What’s Behind Russia’s Latest Demands

Moscow has long chafed at Ukraine’s relationship with the West, so why the sudden urgency?

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds his annual press conference in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds his annual press conference in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds his annual press conference at the Manezh exhibition hall in central Moscow on Dec. 23, 2021. Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images

With an estimated 100,000 Russian troops positioned uncomfortably close to Ukraine’s border, senior U.S and European officials will meet with their Russian counterparts in a series of meetings next week, attempting to stave off another invasion of Ukraine. 

In draft proposals handed to U.S. officials and posted online late last year, the Kremlin demanded a sweeping series of security guarantees from Europe and NATO: no more eastward expansion of the alliance and guarantees not to deploy troops or weapons to countries that joined the bloc after 1997. The Russian demands also called for mutual restrictions on the deployment of short- and medium-range missiles and greater information sharing on military exercises, among other things. 

On the face of it, not much is new here. Russia has long chafed against Ukraine’s deepening relationship with the West and NATO’s expansion into what Moscow sees as its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. What has changed is the sense of urgency felt in the Kremlin—and the lengths Moscow is willing to go to have its demands met. The question is, why now?

With an estimated 100,000 Russian troops positioned uncomfortably close to Ukraine’s border, senior U.S and European officials will meet with their Russian counterparts in a series of meetings next week, attempting to stave off another invasion of Ukraine. 

In draft proposals handed to U.S. officials and posted online late last year, the Kremlin demanded a sweeping series of security guarantees from Europe and NATO: no more eastward expansion of the alliance and guarantees not to deploy troops or weapons to countries that joined the bloc after 1997. The Russian demands also called for mutual restrictions on the deployment of short- and medium-range missiles and greater information sharing on military exercises, among other things. 

On the face of it, not much is new here. Russia has long chafed against Ukraine’s deepening relationship with the West and NATO’s expansion into what Moscow sees as its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. What has changed is the sense of urgency felt in the Kremlin—and the lengths Moscow is willing to go to have its demands met. The question is, why now?

Experts point to a variety of factors, some dating back decades, others far more recent, as converging to convince the Kremlin that now is the time to take more forceful action to resolve its concerns about the balance of power in Europe and Ukraine’s increasing cooperation with the West. 

“You have to look at this as a crisis relating to Ukraine and to European security, and there’s a lot of overlap between those things,” said Olga Oliker, the program director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group. 


The “five waves” of NATO expansion

The long roots of the current crisis date back to the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the accession of several former Eastern Bloc countries to NATO. In a speech in late December, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the West of making false promises about its intentions to expand east. “We were fooled by five waves of NATO’s eastward expansion. We’re not threatening anyone—they came to us,” he said during his annual year-end press conference. (Russia’s ambassador to the United States made a similar argument in a recent piece for Foreign Policy.)

The reality of what was said regarding NATO expansion at the end of the war is still hotly contested by historians and officials who were involved in talks at the time, but no formal guarantees were ever put down in writing, and in the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, more than a dozen countries from the former Eastern Bloc, many still fearing Moscow’s long shadow, have been admitted to the alliance. Russia, still reeling from the Soviet collapse, had little power to alter the course of events, and the West took inaction as acceptance, Oliker said. 


Changes in Ukraine

In 2008, at the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, further promises were made to one day admit Ukraine and Georgia to the bloc. While this is still seen as a distant prospect for both countries, it has nevertheless caused deep alarm within the Russian government. “They do see this as a security threat to them,” Oliker said. “They want firmly obedient buffers.”

Russian concerns about Ukraine’s reliability as a shield were only heightened in 2014, when a popular uprising ousted the country’s pro-Russian president and ushered in a series of reform-minded governments. Russia annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine, bogging the country down in years of simmering war. The 2019 election of President Volodymyr Zelensky, a political neophyte who campaigned on resolving the conflict, sparked hope in the Kremlin that he may be willing to make concessions that would crush Ukraine’s sovereignty. But despite some initial efforts to restart peace talks, Zelensky’s attitudes toward Russia have only hardened since he took office, and Ukraine has deepened its defense cooperation with NATO members, including the United States, Britain, and Turkey. 

“Putin sees the trajectory in Ukraine and recognizes that things are not moving in his favor,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, the director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “If the calculus is that Russia needs to intervene to reassert influence, then it’s better for the Kremlin to act now, before Ukrainian capabilities further increase.” 

While the Ukrainian armed forces have undergone a sweeping series of reforms since 2014, so, too, has the Russian military. Having massed troops and materiel close to Ukraine’s border in the spring and fall of last year, Moscow is well poised to launch an attack early this year, when the ground is still frozen, which eases the way for Russia’s tanks.


Biden the pragmatist

And then there’s the international context. “I think it’s probably a combination of Russian capabilities and a sense of assertiveness that’s kind of been brewing in the Kremlin for the last couple of years, coupled with their perception of the U.S. and [a] West that’s distracted and in crisis,” Kendall-Taylor said. 

For much of the first year of Joe Biden’s presidency, senior U.S. officials sought to forge a “stable and predictable” relationship with Moscow amid renewed efforts to focus U.S. resources on competition with China. Biden does not share his predecessor’s apparent affinity for Putin, but he is nonetheless respected by Moscow as a seasoned foreign-policy hand. “Moscow interprets U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as an example that Biden might buck a policy establishment consensus, that he’s a pragmatist, and would seriously consider a compromise,” Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian armed forces with the CNA think tank, said in an email to Foreign Policy

While the United States has sent billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine and continues to avow its unwavering support for Ukrainian sovereignty, the country’s fate ultimately means more to Moscow than it does to Washington. 

“They [Russian officials] might assume that actually the U.S. interests at stake are relatively low, and that the United States will work hardest to manage any potential escalation. That if the worst comes to pass, the United States will look to punish Russia economically, but Russia is resilient and adaptive, and it’s been able to withstand all the prior sanctions,” Kofman said.


Avenues to de-escalate tensions

U.S. and European officials say they believe Russia has not ultimately decided on what course of action it plans to take. A series of high-level meetings next week may offer some clues as to whether a diplomatic solution is possible. On Jan. 10, U.S. and Russian officials are set to meet in Geneva for talks focusing on Moscow’s demands for security guarantees. This is to be followed by meetings of the NATO-Russia Council and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. 

Of the two parts to the security guarantees sought by Moscow, the first—which centers on NATO and Moscow’s demands that the alliance halt any expansion farther eastward—is more than likely to be a non-starter, as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and a number of NATO member states have reaffirmed Ukraine’s right to choose its own security arrangements. 

But on the broader question of security arrangements in Europe, issues such as arms control, the rebalancing of force postures, and limits on military exercises conducted by both sides may offer some avenues to de-escalate tensions. “A clear indicator of whether or not we’re marching toward conflict or whether diplomacy is plausible is the extent to which they push on the NATO set of issues versus the European security and arms control discussions,” Kendall-Taylor said. “If it’s all about NATO, then I think we’re at an impasse, and I’m not sure that there’s a resolution to that through diplomatic means.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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