Russia has threatened war if the United States and its NATO allies fail to comply — unconditionally — with sweeping demands for a new security arrangement in Europe. Western analysts are split over interpreting Russian President Vladimir Putin's motives. Some say he is using the impossible list of demands as a pretext to invade Ukraine. Others think he is playing a weak hand to try to divide the West and reorder Europe's security architecture in Russia's favor. (Photo by Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)
Russia has threatened war if the United States and its NATO allies fail to comply — unconditionally — with sweeping demands for a new security arrangement in Europe.
The demands, issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry, require the United States to remove its nuclear umbrella from Europe and allow Russia to reestablish its Soviet-era sphere of influence over Eastern Europe.
The Russian demands, which effectively require NATO to commit suicide, are so obviously outrageous and unmeetable that Western analysts are split over interpreting Russian President Vladimir Putin's motives. Some say he is using the impossible list of demands as a pretext to invade Ukraine. Others think he is playing a weak hand to try to divide the West and reorder Europe's security architecture in Russia's favor.
Nearly all Western analysts agree: Putin is taking advantage of the weakness of U.S. President Joe Biden, divisions between the United States and Europe, disagreements within the European Union, and the fecklessness of the leaders of Europe's largest countries, particularly France and Germany.
On December 17, the Russian Foreign Ministry published two draft treaties: one between Russia and the United States, and the other between Russia and NATO.
Russia's draft "Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Security Guarantees" listed more than a dozen demands, including:
- NATO membership must be denied to all states of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), including the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which have been members of the alliance since 2004.
- NATO is prohibited from expanding further eastward, including to countries such as Sweden and Finland.
- The United States is prohibited from flying bombers or deploying warships, including within the framework of NATO, in areas outside of its national airspace and national territorial waters, respectively.
- The United States is prohibited from deploying its armed forces or armaments, including within the framework of NATO, in any area where such deployment could be perceived by Russia as a threat to its national security.
- The United States must remove all its nuclear weapons from Europe.
- The United States is prohibited from deploying ground-launched intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles outside of its territory.
Russia's draft "Agreement on Measures to Ensure the Security of the Russian Federation and Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization" put forward additional demands:
- NATO member states are prohibited from deploying military forces to any country that became a member of the alliance after May 27, 1997, when NATO and Russia signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations. This includes 14 countries that have become NATO members during the past 25 years: Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
- NATO is prohibited from deploying land-based intermediate- and short-range missiles to anywhere where such missiles can reach Russia.
- NATO is prohibited from any further enlargement, including the accession of Ukraine as well as any other state.
- NATO is prohibited from military cooperation with Ukraine as well as other states in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and in Central Asia.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov declared that both texts are part of a whole and are not to be understood as being "a menu, where you can choose one or the other."
While Russia expects NATO and the United States to comply with its demands, Moscow, in return, has offered only a vague commitment to "not create conditions or situations that threaten the national security of the other parties." The draft treaty imposes no requirements for Moscow to redeploy Russian forces.
On December 20, Konstantin Gavrilov, a Russian diplomat in Vienna, said that relations between Moscow and NATO had reached a "moment of truth." He added:
"The conversation needs to be serious and everyone in NATO understands perfectly well despite their strength and power that concrete political action needs to be taken, otherwise the alternative is a military-technical and military response from Russia."
On December 23, Putin, during a four-hour press conference, repeated his stance that "any further NATO movement to the east is unacceptable." A few days later, the Kremlin described NATO expansion as "a matter of life and death" for Russia.
On December 26, Russia warned Finland and Sweden against joining NATO. "It is quite obvious that the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO would have serious military and political consequences that would require an adequate response from Russia," said Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
Russia hopes to obtain new security guarantees during a series of upcoming meetings with American and European officials. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman are scheduled to lead bilateral security talks in Geneva on January 10.
Russia is set to hold talks with NATO in Brussels on January 12, before a broader meeting in Vienna on January 13 involving the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which includes the United States and its NATO allies, as well as Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet states.
Meanwhile, Russia has amassed an estimated 100,000 troops on Ukraine's eastern border amid fears of an imminent invasion.
Evaluating Russian Demands
Françoise Thom, a renowned French historian of Russia, wrote that Putin is trying to "bind NATO through the United States, the United States through NATO." She added: "There is nothing to negotiate, you have to accept everything as a whole."
Thom, in a lengthy and incisive analysis of the Russian demands, described them as "an orchestrated blackmail":
"The Russian blackmail is explicit and is directed at both the Americans and the Europeans. If the West does not accept the Russian ultimatum, they will have to face 'a military and technical alternative,' according to Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko: 'The Europeans must also think about whether they want to avoid making their continent the scene of a military confrontation. They have a choice. Either they take seriously what is put on the table, or they face a military-technical alternative.'
"After the publication of the draft treaty, the possibility of a pre-emptive strike against NATO targets (similar to those that Israel inflicted on Iran), was confirmed by former Deputy Minister of Defense Andrei Kartapolov (Duma Defense Committee): 'Our partners must understand that the longer they drag out the examination of our proposals and the adoption of real measures to create these guarantees, the greater the likelihood that they will suffer a pre-emptive strike.'
"To make things clear Russia fired a 'salvo' of Zircon hypersonic missiles on December 24. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, commented on this event: 'Well, I hope that the notes [of December 17] will be more convincing.' Editorialist Vladimir Mozhegov added: 'What are our arguments? First and foremost, of course, our most reliable allies — the army and the navy. To be more precise, the hypersonic Zircon missile (the 'carrier killer,' as it is affectionately called in the West), which makes it absurd for the United States to have a fleet of aircraft carriers. The impact of the Zircon cracks a destroyer like a nut. Several Zircons will inevitably sink an aircraft carrier. The Zircon simply does its job: it methodically shoots huge, clumsy aircraft carriers like a gun at cans.'
"An article in the digital newspaper Svpressa eloquently titled 'Putin's ultimatum: Russia ... will bury all of Europe and two-thirds of the United States in 30 minutes' dots the i's: 'The Kremlin will have to prove its position with deeds. It is probably only possible to force the 'partners' to sit at the negotiating table by coercion. Economically, the Russian Federation cannot compete with the West. There remains war.' Military expert Konstantin Sivkov believes that 'to bring the United States and NATO to the negotiating table, some kind of super weapon is needed to... demonstrate our determination to strike if NATO expands. After that, I can assure you that they [the West] will be afraid.... It is naive to rely on diplomatic procedures. [...] Russia's move is a signal that already radical measures are going to be taken. You refused, so you will have yourselves to blame...'"
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the United States would consult with its allies.
Polish Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lukasz Jasina added: "Russia is not a member of NATO and doesn't decide on matters related to NATO."
Ukraine's foreign ministry said Kyiv had an "exclusive sovereign right" to run its own foreign policy, and only it and NATO could determine the relationship between them, including the question of Ukrainian membership.
Finland, an officially neutral country which shares a border with Russia, underscored its right to seek NATO membership at any time. "Let it be stated once again," said Finland's president, Sauli Niinistö. "Finland's room to maneuver and freedom of choice also include the possibility of military alignment and of applying for NATO membership, should we ourselves so decide."
Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde added:
"We must have a rules-based world order, where we have international law and each country has the right to make its own security policy choices. Rejecting any future expansion of NATO will reduce the opportunities to make independent political choices."
Germany appears to be the West's weak link the face of Russian pressure. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz wants to reset relations with Moscow and is planning a face-to-face meeting with Putin sometime this January.
On January 3, the German newspaper Bild reported that Scholz is seeking "a new beginning" in relations with Moscow. This has alarmed smaller European countries which fear that Germany will reach an accommodation with Putin behind their backs. In an interview with Bild, former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said:
"Everyone saw [German Foreign Minister] Annalena Baerbock and hoped that she could shift the German foreign policy focus to human rights and the observance of basic values. Europe basically hoped that the new government would mean an end to mercantilism, but then Mr. Scholz took over the helm. What we see now is unfortunately more of what we already know and not a good start to his term in office and not a good sign for European unity."
Former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in an opinion article published by Politico, warned that Putin is seeking Russian control over the security of Central and Eastern Europe:
"Under the new Russian proposals, NATO would have to seek consent from Moscow to deploy troops in Central and Eastern Europe, refrain from 'any military activity' across Eastern Europe, the southern Caucuses and Central Asia, and halt any NATO drills near Russia. The agreement also demands a written guarantee that Ukraine will not be offered NATO membership, and a draft treaty with the United States would ban it from sending warships and aircrafts to 'areas where they can strike targets on the territory of the other party,' like the Baltics and the Black Sea.
"This is not a serious proposal from a man who wants peace.
"Putin is skilled at creating crises only to later extinguish them, like a firefighter trying to douse his own arson attack, and by threatening to invade Ukraine, he has calculated that the U.S. and other Western powers might negotiate directly with the Kremlin — potentially over their Eastern European and Baltic allies — offering concessions and allowing him to maintain influence over former Soviet countries in exchange for peace.
"Putin plays a bad hand well — but his tactics will only work if we fold. And it's time for NATO to call Putin's bluff.
"Under no circumstances should the U.S. or NATO give commitments on future enlargement, real or de facto.... NATO cannot have an open-door policy on enlargement in which it continues to allow Putin to act as the doorman.
"NATO cannot negotiate down the barrel of a gun. And if we back down now, that signal will be heard loud and clear by both the democracies that rely on us, and the autocrats who lament and fear our freedom."
Rebekah Koffler, a Russian-born U.S. intelligence expert, argued that the evidence is overwhelming that Russia is about to invade Ukraine, and that Putin was taking advantage of the weakness of the United States under President Joe Biden:
"The Russian leader... believes he has a window of opportunity to act. He is worried that the risk of Kiev joining NATO will increase if a stronger U.S. leader...comes to power. He also knows that the Pentagon is only beginning its transition from counter-terrorism operations onto a new footing focused on major states such as China and Russia.
"Russian troops are primed to fight in the cold, as they always have been, and Putin likely believes the West won't wade into the snow to help Ukraine. Emboldened by his ability to blindside the West, such as by previously invading Georgia and taking Crimea, and by extorting concessions from Joe Biden, Putin is positioning to outmaneuver Washington.
"Regretfully, the Biden administration's 'experts,' like Obama's before them who fecklessly sought a 'reset' with Russia, are likely to fall into Putin's trap."
Steven Pifer, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, wrote that the substance of the Russian demands, and the way they were publicized, suggest that Putin is not serious about negotiating with the West:
"The unacceptable provisions in the two draft agreements, their quick publication by the Russian government, and the peremptory terms used by Russian officials to describe Moscow's demands raise concern that the Kremlin may want rejection. With large forces near Ukraine, Moscow could then cite that as another pretext for military action against its neighbor."
Veteran geopolitical analyst Andrew Michta, writing for the inestimable blog 19fourtyfive, argued that Putin is trying to divide NATO, humiliate the West and eject the United States from Europe:
"Judging by the scope of the demands presented by Russia in the two so-called 'draft treaties' with NATO and the United States, respectively, Moscow must have no illusions that these would be accepted, for they would remake Euro-Atlantic security, creating conditions that would undermine NATO and America's ability to work with its allies. Putin may have already decided to move militarily, and calls for the West to negotiate could create a 'maskirovka' [Russian military deception] and in doing so provide a casus belli for Moscow, which would try to claim that Washington had refused to consider its terms.
"If the demands to negotiate have a larger aim it is to divide the alliance. Most importantly, the idea that Russia would need a written treaty guarantee to forestall Ukraine or Georgia's accession to NATO is absurd. Putin knows that so long as he occupies Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, the countries have no chance of making it into NATO, for a vote to enlarge the alliance would mean in effect a vote to go to war with Russia. Moscow's demand that the effective status quo be confirmed by treaty is thus nothing short of an attempt to humiliate the West.
"It is critical to consider what might happen should Russia invade Ukraine, and what might happen if we do not start thinking long-term about the impact of this crisis. A second Russian attack on Ukraine, should it happen, ought to serve as a long-overdue wake-up call for the West about Russia's intentions to establish an exclusive sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and assert Moscow's claims to exercising influence in Central Europe, within NATO's perimeter....
"Should the response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine be more of the same, Europe's security would deteriorate dramatically. The zone of competition would shift from Eastern Europe to Central Europe and the Baltic states, where the next round of Putin's demands could be a de facto 'Finlandization' of the Baltic States and pressure on the United States and NATO to remove military assets from the intermarium [Central and Eastern European countries] between the Baltic and the Black Seas, especially from Poland and Romania. In this scenario Putin would target Germany as his 'partner of preference,' with the expectation that by applying its energy weapon Moscow could eventually coax Berlin into a 'neo-Bismarckian' [German dominance of the European Union] accommodation that would in effect divide Europe into two spheres of influence, rendering the United States increasingly irrelevant to the overall strategic balance in Europe."
American foreign policy expert Anne Pierce warned that the United States and Europe are at a "tipping point":
"If they do not move decisively to stop Russia from taking over Ukraine, they will send a dangerous message to China vis-a-vis Taiwan, position Russia to coerce more former Soviet satellite states, and further ruin their international reputation, which is already in tatters after the betrayal of Afghanistan and failed diplomatic overtures to Iran. The window is closing to deter Russia from instigating major war or from conquering Ukraine by intensifying its current campaign of paramilitary assaults, disinformation, energy blackmail, and threats backed by escalation.
"It is nearly past time to alter Vladimir Putin's shrewd calculus and deny Russia crucial geopolitical territory and a defining anti-democratic victory. The West should immediately impose tough sanctions on Russia, provide serious defense assistance to Ukraine, demonstrate unambivalent support for Ukrainian sovereignty, and project moral and strategic resolve. Unfortunately, current trends and past behavior provide little cause for optimism that the 'free world' will rise to the challenge....
"In the face of Russia's alarming advances and brazen disregard for international norms, Western leaders have hesitated to impose serious costs. They've issued 'expressions of concern,' agreed to treaties that give Russia an advantage, failed to enforce those treaties, haltingly imposed weak sanctions, and generally exhibited inertia that contrasts with Putin's drive....
"Recent Western responses to Russian aggression resemble the Munich peace process. In hopes of satisfying Adolf Hitler from wanting more, the West buried its head in the sand about Hitler's vast ambitions and escalating atrocities and forced Czechoslovakia into concessions that facilitated German occupation. History, and the failure of generous compromise to stop Putin so far, tells us where all this is likely to lead."
Françoise Thom, the French historian, urged the West to wake up:
"Reading the Western press, one is under the impression that nothing is happening. Westerners do not seem to understand what is at stake. They think that only the fate of Ukraine is being decided, which is of less concern to them than that of Armenia.... They resemble those who in 1939 believed that Hitler's demands would be limited to Danzig. However, one only has to look at the texts proposed by Moscow to understand that the stakes are quite different....
"In a word, Russia is demanding that NATO commit suicide, and that the United States be reduced to the role of a regional power.... As a result, Russia will have the upper hand in Europe. The countries of Western Europe are already taken for granted, with Moscow counting on the pool of collaborators that it has cultivated for years within the European ruling elites: it has just sent them a strong signal by appointing François Fillon [former prime minister of France] as director of the petrochemical giant Sibur. Deprived of American support, the 'Russophobic' countries that crystallize the resistance to Moscow's hegemony will only have to bow to the inevitable....
"Westerners must first perceive the situation as it is, however unpleasant it may be for our democratic states more accustomed to futile undertakings than to ensuring their preservation. To do this, we must extricate ourselves from the Russian lie....
"When Moscow talks about 'security' one must understand 'Russian domination' and 'impunity,' because that is what it is all about. In the Kremlin's view, everything it does not control can jeopardize the regime.... What Moscow fears in Ukraine is not a few NATO instructors, but freedom. It wants a disarmed Ukraine so that it can intimidate the Kiev rebels and set up a regime hated by its people, thus totally dependent on the Kremlin....
"If Russia succeeds in driving the United States out of Europe, it will soon feel threatened by the freedoms of Western European countries, and under the pretext of ensuring its 'security,' it will display the same determination in our country [France] as in its own to enslave the media, to eradicate democratic institutions and independent parties....
"In 1946-7 we knew that freedom was worth dying for, something that is obviously forgotten today. After Munich in 1938, the West was ashamed to have abandoned Czechoslovakia into Hitler's clutches. Today we are cowardly letting down Ukraine, but we do not even realize our dishonor, nor the danger of giving in to an aggressor. We are like the Byzantines who were discussing the sex of angels while the Ottoman forces were destroying the city walls."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute.