Update (2/24/22, 1:30pm EST): Recent events suggest that Putin’s response was not calibrated to avoid a larger action in Ukraine. It is an unfortunate choice. Wherever responsibility lies for the events that have led to this crisis, war is always the wrong answer. It is unfortunate that thirty-one years of American broken promises and broken diplomacy led to this event; it is unfortunate that Russian broken diplomacy launched it. All wars must be criticized: no matter who launches them.
All they had to do was two things they were willing to do.
They had to put it in writing this time. The US and NATO had to put it in writing that they would not expand east and invite Ukraine to join NATO.
The US has told Ukraine that NATO membership is unlikely for them in the next decade. Biden has publicly stated that "the likelihood that Ukraine is going to join NATO in the near term is not very likely." German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said that "The question of [Ukrainian] membership in alliances is practically not on the agenda." He then repeated more strongly that it "is not even on the agenda." Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked how far Ukraine should "go on that path" to NATO membership, asking "Who will support us?" and acknowledging that aspiring to NATO membership could be more "like a dream."
But the US, UK, Germany and NATO had said before that NATO would not expand, and NATO metastasized to Russia’s borders. Putin is a student of history. And he is not going to go down in history as the second Russian leader to be deceived by verbal assurances that were not put down in writing.
They had to fulfill the promise of the Minsk agreement. The best chance for settling the Ukrainian conflict, the Minsk agreement promised autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. That agreement was endorsed by the Security Council. It was also endorsed by the US. But, though they were willing to grant the Donbas autonomy, they hadn’t. Richard Sakwa, author of Frontline Ukraine, told me that "Kiev openly declared that it would not implement the Minsk agreement." And the US declined to pressure them. But Russia was blamed. Sakwa says that "Moscow’s patience [was] exhausted."
Russia’ decision to recognize the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk comes only days after Putin met with French President Macron and German Chancellor Scholz. Presumably it became clear to Putin that France and Germany, despite the desire and intention, lacked the strength to enforce Minsk. Anatol Lieven, senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, recently told me that hardliners in the Russian establishment had been very critical of Putin for bowing to pressure from Angela Merkel of Germany and not going much further than annexing Crimea in 2014. He also said that the Russian elites have given up on Germany and France. Recent meetings must have finalized that despair.
The US was willing to at least delay pushing NATO membership to Russia’s border and to grant autonomy to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. But they did neither. So Putin did. Biden blundered; Putin lost patience.
In a way, Putin’s decision to recognize the independence of the Donbas region and to send in peacekeeping troops is symbolic. Sakwa called it in an email correspondence "A game-changer in which nothing changes." Nothing changes because no one – not the US, not the EU, not the UN, probably not even China – will recognize the independence of the Donbas. The US has also always believed that Russia already has troops in the Donbass. A senior US official said that Russian peacekeepers in Donbas would "not be a new step" and would only make Russia’s presence "more overt."
Putin’s response seems to be a calibrated attempt to not lose the crucial support of China and to not trigger US accusations of invasion that would bring about the US’s "decisive response."
Given that Russia and China coordinate closely on such major foreign policy moves and that Putin and Xi just spoke in person on the sideline of the Olympics, it seems unlikely that China was not informed of Putin’s decision or that Putin would risk the partnership or China’s much needed support in its showdown with the US over Ukraine. China will likely not agree with Putin’s move, and they will likely not recognize the independence of the Donetsk or Luhansk regions: China is adamantly opposed to interference in the internal affairs of sovereign nations, to invasions and to secessionist movements or recognition of regions who secede. But, as they did with Crimea, China will likely blame the US for forcing Putin’s hand and support Russia. On February 23, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that "the U.S. was fueling tensions by providing weapons to Kyiv" and accused the US of creating "fear and panic." But China would draw the line at invasion or annexation, and Putin kept carefully short of crossing that line.
Though there are already loud accusations of invasion, recognizing the region’s independence falls far short of invasion. The senior US official said that "Russian troops moving into the Donbas would not in itself be a new step. Russia has had forces in the Donbas region for the past eight years. . . . They are apparently now making the decision to do this in a more overt and open way.” The statement suggested the possibility that the US does not really see Russia’s move as crossing the line of invasion. Though the US has subsequently begun using the word, or at least the, perhaps carefully chosen, words "the beginning of a Russian invasion." The EU has not yet.
Though the US immediately went to their reflex move of responding with sanctions, they said that the sanctions were “not the swift and severe economic measures we’ve been preparing in coordination with allies and partners should Russia further invade Ukraine.” That could mean that they are not the severe measures brought on by an invasion because the US does not see it as the full invasion they fear, or it could mean that the sanctions they say are still to come will be the severe ones. On Tuesday, while Germany said they would re-examine certification of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline linking Germany to Russia, the US was still considering the scope of their sanctions.
It is possible that Putin has attempted to accomplish two unfulfilled goals while not losing China or triggering the invasion response by the US. Having lost patience for the US and UN to put in writing a promise not to expand east to Russia’s border, he pushed Ukraine’s border away from Russia’s border and created a buffer zone.
Secondly, having run out of patience for Ukraine and the West to act on the Minsk agreement and grant autonomy to the Donetsk or Luhansk regions, he simply recognized their independence. The one thing Russia was never going to allow was repression and violence against the ethnic Russian people of the Donbas. Sakwa told me that most of the ceasefire violations have exploded on the Donbas side of Ukraine. According to UN data, 81.4% of civilian casualties occurred in the "self-proclaimed ‘republics’." The sniper firing, according to people with knowledge of the Donbas, has been devastating. Moscow sees no choice, according to Sakwa, but to relieve the suffering of almost 4 million people in the Donbas.
Though Russia’s decision may have come as a surprise, perhaps it shouldn’t have. Sakwa says that, although the recognition of the region’s independence marks "the end of shadow boxing and we move into full-scale confrontation," Putin "had effectively warned of this in his 17 February response to the US/NATO responses to the European Security drafts treaties of 17 December." Russia warned that their security concerns were being ignored. NATO was insisting on keeping the doors open to Ukraine and the US was refusing to put pressure on Ukraine to enforce the Minsk agreement. Putin compared the current situation with "having a knife against our throat," the exact words used by Cuba and Iran in the past to describe the feeling of negotiating with the US.
There remains the hope that the recognition strategy of Putin and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov – who favors diplomacy and negotiations in the situation but supported the recognition – is a strategy to increase Russia’s leverage. There is the hope that it is a bargaining chip: that if Ukraine hopes to negotiate the Donbas region back into the Ukraine then it will have to agree to grant it the autonomy promised by the Minsk agreement. Russia may be holding out one last hope that the US will trade an end to NATO expansion east and that Ukraine will trade autonomy for the Donbas for Russia rescinding its recognition and withdrawing all forces from the Donbas. Russia, and others, have learned the need for such leverage when negotiating with the US. The hope, however, is discouragingly dim. The West, Sakwa argues, is "hermetic:" it is no longer capable of listening or understanding another side or another view. This, he fears, is "the end of diplomacy." Maybe it ended long ago. Biden promised an age of relentless diplomacy. But the US and NATO’s broken promise of no NATO expansion to the east has long been one of Russia’s core concerns, and the US has been unwilling to acknowledge that promise or diplomatically negotiate Russia’s legitimate concern.
Biden blew an opportunity to put in writing and to put in force two things he was willing to do: prevent the door from being fully open to NATO membership from Ukraine and recognize the autonomy of the Donbas. Instead of doing what he was willing to do, he chose to signal resolve to Russia and not show weakness. What Biden saw as weakness was a real chance at a diplomatic settlement that could have helped defuse the new cold war. What he saw as resolve has led to Russia losing patience and recognizing the independence of the Donetsk or Luhansk regions.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.