Despite all the negotiations that Russia and the West have held in the past year over a settlement to the Ukraine crisis, Tuesday served as a reminder that the two sides are still far from any serious resolution. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said that NATO is provoking Russia into an arms race, referring to the Western military bloc's plans to deploy F-22s and other military equipment to countries in Central and Eastern Europe, while Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia will add more than 40 intercontinental ballistic missiles to its nuclear arsenal this year. Earlier, a Russian defense official said that Moscow would retaliate against U.S. and NATO military exercises and arms buildups along Russia's borders.
There is nothing particularly new about these developments; in fact, military exercises and weapons deployments from both Russia and the West have become the norm in what is the lowest period of their relations since the end of the Cold War. Both sides are still showing restraint compared to the Cold War and have not gone into an all-out arms race. However, the tension has not subsided since the Euromaidan revolution nearly 18 months ago. It has, in fact, grown since then, showing that this is not a minor snag between Moscow and the West. It is a new phase in their relationship.
The Ukrainian uprising of February 2014 was the introduction to this new phase. The revolution was followed soon by the formation of a pro-Western government in Kiev, Russia's annexation of Crimea and the start of a pro-Russia insurgency in eastern Ukraine. Then began a protracted conflict between Ukrainian security forces and Russia-supported separatists. Fears arose that Russia could launch a formal invasion of Ukraine or another area in the former Soviet periphery, such as the Baltic states. This situation subsequently gave way to Russian and U.S. military buildups along the European borderlands, while the United States and European Union launched sanctions against Russia and Moscow responded with counter-sanctions. Russia has not launched and is not likely to launch a formal, large-scale invasion of Ukraine, but inflammatory rhetoric between the two sides is at an all-time high while mutual trust is at an all-time low.
Nevertheless, relations between Russia and the West have not been limited to military posturing; the two sides have engaged diplomatically with each other since the start of the Ukraine crisis. The engagement has taken on many forms, including the Minsk talks to discuss tactical aspects of the conflict, the Normandy talks to discuss broader political issues, and myriad bilateral meetings between Russia and Western power players like the United States, Germany and others. These talks have not all just been for show either. The Minsk talks produced several cease-fire agreements that, though not ending the fighting completely, have decreased casualties and hostilities on the line of contact between the rebels and Ukrainian security forces.
But in examining the prospects for these various negotiations, and why they have so far failed to produce any meaningful resolution, we must look at both sides' motivations. As Stratfor laid out in its annual forecast, "The Ukrainian crisis and the ensuing standoff between Russia and the West was the result of a collision between two geopolitical imperatives: Russia's imperative to maintain buffer space in its former Soviet periphery — particularly Ukraine — to feel secure and project power, and the United States' imperative to prevent the rise of a hegemon in Eurasia." The Ukraine conflict has deprived Russia of its imperative, while it has enabled the United States to achieve its goal.
What has ensued is the manifestation of Russia's desire to reclaim its influence in Ukraine, or at least make sure the country is neutralized. The United States, conversely, with various levels of support from the Europeans, wants to pull the former Soviet country further under the Western umbrella. This process is taking place beyond Ukraine as well, stretching along the entire former Soviet periphery, where countries such as Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Turkmenistan are pushed and pulled between the rival blocs. On the same day that Antonov accused NATO of provoking Russia, an Armenian defense official traveled to Moscow to discuss weapons procurements from Russia. The previous day, Georgia signed an air defense procurement agreement with France, while Belarus — citing NATO activity on its borders — staged military drills on its border with Ukraine.
In the meantime, both sides continue talking and making diplomatic efforts to resolve the Ukraine crisis and make sure that it does not erupt into a larger and more dangerous war. It is possible, even desirable, to keep the conflict contained. There are important economic links between Russia and the Europeans and Russia's nuclear arsenal checks any overt U.S. plan for aggression. There may also be room for greater cooperation in peripheral areas of mutual interest. But a diplomatic resolution to the crisis would entail a level of understanding and compromise from the United States and Russia that neither side has yet been willing to show. And right now, with the increase in military posturing and weapons buildups from both Russia and the West, the two sides are only moving further apart.