s main challenge going forward is to find the equilibrium between strategic overestimation and underestimation. “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten,” as Bill Gates put it. 

A triumphalist tone is unmistakeable in President Vladimir Putin’s speech on Friday to a special gathering of senior foreign ministry officials in Moscow presenting the guardrails for negotiations with Ukraine. Russia is a country of high-context culture, which communicates in ways that are implicit and relies heavily on context. 

Putin underscored certain pre-conditions. Russia is ready to immediately cease hostilities if Ukraine begins withdrawing its military units beyond the administrative boundaries of Donbass, Zaporizhia and Kherson regions. This is a curious replay of the precondition that Moscow fulfilled in March 2022 when following the talks in Istanbul, Ukraine expected a rollback of Russian deployments around Kiev. 

Once bitten, twice shy — Putin’s precondition implies that new territorial realities should be fixed by international treaties. Moscow is ready to negotiate only after Kiev formally notified NATO that it is abandoning the intent to seek membership. Russia expects a complete lifting of sanctions. 

Evidently, Russia’s peace terms are, partly at least, based on certain prerequisites that are, conceivably, impossible for Ukraine and its mentors to fulfil. So, presumably, a further hardening of the peace terms is to be expected if Russian troops make more gains on the battlefield. Meanwhile, Moscow is signalling to its Western adversaries the inevitability of a massive redrawing of the Russian-Ukrainian border as the basis for peace.  

Unsurprisingly, the Western powers view Putin’s peace terms as an ultimatum although Russian diplomacy propagates them as an important peace initiative. It is timed carefully, just as the G7 summit at Borgo Egnazia in Italy ended and on the eve of the Western-sponsored ‘peace meet’ in Bürgenstock

The prognosis by the influential politician who has been a deputy speaker of the Duma since 2016 and the scion of an illustrious Russian family, Pyotr Tolstoy (great-great-grandson of Leo Tolstoy) is that Moscow will call out next only for the surrender of Ukrainian forces. 

The mood in Moscow has become belligerent, as the EU, at sustained prodding by Washington, is inexorably moving toward the confiscation of Russia’s frozen assets in western banks — ostensibly for meeting Ukraine’s needs but in reality to defray the huge expenses Washington is incurring for its proxy war. 

The G7 summit’s communique highlights that “In the presence of President Zelenskyy, we decided to make available approximately USD 50 billion leveraging the extraordinary revenues of the immobilised Russian sovereign assets, sending an unmistakable signal to President Putin. We are stepping up our collective efforts to disarm and defund Russia’s military industrial complex.” 

The G7 formulation is a white lie. What is unfolding is a financial scam of the century and the largest theft of money in history. A clutch of modern-day brigands is literally grabbing about $260 billion of Russia’s sovereign assets and giving it the colouring of a legal translation by attributing to it the process the status of a financial collateral for an American loan to Ukraine in blatant violation of international financial law that would ultimately line the pockets of the US military-industrial complex and the politicians.

Suffice to say, Washington is making its proxy war in Ukraine a self-financing, cost-accounting enterprise with Europeans as guarantors. Washington is inflicting a big blow to Russia’s national honour and pride. The big question is where does Russia go from here, given its ‘high-context culture’? 

One barely-noticed ellipsis in Putin’s speech on Friday was that he left his lengthy recap of Western betrayals hanging in the air without a foot note as to how Russia came to such a sorry pass at all historically. 

If the willing submission to the avalanche of national humiliations was merely due to Russia’s weakness, surely, that is a thing of the past. Today, Russia stands tall as the fourth largest global economy, a great military power and the sole power on the planet with the strategic capability to reduce the US to thermonuclear ashes. Yet, minions like NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg are threatening Russia that he’s heading a “nuclear alliance.” 

That is where the elucidation on Putin’s speech by the Dy Chairman of Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev — “on what he [Putin] carefully hinted at in his speech” — needs to be understood properly. 

Medvedev made four key points:  

  • The new territories that became part of Russia since 2022 will “remain so forever.”
  • A “catastrophic scenario” is developing for the Kiev regime.
  • The sanitary zone Russia will create on its western borders to prevent terrorist attacks may extend right upto Ukraine’s border with Poland, the staging post for NATO’s threats against Russia. 
  • “The President did not say this [western Ukraine’s fate] directly, but it is obvious that such territories, if desired by the people living there, can become part of Russia.” 

Most certainly, it is not a coincidence that Putin landed in Pyongyang today morning — or that, Russia’s Pacific Fleet commenced a large scale naval exercise from today till 28the June  in the Pacific Ocean, in seas of Japan and Okhotsk.  

In the context of his state visit to North Korea, Putin wrote in an article for North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun, “We highly appreciate the DPRK’s unwavering support for Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine… We will… jointly oppose illegitimate unilateral restrictions [read sanctions], and shape the architecture of equal and indivisible security in Eurasia.” 

By the way, if North Korea, which is a nuclear power, figures in the first circle of Russia’s strategic calculus as an ally, can Iran which is a nuclear threshold country be far behind — and, importantly, what could be its alchemy? Indeed, Russia has warned that it will give asymmetrical response to the attack on its territory with western weapons allegedly aided by NATO personnel — something without precedent even at the high noon of the Cold War — and NATO secretary-general’s open, vociferous support for it.

In Strobe Talbott’s book The Russia Hand (2002), he narrates an aside with Bill Clinton during a US presidential visit to Moscow in 1995. Clinton told Talbott using a favourite metaphor that his instincts were that Russian elites were sulking and couldn’t take anymore the “shit” being shoved down their throat. Indeed, NATO’s eastward expansion was already on the drawing board in the White House by then. 

However, it took Russia another quarter century till February 2022 to resist US bullying. To be sure, Medvedev’s candid ‘annotation’ could not have been without approval from Putin.

The challenge for the next two years is that Russia might overestimate the willingness of the US and EU to concede its legitimate demand of equal and indivisible security. 

On the other hand, in a longer term perspective, Moscow should not underestimate the stubborn refusal by Europe’s declining powers — UK, France and Germany — to accept the rise of Russia as a compelling geopolitical reality that they must reconcile with. 

Hungarian PM Viktor Orhan is spot on in estimating that it will be sheer naïveté to assume that the new EU leadership would moderate the policies towards Ukraine and Russia, despite the ascendancy of the right-wing parties in the recent elections to the European Parliament. 

M. K. Bhadrakumar

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

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