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What Putin wants in the Russia-Ukraine standoff, and how he might get it


What has Putin demanded?

The official line from the Kremlin amid the current standoff centers on Putin’s demands for security guarantees for Russia that would include a halt to NATO’s eastward expansion and a formal veto Ukraine from joining the military alliance. He also wants NATO to reduce its military deployments in the region. The demands would significantly redraw Europe’s security landscape and have been largely rejected by Washington and the military alliance.

Putin’s statements about the history and status of Ukraine have given rise to the view among Russia watchers that he sees Ukraine as “unfinished business” and wants to follow up the takeover of Crimea with further action to put the country under the influence of Moscow, as it has the ambition to reconstitute a Moscow-led Eastern bloc reminiscent of Soviet times.

“He is personally, deeply and emotionally invested in reclaiming Russia’s ancient power over its neighbors,” said Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

Seeing Ukraine slowly but surely slipping out of Kremlin control and aligning itself with the West, Putin may feel “the time is right” to reassert his calls for a further extension of Russia’s power, Giles added.

Because right now?

Ever since the pro-Russian government in Kiev was toppled in 2014, Moscow has wanted to bring Ukraine back into its sphere of influence. But the current crisis also comes amid heightened tensions between the Kremlin and the West, sparked by accusations from Washington that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election, used chemical weapons to hunt down enemies abroad and intensified the repression of any form of dissidence in the country. , including the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

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Russia has grown in both capability and confidence, and the combination appears to have convinced Putin that he is in the best possible position to assert his demands, Giles said.

Russia’s capabilities have grown as a result of a decades-long program to reconstitute its military power, he added, and the Kremlin’s confidence has grown due to the consistent failure of the West and Western institutions to deter its geopolitical ambitions.

While some Western officials have disputed the Kremlin’s claim that it is threatened by NATO, there is no doubt that Russia aspires to roll back security in Eastern Europe and eliminate the US and NATO as guarantors of security in the region, Giles said.

“Most of the public debate on Russia’s demands has failed to understand that what Russia is asking for is not security guarantees for itself, but the removal of security guarantees for much of Europe,” he added.

The end result would be a continent dominated by Russian military might and at risk from Russian missiles, he added.

The growing number of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine and now in Belarus has been “mesmer’s watch” for the West, Giles said, achieving the Kremlin’s goal of “terrorizing” the US and its Western allies into starting negotiations with Russia on the future. security of Europe, an issue that “should be off the table”.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has led diplomatic efforts to resolve the tensions but made little progress in talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.Alex Brandon/AFP-Getty Images

Any internal pressure?

Ukraine is just an “unfortunate victim and the most convenient place for Putin to mount his demands with threats,” according to Giles.

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His comments echoed those of Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksiy Honcharenko, who told Russian TV Rain on Saturday that Moscow was using Ukraine as a “pain point” to blackmail the West.

Putin’s motivation could also include a desire to strengthen his base at home: a popular military victory as a way to distract himself from internal problems.

His popularity among Russians skyrocketed after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“Putin would no doubt be happy to present a foreign policy victory over the West, whether real or illusory, in the run-up to his re-election as president in 2024,” Giles said.

Putin could run for up to two terms over six years once his current term expires, following a controversial legislative change in 2020.

Still, military action in Ukraine could be a tough sell to the Russian public, especially if the standoff escalates into a protracted conflict. Secretary of State Antony Blinken appealed to that in a speech in Berlin last week, warning Russians of “a senseless war” with their neighbor and “the young people who will risk or even give their lives for it.”

Maintaining tension over Ukraine also helps Putin reinforce his image as a determined defender of Russia’s interests at home.

“He wants to raise his own and Russia’s status in the international arena, and consolidate recognition of the exclusivity of Russia’s interests,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, a Kiev-based political analyst and director of the Penta Center think tank. “He wants people to feel fear. That’s important to him.”

Will it or won’t it?

Military experts and analysts are divided on whether Putin intends to engage in a full-fledged war with Ukraine. The United States and its allies say Russia has been massing forces in eastern and southern Ukraine for months. Russia’s Defense Ministry shared photos this month of its forces entering Belarus as part of a joint military drill in February, increasing the military presence near Ukraine’s northern border and ratcheting up tensions.

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A similar buildup, albeit on a smaller scale, mystified the world last April, when Moscow amassed tens of thousands of troops near the Ukrainian border but ordered a withdrawal after weeks of tensions.


www.nbcnews.com

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