Column: Drones, gas, sanctions and missiles shape Putin’s choices in Ukraine


LONDON, December 9 (Reuters) – As Russia moved troops and vehicles to its border with Ukraine last month, videos posted on Russian social media and television often showed rude canopies over turrets certain tanks – providing rudimentary protection against Turkish-built drones and missiles supplied by the United States in the event of war.

Moscow’s military posture has already borne fruit, at least in diplomatic terms. After a similar mass mobilization of Russian forces earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden held a summit in Geneva. As Westerners increasingly fear the latest troop build-up could lead to a Russian invasion, the two leaders held a two-hour video call on Tuesday.

The Russian and US briefings from the video chats made it clear that what is at stake is not just a potential military confrontation. While US officials previously agreed that “all options” were on the table if Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden said on Wednesday that the deployment of US troops was not being considered – and that Ukraine was not not covered by the same mutual defense obligations as NATO allies such as the Baltic States and Poland.

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Instead, the United States relies on financial and diplomatic leverage: the threat of sanctions, plus a block on the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany which Moscow says will increase European dependence on it. to Russian natural gas.

Moscow and Washington are now signaling that they expect tensions to ease – but it is not yet clear whether Russian troops will return home or leave equipment near the border ready for any future confrontation.

The withdrawal of the current military threat allows Russia to avoid further immediate Western sanctions and paves the way for the new German government to finally certify Nordstream 2, which risks lowering the gas to start flowing through it to the Europe in the New Year. But Moscow remains concerned about the resurgence of the Ukrainian army. If he tries to seize Ukrainian territory, he may decide that he must do so soon.

During fighting last year in the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus, a conflict that threatened to suck the regional powers of Turkey and Russia, Azerbaijan effectively used Turkish drones to destroy tanks deployed by ethnic Armenian forces. In addition to Turkish drones, the Ukrainian military now has access to US-made Javelin anti-tank missiles that can strike vehicles from above to overcome their armor.

The United States and its allies have trained Ukrainian troops, and some experts in Moscow say Kiev may one day be tempted to try to reclaim territory seized by Russian forces in 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula. and supported the separatists in a conflict in eastern Ukraine that remains unresolved.


It is difficult to predict how a concerted attempt to grab land by Russian forces could unfold.

All options come with risk. Whatever happens in Ukraine, it will affect Putin and his prestige in Russia. In July, the Russian leader published a long article on Ukraine, describing the former Soviet republic as devoid of identity. Moscow offered citizenship to residents of breakaway areas in eastern Ukraine as pro-Kremlin commentators discussed whether to annex them. A successful war could boost Putin’s popularity in Russia, even at the cost of international sanctions, but a military failure could undermine his authority.

Moscow may already be on the way to achieving some goals. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and other Ukrainian leaders have been largely left out of these discussions. Before his call with Putin, Biden spoke with several European leaders but not with Zelenskiy, who had to settle for US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Moscow has long expressed frustration with the so-called Norman process of negotiations with Ukraine, in which leaders from Kiev, Paris and Berlin participated. A message after Tuesday’s call was that he preferred to resolve these issues directly with Washington.

While Putin is unlikely to get his wish for an explicit US commitment to end NATO enlargement, preventing the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova from en becoming members, there seems little or no prospect of joining them in the foreseeable future anyway. However, US and Western military support for Kiev is expected to continue. An additional $ 300 million was included in the United States Defense Authorization Bill that was released on Tuesday.

It’s a sign of what is increasingly becoming an important goal for Washington: to deter Russia from attacking Ukraine and China from attacking Taiwan, with the United States being strategically ambiguous about what action it would take. militarily in both cases. This seems to work in the case of Russia, where pro-Kremlin analysts have long hinted at the prospects of a return to a “big three” world dominated by the United States, China and Russia.


The threat of Russian military might is important to Moscow’s attempts to gain or maintain a seat at this table. Russia’s economy is much smaller than that of the United States and China, and Russia’s ability to inflict military force on a neighbor, its nuclear weapons, and its growing stockpile of cyber and missile capabilities. High-tech hypersonics could become increasingly important as growing green energy options reduce other countries’ dependence on its gas and oil.

Financially and diplomatically, the United States can cause damage to the Russian economy and elites. Several more stringent measures have been removed from the United States Defense Clearance Bill, including sanctions that would bar American individuals and businesses from holding Russian debt as well as increased sanctions against Nordstream 2, but it is possible that they will be reintroduced.

Ultimately, the country that will decide whether Russian gas can start flowing through Nordstream 2 is Germany and its new government led by Social Democrat Olaf Schultz.

France and Germany have long supported trade ties with Russia and have supported the completion of the pipeline. The two will also have to make their own choices regarding military aid to Ukraine. One possible way forward if Russia does not invade Ukraine would be for Berlin to complete certification of the pipeline and allow it to start functioning, while delivering arms to Kiev.

If there is a war, Putin can expect to face a more united Western front against Russia than before. His decision on whether or not to risk it might depend on where he thinks he has the most to gain or lose.

*** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the 21st Century Study Project; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan and non-ideological think tank. Paralyzed by a car accident in a war zone in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016 he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labor Party.

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Edited by Timothy Heritage

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