Russia’s February 17 response to the American response to Moscow’s demands for security guarantees, published on the same day, coupled with what has been happening in Russian-West relations around Ukraine over the past few days, indicate that in the near future we will see a simultaneous diplomatic marathon on two tracks at once: the political aspects of security guarantees and the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Meanwhile, there will be even more intense military muscle-flexing, both by Russia and by the US/NATO. Extreme scenarios – both Russia’s “invasion” of Ukraine and the recognition of the independence of the DPR and LPR, and the return of the situation to the October 2021 model, seem unlikely.
Both the situation around Ukraine and concerning the Russian-Western negotiations on security guarantees look contradictory.
On the one hand, the parties firmly continue to stand their ground on fundamental issues of European security, above all on NATO expansion and Russia's right to limit the boundaries of this expansion. At the same time, the United States and NATO are building up their military presence on the eastern flank of the alliance and military assistance to Ukraine (which directly opposes Russian demands), while Kiev still categorically refuses to implement the key provisions of the Minsk agreements (for example, on direct dialogue with the DPR and LPR) and insists on their revision or replacement.
On the other hand, there have been a series of talks between Vladimir Putin, Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, who clearly promoted some steps for Moscow and Kiev to implement the Minsk agreements and reduce the severity of the issue of Ukraine's accession to NATO. Putin also spoke to with Joe Biden, with whom these proposals were certainly coordinated. Following these, Russia made a “de-escalating” statement that it would continue negotiations with the West, and announced the cessation of the active phase of military exercises near the Ukrainian borders and a partial withdrawal of troops.
However, just a few hours after these statements, more military aggravation has begun in Donbass, and the DPR authorities have started talking about Kiev preparing a “forceful seizure of Donbass”, fraught with a full-scale war between Ukraine and Russia. The United States and NATO, for their part, began to declare that Russia was not only allegedly not withdrawing its troops from the borders of Ukraine, but, on the contrary, was building them up, and that the threat of its “invasion” remained real. Russia’s State Duma called on Putin to recognise the independence of the DNR and LNR.
Finally, two days after the transmission of its response to the United States, Russia is conducting large-scale exercises of strategic deterrence forces involving the Strategic Missile Forces, the aerospace forces and the Northern and Black Sea Fleets (which means possible nuclear strikes against the United States and NATO), to which it also invited Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. It is obviously part of the "military-technical response" that Russia has spoken about many times.