Russia Does Not Want a War in Ukraine

Putin is just responding to NATO’s sabre-rattling on Russia’s borders.

Over the past month the drum beat of a new war in the east of Europe has grown ever louder. So loud, in fact, that US president Joe Biden and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, felt the need to hold a virtual summit on Tuesday this week. The stated aim from the Russian side was to try to clear the air and, from the US side, to stall what it had presented as Russian preparations to invade Ukraine.

The outcome, as spun by the US, included loud threats of new Western sanctions and embargoes should Russia take a step across the Ukraine border. As spun by Russia, the summit allowed for new discussions, which was in turn spun by some advocates for Ukraine as potentially jeopardising its independence.

What seems not to have been resolved in those two hours of talks, however, is the original question: is Russia mobilising to invade Ukraine? (For the New Cold Warriors, this would be the second invasion, the first being Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its ill-defined support for anti-Kiev rebels in eastern Ukraine.) And if Russia is not planning to invade, then what is going on?

The problem, as so often, is that the very same elements that can be cited as evidence of Russia’s aggressive intent, in terms of troop deployment and rhetoric, can also be viewed as reactive – that is, defensive. Yet the idea that Putin might be trying to reinforce Russia’s national security against what he might see as a Western threat – taking the form, say, of the NATO-backed land-grab for Ukraine – is almost never entertained. Yet consider which side has made the running here.

This latest West-Russia stand-off would appear to date from a hawkish Pentagon briefing on 10 November, which coincided with a visit to Washington by the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, and the signing of a US-Ukraine strategic partnership agreement. Both the Pentagon and the US secretary of state referred to ‘unusual troop movements’ near Russia’s border with Ukraine, a figure of 100,000 troops was mentioned, and the supposed threat received blanket coverage in the US media.

The UK picked up the war cry. In a series of valedictory speeches and interviews in mid November, the outgoing UK chief of defence staff, General Sir Nick Carter, commanded headlines, warning of a Russian threat that had been a leitmotif of his three-year tenure at the top of the UK’s military establishment. Then came a veritable festival of Cold Warriordom in the shape of the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting on 30 November, held in the Latvian capital, Riga.

Here, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg was on unusually eloquent form in defence of Ukraine’s independence and sovereign states’ right to choose their allies. Stoltenberg also harked back to a decade-old NATO-Russia quarrel about spheres of influence. In a rare nod to his native country, he noted that Norway had never called for any sphere of influence despite its border with Russia, therefore Russia didn’t need any buffer against NATO either. (A glimpse at the map might show the short length of Norway’s Arctic border with Russia and the huge buffer afforded by neutral Sweden and Finland, but that’s another matter.)

At the same time as the Riga meeting, an inimitable contribution to the general climate of peace and friendship was made by the UK’s new foreign secretary, Liz Truss, who posed, helmeted, in a tank while visiting a British troop unit in Estonia. It was not her fault that the pictures were seen less as a warning to Russia than a Thatcher tribute act – and, as such, as an unsubtle hint about Truss’s future ambitions.

Nor was this the end. From here the torch of invasion-alarm was passed to Germany where, following hot on the heels of Angela Merkel’s military farewell after 16 years as chancellor, the popular Bild published an enormous ‘exclusive’ on 4 December, complete with an elaborate map, headed: ‘This is how Putin could annihilate Ukraine.’ It set out the supposed positions of Russian troops (inside Russia) and detailed a Russian plan for a three-phase attack sometime in the New Year. In this piece the estimated number of Russian troops deployed ‘near’ the border with Ukraine was upped from 100,000 to a ‘potential’ 175,000 – a number instantly promoted and repeated, unqualified, across the Western media.

It might now be worth considering some peculiarities about the way this whole Russian-invasion scenario has been put about and how it has been magnified into a threat not just to Ukraine, but also to the EU and to the West as a whole.

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