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Russia’s leader speaks harshly about Ukraine in his year-end address, but any next step will likely be limited, calculated and even coordinated with the West

Russian President Vladimir Putin does not seem ready to break ties with the West, given his much-anticipated end-of-year speech on December 23rd.

Despite the threats and harsh rhetoric in the midst of an impending war against Ukraine, the Russian head of state described the United States’ reaction to the Kremlin’s demands for legally binding security guarantees to defuse the conflict as “positive”, even if Washington still does not officially target Moscow Proposals has been received.

Does that mean Russia is not ready to invade the neighboring country that was part of the former Soviet Union?

Not necessarily. Should Ukraine launch a large-scale military offensive in Donbass, Moscow will likely have to intervene to protect the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic.

Otherwise, the West would interpret Russia’s lack of resolute response as yet another sign of weakness, and ultimately Ukraine, heavily supported by the United States, might seek to restore sovereignty over Crimea.

“The future of Donbass must be decided by the people of Donbass,” Putin said at his eagerly awaited press conference at the end of the year.

Of course, the people of Donbass already decided on their future in May 2014 when they held a referendum and declared “self-government”, ie de facto independence from Kiev. To this day, however, the Kremlin has refused to accept this referendum.

However, in the event of a possible Ukrainian offensive, Russia could use the same strategy it used after Georgia attacked its breakaway region of South Ossetia in 2008. Moscow intervened, drove the Georgian armed forces out of the region and recognized not only the independence of South Ossetia, but also of Abkhazia.

Since western Ukraine is of far greater strategic and economic importance than Georgia, such Russian action would lead to severe sanctions that would have a negative impact on the Russian economy. To prevent such a scenario, the Kremlin is now demanding “security guarantees” that NATO will not expand eastward into Ukraine.

A Russian soldier aims along the Ukrainian border. Photo: Facebook

“You have to give us guarantees, and immediately,” Putin said.

However, it remains unclear why the Kremlin is in such a hurry. In early October, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wrote an article suggesting that “Russia knows how to wait” and that Moscow should wait for “reasonable figures” to come to power in Kiev and the current Ukrainian leadership substitute.

Two months later, Putin is pressuring the United States to agree that Ukraine will not join NATO. The Alliance has already ruled out any compromise on NATO’s “fundamental principles”, which means the West will almost certainly not give the “security guarantees” Putin wants.

What will Moscow do in this case?

“The United States must understand that we simply have no other choice. Do you think we will stand by and stand by? ”Putin said a few days before his annual press conference at the end of the year, claiming that the US could push Kiev to attack Crimea.

Such statements by Putin are certainly not new. In August 2016, Putin accused the Ukrainian Defense Ministry of killing a Russian soldier and a Federal Security Service (FSB) officer in Crimea, on the border with Ukraine.

Apparently Ukraine had sent a sabotage reconnaissance group to Crimea, which led to a brief border conflict. Putin said Russia would “not let this go through,” but Moscow never responded to the alleged killing of its military and intelligence officials.

So if Ukraine actually stages massive provocations in Crimea, the Russian reaction may not be as violent as some might expect.

Although the Kremlin claims that Ukraine and the United States are preparing for “provocations”, which could include a chemical attack, such a scenario does not seem very realistic. In the past, Russia has repeatedly triggered such “false alarms” in Syria.

In 2017, for example, Moscow accused Washington of concocting a “provocation” in Syria, while a year later the Kremlin claimed that rebels were planning a chemical weapons attack to blame Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In November this year, the Russian Defense Ministry warned that Turkey-backed fighters were planning to provoke and use chemical weapons against civilians in the Middle Eastern country.

Since there has never been a chemical provocation, it is unlikely that Kiev and Washington will dare such an adventure in the Crimea as well.

Russian President Vladimir Putin inspects a ground attack helicopter at a base in Korenovsk, in western Russia. Putin has delivered advanced missile defense systems to Syria. Image: AFP / Mikhail Klimentyev / Pool

However, it is almost certain that the United States will not comply with Russia’s demands and provide guarantees that NATO will not expand eastwards.

For their part, Russian officials claim they have a Plan B in case the US and NATO fail to respond to Moscow’s proposals, despite refusing to say what action the Kremlin would take.

Such a narrative was circulated in 2014 when the myth of Putin’s so-called “shrewd plans” was born. In reality, Russia’s actions have always been limited, calculated and carefully coordinated with its Western partners.

Even now, when a large-scale conflict between Russia and Western-backed Ukraine is feared, Russian military officials often hold talks with their Western partners. Nevertheless, a possible Ukrainian offensive in Donbass cannot be ruled out.

“One has the impression that a third military operation is being prepared in Ukraine and we are warned – do not interfere. We have to react to that somehow, ”Putin emphasized in his speech.

Indeed, the Kremlin will respond. More likely, however, that Moscow will again take half-measures to maintain its de facto control of Donbass while not jeopardizing its relations with the West.

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