Can Western Diplomacy Still Avert War in Ukraine?
Can Western Diplomacy Still Avert War in Ukraine?
Podcast / Europe & Central Asia 20+ minutes

Can Western Diplomacy Still Avert War in Ukraine?

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood, Comfort Ero and Olga Oliker, Crisis Group’s Europe/Central Asia director, talk about the Ukraine crisis. They discuss latest developments on the border, the uptick of violence along front lines in Eastern Ukraine and whether recent diplomatic efforts can avert a Russian escalation.

Russia has amassed over 150,000 troops at the Ukrainian border, fuelling growing fear that Moscow plans an attack. Russian leaders deny any such plan and in recent days, the defence minister has claimed that Moscow is pulling back troops and equipment as military drills come to a close. Other reports and satellite imagery suggest, however, that in fact more are arriving. At the same time, front lines in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region separating areas held by the Ukrainian government and those held by Russia-backed separatists have seen a barrage of shelling, raising further concern that Moscow might use the violence as a pretext for military action. All this comes after an intense few weeks of diplomacy by Western leaders aimed at deterring Moscow. 

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Comfort Ero, Crisis Group’s president & CEO, are joined by Olga Oliker, Crisis Group’s Europe and Central Asia Program director, to talk about latest developments, what to make of the recent shelling on front lines in Donbas and whether there is anything more the West can do to stave off further military action by Russia. They talk through Russian demands, from a halt to NATO expansion to Ukrainian compliance with Russia’s interpretation of the Minsk agreements that aim to resolve the Donbas conflicts. They discuss Western efforts to deter Moscow and the degree of unity among Western capitals. They also talk about what a Russian invasion could look like in practice, its human toll and how Western leaders should respond. They also examine prospects for talks on the wider European security architecture if Russia does pull back. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Ukraine regional page.

Podcast Transcript

N.B. This transcript was generated using speech recognition software and human transcription. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting or if in doubt. 

Richard Atwood 0:05
Hi, this is Hold Your Fire!, a podcast by the International Crisis Group. I'm Richard Atwood, and I'm delighted today that Comfort Ero, Crisis Group's president and CEO, is joining me again as co-host. Comfort, welcome back on. 

Comfort Ero 0:17
Thank you very much, Richard. Glad to be back on the podcast. 

Richard Atwood 0:21
Today we're going to talk again about the crisis in Ukraine. Does the latest flare-up on the front lines in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region mean that Russia is about to escalate? And can the intense diplomacy under way by Western leaders stop that happening? 

President Putin clip 0:34
"Do we want war? Of course we don't. That is exactly why we put forward proposals to open negotiations”.

President Biden clip 0:45
“If Russia does invade in the days and weeks ahead, the human cost for Ukraine will be immense, and the strategic cost for Russia will also be immense”.

Comfort Ero 0:56 
Russia now has some 150,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, including some on military exercises in Belarus, not so far from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. As we just heard, Russian President Putin says Russia has no intention of invading. In Ukraine too, people tend to play down the danger. Ukrainian President Zelensky has said that his country has been at war since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatists who seized then, and continue to hold, breakout regions in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region. But as anyone who's been following the news over the past few weeks will know, Western leaders including U.S. President Joe Biden, who we just heard, have warned that Russia could attack any day. 

President Macron clip 1:45
“Ahead of Emmanuel Macron’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, the French President underscored the importance of dialogue. He said that Russia had no desire to invade Ukraine. He went on to say that Russia's real objective was to clarify the rules governing its coexistence with NATO and the European Union”.

Chancellor Scholz clip  1:45
The diplomatic options are far from exhausted. The task now must be to work resolutely and courageously towards a peaceful resolution of this crisis”.

Richard Atwood 2:13 
The past few weeks have seen concerted diplomatic efforts by Western leaders to avert a Russian escalation. Biden has met with Putin several times, French President Emmanuel Macron went to Moscow also to meet with Putin, the new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has also shared a very large table in Moscow with Putin. He went to Kyiv as well over the past few days. We just heard Scholz’s statement from Moscow. 

Russian withdrawal clip 2:39
“And in the last hours, Russia's defence ministry said some of its troops were returning to their bases after completing military drills near Ukraine's border”.

President Biden clip #2 2:46
“The Russian defence minister reported today that some military units are leaving their positions near Ukraine. That would be good. But we have not yet verified that. We have not yet verified the Russian military units are returning to their bases. Indeed, our analysts indicate that they remain very much in a threatening position”.

Richard Atwood 3:08
As we record this, reports on Russian military activity on the border are mixed. Some suggest Moscow's withdrawn some equipment, but NATO leaders continue to warn that other Russian units and equipment are arriving and an escalation could be imminent. There's also been a flare-up of shelling over the past few days on the front lines in Donbas. Biden himself has warned of a high and immediate risk of war. His Secretary of State Anthony Blinken says that Russia appears to be setting the stage for an attack. So is there anything more Western leaders can do to deter Russia? And if Russia does escalate, how should they respond? To talk about all this we're joined by Olya Oliker, Crisis Group’s Europe  and Central Asia director. Olya’s been working on Russian foreign policy, the Ukraine crisis and European security more broadly for years. Many of you will have heard her talking to an array of media outlets over the past few weeks. Olya, welcome back on. 

Olga Oliker 3:55 
Happy to be back.

Richard Atwood 3:57
So, Olya, could we start with a quick update on what's happening near the Ukraine border and on the front lines in Donbas that separate areas controlled by the Ukrainian government from those held by Russian backed separatists? First, what should we make of these conflicting reports about the Russian troop movements? And what's the story with this latest uptick in shelling over the past couple of days on the front lines?

Olga Oliker 4:20
So what you can clearly see if you look at satellite imagery, so you don't just have to trust what various intelligence agencies tell you, you can look at open source accounts. So you see the forces are moving around. You can also see video coming from the Russian government, which also shows stuff moving around, things getting loaded up. The question is, where is it going? And the answer is that it looks like if anything, it's gotten closer to the Ukrainian border rather than further away. What the Russian government has actually said is that some of the exercises that they say were under way are now completed, so forces are withdrawing or will be withdrawing. But the problem is that there's also a lot of evidence that other forces are arriving, and whether it's simply that the machinery was in place and you can't turn it off or if it's subterfuge, it’s hard to know. But for now, there's not a lot of evidence that anything has really been pulled back. And yeah, in the meantime, what we've had over the last couple of days, starting largely on Thursday morning, is a big uptick in shelling, as you said. So the front line, the line of contact between the Russian-backed separatists forces and Ukrainian government forces in Donbas, had actually been pretty quiet for a while, and it is no longer quiet. And what you had initially was these accusations from the Russian-backed forces that the Ukrainian government forces had been shelling, except that they hadn't. And all the shelling was, in fact, hitting locations on the government-controlled side and indeed, on Thursday, they hit a preschool – no children were injured, two adults were injured. And then, as of Friday morning, there was basically evidence there was shelling all along the front line, and Ukrainian forces had started shooting back at least some of the time, it looked like.

Richard Atwood 6:28 
One of the things that Western intelligence agencies, Western officials have been pretty consistent about throughout the crisis, is the danger that a flare-up like this could be a pretext for Moscow to make a move. So I mean, in that light, how dangerous is what's happening at the moment?

Olga Oliker 6:45 
So I think what people are thinking of is the Georgia war in 2008, where the Georgian forces, as an EU investigation determined, had, in fact, shot first, but there was a real effort under way before that, to provoke them to try to get them to shoot. So I think the speculation is that yes, that's what's going on, it's an effort to get the Ukrainian government forces to do something substantial and thus create a pretext for an open Russian military engagement, ostensibly to protect people in Donbas. Thus far, there is no evidence that if this is bait, that the Ukrainians are rising to it.

Richard Atwood 7:29
And for people that sort of haven't been following closely, what is Moscow, and what is President Putin actually saying about what the Russian troops are doing? 

Olga Oliker 7:34
So up until quite recently, the messaging for Moscow was: “There's absolutely nothing going on here. Yes, some exercises with Belarus, yes, some missile exercises in the Black Sea. But otherwise, what build-up? There is nothing going on. This is all Western hysteria”. What we got more recently is talk about a broader program of exercises which are now ending. So, you know, I guess the message now is: “This was all exercises, maybe up to 150,000 troops were all involved, are all continuing to be involved in some form of exercises, which are drawing to a close and once they're over the forces will be withdrawn”. So that's the new message. And all of this, of course, is on Russian and Belarusian territory, nothing to worry about, you know, nothing to see here.

Richard Atwood 8:28
And, so Moscow has been now saying that exercises are winding up at some point soon?

Olga Oliker 8:32
Well, Defence Minister Shoigu is the one who was actually making that statement. But yeah, that's the new messaging, that the exercises have completed or are going to end soon, right? The ones with Belarus are actually due to end on the twentieth of February, and forces will withdraw once the exercises are over. Now, you know, the other thing to keep in mind here is this build-up has taken many months to put all of these forces in place. So even if Moscow is planning to withdraw everybody, they're not going to, poof, disappear in a matter of minutes. It is going to take a long time, and it's always going to be reversible, even if it goes forward. 

Comfort Ero 9:13
Olya, can we take a step back? You know, when Western countries expressed concern about the build-up at the end of last year, Russia responded with its own demands, first on European security in the form of two treaties. What did these two treaties say?

Olga Oliker 9:33
So what Russia did was that it put forward two draft treaties, one to be signed by Russia and all of the NATO member states, and one to be signed by Russia and the United States. And the idea behind them is a series of things Russia would like to see. They are a commitment to no more NATO expansion to the east, so no new eastern members for the Alliance. They are a commitment to pull NATO forces back to pretty much the force posture of 1997,  before the waves of enlargement that began after that, to establish a moratorium on the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe. So, the intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which died recently, banned all intermediate-range missiles. So this would basically be a commitment by Russia and the United States not to station such missiles in Europe, and to the deployment of American nuclear weapons in Europe. So this wish list of things that actually have been on Russia's agenda for a long time, many of them. But what Russia wanted was to put them into treaties. What Russia was proposing was to put them into treaties that everybody would sign and describing this as written security guarantees for Russia that in this way, NATO member states all together and the United States, as the United States, would be guaranteeing Russia security. 

Comfort Ero 11:01
We'll talk in a moment about how Western countries have responded to those demands. But Russia also had demands related to the conflict in the Donbas which are longstanding. Can we also run through those demands and how they sit alongside the two treaty demands that you just outlined as well? 

Olga Oliker 11:22 
Right. So when the war began in 2014, when the fighting got really bad in 2014, and then again in 2015, two agreements were signed to arrange ceasefires, collectively known as the Minsk agreements: Minsk I and Minsk II. Those were signed when Ukrainian forces were under a tremendous amount of pressure. So they, to a large extent, were dictated by Russia. And among the things that they require of Ukraine is that Ukraine grant special status to the separatist-held regions and that Ukraine hold elections in those regions, prior to the withdrawal of military forces and Ukraine regaining control of its border, which of course would cement the people now in power there, in power in perpetuity. So the deals also call for the withdrawal of military forces, Ukraine regaining control of its borders, all of these things, but the status and the elections are not something Ukraine has been willing to implement. On the other hand, the deal also called for lasting ceasefires, which neither side has been able to implement, and the withdrawal of heavy heavy weaponry, which again, the Ukrainians say they'll do as soon as Russia and the separatists it backs do it. But Russia's sticking points are that they want Ukraine to grant this special status, which in its interpretation is a tremendous amount of autonomy, where these de facto authorities fundamentally retain control, retain their own militias, continue to run these territories and hold the elections to kind of cement that in place, and put into Ukrainian parliament and Ukrainian governance structures, these voices which Russia expects to continue to be loyal to Moscow. 

Richard Atwood 13:15
Which in effect would sort of give those voices and therefore Moscow a veto over key aspects of Ukrainian foreign and security policy? 

Olga Oliker 13:22
And domestic policy and all sorts of things. Yeah, that's the vision. That's not stated as such in the Minsk agreements, right? This is a matter of interpretation. But Moscow has made it very, very clear that is its interpretation. 

Richard Atwood 13:37
And part of it is that precisely what “special status” means isn't clear in the Minsk agreements. 

Olga Oliker 13:42
It just says special status. 

Richard Atwood  13:44
And there has been some talk over the past few days at what, I think, the lower house of Russia's Duma, Russia’s parliament, actually voted to recognise the breakaway regions, separatist-held areas. Do you get the sense that President Putin is likely to do that, and presumably that will be the death of Minsk by any interpretation?

Olga Oliker 14:02
Well, they voted to ask Putin, you know, to consider recognition and the messaging from Moscow at this point is that that is out of line with Minsk, and that Russia supports the implementation of Minsk. And therefore, you know, that's, that's not something they're planning to do. It's an interesting notion, right? It's certainly not what the separatists want, the separatists would like to be annexed by Russia. It's not what the people of the regions want. They would like peace and they would like prosperity, and de facto regimes that have been recognised by Moscow in the past have not exactly experienced economic flowering since that time. It might be what Kyiv wouldn't mind, at least some people in Kyiv, because it removes the problem of having to reintegrate these territories or implement their own components of Minsk, it just sort of takes that problem away. It would certainly create more problems for Moscow, and then you get into these questions of: if you recognise them, do you recognise their claims over territories they don't control and is that a pretext for more war? But it does sound as though, for now at least, the Kremlin is not interested in opening that particular can of worms. 

Comfort Ero 15:25 
Olya, thanks. Can we zoom in on looking at it from the Ukrainian perspective, the people of Kyiv, for example, even people on the front lines in Donbas seem to paint quite a different picture of prospects for a Russian invasion. Zelensky himself sometimes has criticised the stark warnings from Western capitals about Russia's military action. Why the different takes? 

Olga Oliker  15:48
So what you're seeing in Ukraine is two things going on simultaneously, right? One is a certain amount of business as usual. We've been at war for eight years, or at least, you know, those of us in the east have. And those of us in the armed forces, people in Kyiv, you know, have actually continued to live a fairly normal life. And on the other hand, there is some preparation, right? People have figured out where their nearest bomb shelter is. There's a lot of self-defence classes going on, you know, their mayors have gotten the authority to carry out defensive drills, things like that are going on. But what President Zelensky has been concerned about is that by talking about imminent war, and the war, imminent war, it's hurting Ukraine's economy, investors are pulling back. None of this helps, in the meantime, whatever comes next. And I think part of the issue is he doesn't want a population that's panicked. He wants a population that's prepared. 

Richard Atwood 16:46
And Zelensky, I think, on Wednesday this week, he proclaimed, held a national day, a day of national unity. How has the crisis impacted his popularity? 

Olga Oliker 16:56 
I think, I think, for now he's actually looking reasonably good. Again, it depends on what happens next. But if there is not an escalation, he does come out of this stronger, I think. If there is an escalation there aren't a lot of ways to look good going forward, right? His job is going to be to hold the country together, mount a defence, and then decide what to do next. But it's, you know, the likelihood of the Ukrainian Armed Forces – you know, they'll bloody the Russians, if the Russians mount an attack, pretty much any kind of attack you can imagine, but they're not going to win. So, you know, he's going to be in a very difficult place. 

Richard Atwood 17:43
And so I mean, as we heard up top, what, about 150,000 troops now, somewhere near the Ukrainian border, you know, all sorts of equipment, long-range, short-range, air capabilities, capabilities from the sea? Obviously, a lot of speculation about what a Russian escalation could entail. But what are some of the different scenarios? 

Olga Oliker 18:04
Right, they are everything from little land grabs in the east to improved positions for the separatists Russia backs, up to full scale: march on Kyiv, occupation, replace the government. And the challenge here, we've spoken about this on this podcast before, is if Russia's goal is fundamentally coercive, right, that they want a more pliable Kyiv, they want a regime change, the question is: what do they think it takes to get that? If we look at how Russia has used military force in the past, what it tends to do is try to use the minimum necessary. It may overestimate the minimum necessary, right? So the question is, what do they think they need to do to attain their goals? And from a coercive standpoint, giving themselves an awful lot of options, effectively having Ukraine surrounded isn't a bad move. But what do they actually do with it? I don't know. 

Richard Atwood 19:05
Could I just push again, a little bit, on this sort of idea about what Russia might get itself into if it does send troops in. I mean, presumably, as you say, Ukrainian security forces we talked about before on the podcast, Ukrainian security forces aren't going to be a match for the Russians, particularly once the Russians are using some sort of air power and everything else they have, but an occupation would still be enormously expensive and difficult for Russia. So presumably, that's something that does weigh on Russian leaders' minds, or is it something that they still underestimate?

Olga Oliker 19:33
You would think so, right? The experience of 2014 and 2015 made it very clear that Ukraine as a whole is not a cakewalk. Right. But I think the tendency in Moscow to underestimate Ukrainian resistance is a substantial and sticky one. So I think, at least some of the logic that would underlie any military action would be that Ukraine’s military isn't that capable, and the Ukrainian people are fundamentally friendly. Now, I'm pretty sure neither of those things is true. But I am not advising the Kremlin.

Richard Atwood 20:12
So let's come in a moment to what Western leaders have been doing, what more they could do to deter an escalation. But can we talk first about, let's say, if there is some form of Russian escalation, whether it's in the Donbas, whether it's something bigger than that? What options do Western leaders have, if that happens, in terms of their response?

Olga Oliker 20:33 
So they have said, they've been very clear about what they will do if there is an escalation, and that includes some pretty intense economic sanctions packages, as well as even more of the military build-up in NATO member states near to Russia that we have already seen, beginning with just troops moving around in Europe and some new troops being sent to Europe. This is not about fighting a war in Ukraine. This is about reassuring allies. But it also is something that Russia very much doesn't like. Recall that what Russia is asking for is for the NATO force posture to move back to what it was in 1997, with pretty much nothing near Russia's borders. What we would be seeing instead is the opposite, of a real build-up near Russia's borders. None of this saves Ukraine. NATO member states have increased their supplies of both lethal weaponry and defensive equipment to Ukraine. This material, you know, this material, this support will almost certainly make it possible both to kill more Russians and to save more Ukrainians. It won't, you know, in the end, change the overall correlation of forces. But you know, it will make it possible to inflict more damage. If they can, they'll probably do more of that. But if they can't supply by sea or air, then it's kind of what they can move over ground through the west. So I think that capacity is going to be limited. 

Richard Atwood 22:10
And what's your sense, of the sort of, widely interpreted as a gaffe that President Biden made some weeks ago, where he implied that, you know: “If it's something smaller than the east, we're not going to do the same as if it's a full on Russian invasion”, but presumably, whatever it is, there's going to be pretty strong appetite in western capitals to roll out the full bunch of measures, you know, this, the support, you talked about that, much heavier sanctions, the troop deployments along NATO's eastern flank, there's going to be a pretty strong appetite in western capitals to roll all that out whatever Russia does? 

Olga Oliker 22:45 
I think that's right, I think for a number of reasons, including just the need to make it very clear that NATO does mean what it says, that NATO is united, and that the EU, you know, a lot of overlap between NATO and the EU, but it's not complete overlap. But the EU member states also stand together on this, that there's no daylight between them, and that this is not acceptable to them. Maybe it's not so unacceptable to them that they’re willing to fight. But it is sufficiently unacceptable to them that they are willing to take substantial risks to their economies, and honestly, to the future of European security, because a huge military build-up does increase the risk that the next crisis will be even worse. And I will say the next crisis will be even worse. Because if deterrence fails, if this combination of deterrence, and a promise of talks, and negotiations to make Europe more secure fails, and Europe becomes less secure, the next crisis stands a much higher risk of actually seeing NATO military involvement. 

Comfort Ero 23:49
Now let's look at the response from the Western capitals, specifically, Biden's meetings and calls with Putin that we've seen with Macron, you know, going to Moscow. The latest now is the Chancellor of Germany Scholz; just now this week in Moscow as well. Can you unpack for us the different conversations and how they all tie up into sort of a coherent strategy by the West as well? So there have been different conversations, do they equal coherence, clarity, unity?

Olga Oliker 24:23
I think we've seen a tremendous amount of unity and also tremendous amount of coordination, they are clearly talking to each other. We see them talking to each other. You know, everybody who walks into a room and sits at a very, very, very, very long table with Vladimir Putin is armed with the thoughts and views of their allies. And they're very clear

on being aligned and sending the same message. I'll also say, you know, when some of the stuff we've seen in the media, some of these discussions of disunity. Look when your examples of disunity focus on the different stuff people are sending to Ukraine, and we've agreed that none of it is actually going to make it possible for Ukraine to win a war, what you're fighting over is: who sends what? Pointing to that as an example of disunity, I think you're grasping at straws to find disunity, honestly. So from my perspective, at least, I think we have seen a tremendously united NATO, and EU, and generally kind of Western position on all of this.

Comfort Ero 25:35 
Olya can I just press a little bit on that? So I mean, I agree with you that overall, we've seen, you know, Western unity, and we all agree that it's vital. But there is one country that this is all very challenging for, and it's Germany, and it's, you know, very early into his tenure, Chancellor Scholz really does see that this is a challenging issue for him to grapple with, there are a number of issues. I’ll leave aside the whole issue around Nord Stream, the heavy reliance on Russian gas, as well. But how do you see this playing out for Germany and the Germans? 

Olga Oliker 26:15
So Germany is not the only European country that buys a lot of Russian gas. And I think Germany has played a role historically, as a bit of a Russia whisperer, right, as the European country that has a strong enough relationship with Moscow, that sometimes it can get things done. And Germany also is very committed to not doing things like supplying weapons to other countries because of its own history with war in Europe. And I think that's understandable. And again, you know, you start quibbling over who supplies what, I don't know that that's really reflective of huge divides. From what we've seen of the German government, they are completely aligned with the positions of their allies, and the message they're sending to Moscow is aligned with them. And it also does seem that they've been very clear that if there's further escalation, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is not getting turned on. So there was a lot of frustration, I think, previously, with Germany not being muscular enough when it comes to Russia. But I don't see the Germans as being out of line. And I do think that their role as an important trade partner to Russia, and as a country that has consistently been able to talk to Russia, is important in moving negotiations forward, both because they demonstrate their alignment with their allies and because the Russians listen to them.

Richard Atwood 27:40
And Olya, as you say, there's been this sense of unity of purpose among Western leaders, a lot of different leaders talking to Putin, largely singing from the same sheet. Now, President Putin is not going to get what he wants in terms of his draft treaties, he's not going to get what he wants in terms of the Russian interpretation of Minsk, that seems very unlikely. But there are some things that Western leaders have said that they could consider. I mean, how much space is there to give Moscow something, or enough for it to pull its troops back and sort of wait for another opportunity or rethink an escalation?

Olga Oliker 28:13
So I think the Russians are going to hold out to see how much they can get. And then they're going to decide whether they'd like to use force in the hopes that they can get even more, either from Ukraine or from Europe as a whole. In general, just the recognition that Russia has real security interests and concerns, even if other countries don't agree that they're valid, but the willingness to talk about them is something that Russian officials, certainly from the foreign ministry, have pointed to as progress. Russia has this tremendous advantage that by having said all along: “there is nothing to see here”, there is not a massive loss of face in not invading, right?  Russia has not threatened an invasion, so it does not visibly back off from any of its points if it does not then carry one out. And honestly, it is for the good of European security if this results in real talks about what needs to be limited, what needs to be constrained, how we can all get along a little better. And wow, would it be nice if we could get a real reboot of peace talks in Ukraine that could lead to fewer Ukrainians dying. So you know, there is the potential for this crisis to have a silver lining, for Russia and for everybody else. Whether this is the view from the Kremlin or not, I can't say. 

Richard Atwood 29:33 
And, I mean, let's talk in a moment about what talks about a broader European security architecture might look like, but presumably it's also enormously expensive for Moscow to have 150,000 troops parked up in the country's western corner, all deployed and all expecting presumably at some point to do something. I mean, this can't be, can't be cheap, both in financial terms, but also to some degree politically at home for Putin. Does he have an unlimited amount of time that he can just sort of keep pushing for more?

Olga Oliker 30:04 
I don't think he has an unlimited amount of time. On the other hand, if you think keeping a whole lot of troops near Ukraine's borders is expensive, think about what it would cost to occupy big chunks of Ukraine, that would also be expensive, both in terms of finances and in terms of Russian lives. So I don't think this can drag out forever. I do think it can drag out for a while longer. So we'll have to watch and see what exactly happens. If they go in, if they escalate, I think it will be under the assumption that they can carry out successful military operations to attain their goals quickly. Again, I would expect them to find that they're wrong. But you know, I think that that would be the logic driving it. So again, you know that that might also be a factor, if they decide that they're running out of time, that you should do something. If they think that a military operation will be successful, then that might be something they try. I suspect that one of the messages being carried by Western leaders in all of these conversations is, you know: “Aside from the sanctions, aside from the build-up, Ukraine isn't as easy as you might think it is”. 

Comfort Ero 31:10  
Olya, let's say that Russia does find a reason to pull back talks on European security, they still do remain important. What might the contours of a new European security look like, given everything else that you've said so far? 

Olga Oliker 31:27 
So some of this can come out of the Russian proposals. The moratorium on intermediate-range forces deployed in Europe, I think, should be acceptable to everybody. I think other conversations about who can deploy what, where, and inspections to make sure that countries are not deploying things they shouldn't be, this is also very much on the table, and very feasible, and has been discussed before. Updating existing agreements, like the Vienna Document, so that they are in line with current needs – the Vienna Document is about notifications of exercises, but it only covers ground exercises, so getting something in place that also covers air- and sea-based activities would be very valuable. You can talk about unilateral actions not to, for instance, on the part of Western states, spend quite as much time challenging Russia's claims to Crimea with freedom of navigation exercises in the Black Sea, which have led to incidents over the last few years. So there's a whole package of activities. And also, we've talked about limitations on what you can station, not just on the territory of your own country and your allies, but on the territories of countries you are not aligned with. So you know, all of these things are open to discussion. And I don't think, you know, it can be resolved into treaties, like the Russians proposed, but I don't think Moscow thinks that either. I think everybody understands that this would be a lengthy negotiating process. But you could start with a few easy steps, like the moratorium, for instance, and some of the unilateral promises, and then build on that. And I think that would be very valuable.

Richard Atwood 33:20 
Olya, could I just push you and sort of play devil's advocate on NATO itself. I mean, if you look back over the last 30 years, especially the kind of more aggressive expansion of NATO, in the 2000s under George W. Bush, the Bucharest summit declaration, the sort of track or offers of path for Ukrainian and Georgian membership. Surely looking back, it should have been clear how much Moscow, not just President Putin, but many Russian leaders, many Russians view that as, you know, as a threat and a breach of what they felt were reassurances about NATO after the end of the Cold War. I mean, and if that's the case, then why not have some sort of clarification, whether it's from Ukraine itself, or whether it's from NATO, about NATO not expanding any further?

Olga Oliker 34:07
So the Russians certainly made clear their unhappiness with NATO enlargement all the way along, but they weren't in a position to do much about it. And I think Western states saw that as consent, right? No did not mean no. 

Richard Atwood 34:27
But at Bucharest, I mean, there were some Western states that were pushing much harder for Ukrainian and Georgian membership than others, right? I mean, the Western Europeans were much more circumspect about that at the time.

Olga Oliker 34:39
Well, I think the issue with Bucharest in 2008 was, you had a fight within NATO, you had countries that really wanted Membership Action Plans for Georgia and Ukraine and countries that really, really did not want that. So they tried to square that circle by saying: “Eventually they will be members”, which was actually the worst of all possible worlds, because it sent these countries a signal that if they just do enough, maybe, maybe, maybe. So it's like dangling the carrot in front of them, that it's always further away. And for Russia, a signal that, yeah, that might eventually happen, when in fact, there's no intention of actually bringing them into the alliance. So kind of this effort at having the best of both worlds gave you the worst of them instead. So yes, absolutely, mistakes were made. The thing is, once mistakes are made, you don't necessarily fix them by just reversing them. And the problem here is that NATO does not want to go back on a general principle, that NATO decides when it enlarges, right, that it enlarges when it feels like it, not when Russia lets it, when Russia is not a member of the alliance. So, you know, I think Chancellor Scholz when he was speaking with the German press after his conversation with Vladimir Putin, he was very clear about the fact that, look, we just, you know, we need to find a way to say the truth without undermining anybody's principles. And I think that is really what it comes down to.

Richard Atwood 36:01
The truth being that Ukraine is unlikely to join NATO anytime soon, in other words. But part of the principle is about NATO expanding when he wants to, but the other part is that countries are free to choose their own allies to some degree, right?

Olga Oliker 36:15
Right, to some degree free to choose their own allies. I'm free to choose my own friends, but they have to choose me, right? You're free to choose. But that doesn't mean they have to take you. And kind of aspirational alignment, which is what Ukraine has had these last eight years, where it tries to get closer to NATO and the EU, but it's always a second class citizen- look, from Ukraine's perspective, it has clearly decided that that is better than giving the Russians what they want. They feel safer with this very inadequate lack of any guarantee, but some friendship with NATO, than they would feel with whatever deals they could strike with Moscow. That's telling. But going forward, I think it is important to find a way which is safer than that, because they certainly don't feel secure now.

Comfort Ero 37:10
So what about a way through Minsk? What might that entail?

Olga Oliker 37:15
So I think it's a challenge. One of the ways that has been proposed to square the circle is through international peacekeepers, for instance, that are in place for any elections that are held. There is a status law that Ukraine keeps extending that it passed shortly after the Minsk agreements were first signed. It is conditioned on other parts of Minsk being fulfilled and all the foreign weapons leaving. And I think this is something to have a conversation on. It might be possible, for instance, to link the withdrawal of Russian forces and equipment from eastern Ukraine, with these promises not to deploy any NATO weaponry in Ukraine, you know, that might be a way to connect the two pieces of this puzzle. You know, I think there are ways forward. The challenge is to figure out just what both Moscow and Kyiv can live with. And, you know, that's not easy. Ukraine is very concerned about taking steps that will genuinely limit its sovereignty. Now, one thing that Western states ought to be considering is that if Ukraine is to regain control of the separatist-held territories, and Moscow expects the people who currently run them to run them forever, well, if Western states help Ukraine really win hearts and minds there, right? If there is a real push to rebuild these economies that have been just dreadfully damaged by the last eight years of war, if there is a real push to make it clear that life under Ukrainian rule is much better than life was for these eight years when they were held by the separatists, you know, the next time people go out to vote, they may not vote for the people who've been controlling these territories for the last eight years. So you know, I think, kind of, thinking creatively about how to manage that is worthwhile.

Richard Atwood  39:19
And if you look at the crisis, as it stands now, I mean, obviously, we don't know what's going to happen in the coming weeks, but if you look at the crisis, as it stands now, how do you think Russia and the West have sort of come out of this? On the one hand, President Putin is the centre of attention again, there's recognition of Russia's security interests in a way that perhaps there weren't some months ago, he may yet get some concessions, even if not exactly what he wants. But on the other hand, he's really helped forge the very united response in the West that looks more united now than it did some months ago. Plus, of course, there's this very deep enmity that you talked about in Ukraine to Moscow and what Moscow is doing.

Comfort Ero 39:51
I would also add, Richard, in a sense, it's also forced or created a willingness to enter serious conversations as well, which is what Putin, in a sense, wanted, you know, he's shaking things up and wanted the U.S. to take, you know, Russia as the other pillar of the European security architecture, as well if you look at it from the Kremlin’s point of view.

Olga Oliker 40:17
So I honestly think if you can get the troops to pull back now, it's a win-win. Everybody can feel that they've accomplished something, and they actually will have accomplished something which will be better for European security, which is not to say that I in any way endorse the chorus of diplomacy, you know, obtained by moving 150,000 troops to another country's borders. But if everybody does come to the negotiating table now, everybody does win. If you see an escalation, everybody's going to lose, including Russia, certainly most of all Ukraine, but also including the Western states. They can emerge from it with their unity intact. But that's going to be cold comfort with a less secure Europe. If we move forward, they will be united, but they will also be in a conversation with Russia about how to make Europe safer. And if there's also a path forward towards peace in Ukraine, then that helps resolve a war in the middle of Europe that has been going on for eight years, there's an actual prospect for everybody walking away a winner, which is kind of rare in international relations. It would be nice to see them take it.

Richard Atwood  41:32
Olya, thanks so much for coming on again.

Olga Oliker 41:36 
Thank you for having me.

Comfort Ero 41:40 
Thank you Olya. Richard, I just wanted to pick up on that last point, from earlier and just pose it back to you to sort of get your perspective as well. I mean, broadly speaking, she ended on the possibility that if we opt for diplomacy, as opposed to, you know, more military measures, that there is a way out of this crisis. It's not a straightforward path to get serious talks going, and to try and address the various aspects, whether it's European security or the issues around Minsk as well. So, having listened to Olya, I'd be interested to get your overall sense of how you see things playing out.

Richard Atwood  42:21
Yeah, obviously, we're not out of the woods yet, as you know, and as we talked about this, these conflicting reports about whether Russia is pulling back and really prepared to give diplomacy a chance. And now, there’s this exchange of shelling on the front lines in Donbas and very stark warnings, again, from Washington about prospects for an invasion. So, you know, I think there are still really big questions about whether Western leaders, Moscow, Kyiv can alight on some sort of formula that can give Putin an off-ramp. This is obviously not the sort of thing that Western leaders, understandably, like to talk about, in essence at the barrel of a gun, but probably, you know, as Olya said, and as Chancellor Scholz hinted at, if there's any way of averting an escalation through some sort of fudge that can give Putin some way of pulling back, that's probably worth doing. But Olya I think is exactly right to point out, you know, in response to the question you asked her, that, first, even if the Russians do go in, this has, I think, been quite an impressive display of unity from Western leaders, despite, to some degree, their different interests. Despite that, some are going to be harder hit by sanctions than others. For example, I found some of the commentary that sort of plays up the division a little bit off target. In fact, if Putin hoped to stoke division among Western leaders, he's done the opposite. And the way that they've responded, the united front and making clear what will happen if Russia escalates, even if it doesn't end up working, I think it's largely been the right response. I think the U.S. has also consulted widely among Europeans, which is very important after the Afghanistan pull out, after the AUKUS deal, this military deal with Australia and the UK that rubbed France and much of the rest of Europe the wrong way. So that's also been encouraging. I think it's also been interesting the way that the U.S. has been so open about its intelligence, and that if Moscow does plan a false-flag operation, it'll claim a Ukrainian attack in Donbas as a pretext to invade or a pretext to step up its own military activity, then highlighting that risk explicitly pointing to the intelligence, that has some logic too. So that's first. I think secondly, Olya is really completely right that, even though maybe it's a narrow window, and you know, I don't think we'd say we're optimistic that it'll happen, but I think it is right to identify that there could be an opportunity coming out of this for Western governments and Moscow to sit down and rethink a security architecture in Europe that's really been in need of an overhaul for a while. Now, ideally, that would go alongside efforts to try to find a way through the deadlock over Minsk. It's hard to see an agreement on wider European security without addressing this sort of open sore in Donbas. But I mean, Comfort you're, you're actually in Munich now for the Munich Security Conference. I was very sorry I had to pull out. I had Covid last week, which is why we didn't put out an episode, but it also meant I couldn't go to Munich, which was very disappointing. But you're there, along with many Western leaders, President Zelensky. You'll see a lot of people. What are you sort of going to be talking about over the next few days?

Comfort Ero 45:21 
Thank you, Richard. Yes, it's an interesting time to be here. I've just arrived, as you say, into Munich, where key leaders, especially European leaders, will be here. And everybody will be waiting in anticipation to hear what President Zelensky is going to say. And we're expecting that Ukraine will cast a shadow over the conference. Imagine a lot of interest in what he's going to say, but also what some of the European leaders who will be here and what some U.S. senators, what they'll be also saying. And obviously, we hope now that with all this recent bout of diplomacy, clear messaging, that Moscow will find a way to pull back. But let's see what happens over the coming days. We hope to see, for example, that he sees sense, and that he avoids a war that would really serve no one's interest: clearly not Moscow's, and certainly not the Russian population’s. Just thinking about the strain, also, that it will pose on global humanitarian systems that are already creaking, really, this could be disastrous, the terrible human suffering that will accompany the war. But on top of that, Richard, the thing we’d stress is that even if Russia does pull back, the talks you mentioned and that Olya talked about, on European security architecture and Minsk, are really important. The basic issues around, you know, the deployment of troops and equipment, updating existing agreements, rebooting those that have elapsed, thinking about the risk management in the Black and Baltic Seas, these are all the key components. Obviously, if Russia does pull back, Richard, and after the flare-up just now, that's a big deal. But if Russia does pull back, there’s a big temptation just to breathe a sigh of relief and wait for the next crisis, but in fact, stepping up diplomacy on Donbas and on European security architecture, more broadly, could still be crucial. 

Comfort Ero 47:37
Hold your Fire! is a production of the International Crisis Group. I'm Comfort Ero. 

Richard Atwood  47:42 
And I'm Richard Atwood. You can find all of our work including on the latest aspects of the Ukraine crisis and on the war in Donbas on our website, You can also follow us on Twitter @CrisisGroup.

Comfort Ero 47:55
Thanks of course to our producers, Sam Mednik and Kevin Murphy, and Garance Baby and Finn Johnson who help out with production.

Richard Atwood  48:04
And thank you as ever to all our listeners. If you have any questions, comments or feedback, please feel free to reach out on [email protected]. If you like the show, please do leave us a positive rating or review and we hope you'll join us again next time. 


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