What Putin wants
One of Vladimir Putin's favorite stories in his "tell all" 2000 book, "From the First Person," is about a large rat he was chasing as a schoolboy with a group of friends inside the Leningrad apartment block where he lived. He cornered the animal. Suddenly the rat turned on its pursuer and aggressively attacked Putin. He even had to flee. For Putin, metaphors of strength and desperation always held a special meaning. These days they are doubly important.
There was a flurry of statements from Putin's closest foreign policy confidants immediately before and after the Russian leader's phone call with US President Joe Biden. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, and Russia's ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, all focused on one point: Moscow will not agree to the endless Cold War-style talks with the US and drop its insistence on legally binding "security guarantees" from the West. These include assurances that NATO will not admit any more new neighbors from the ranks of the former Soviet republics (i.e., Ukraine and Georgia), as well as a promise to decrease the alliance's military activity in Central Europe and the Baltic states. Russia also wants the US not to deploy any short- and intermediate-range missiles in Europe.
Putin is making it clear: He will consider withdrawing Russian armed forces from the Ukrainian border only after NATO scraps the promise of future membership made to Ukraine and Georgia at the alliance's summit in Bucharest in 2008.
After over 20 years on the international stage, Putin knows all too well that this will never happen. Rescinding the Bucharest invitation (controversial as it is among some European allies) and limiting deployments in Central Europe is tantamount to giving Moscow veto power over the alliance's decision making. This will put an end to NATO as we know it.
Biden already said that Ukraine needs to fix its corruption problem before thinking about membership. He also reiterated that the United States will not deploy any offensive weapons on Ukrainian territory. In theory, it may also be possible to limit US military cooperation with Kyiv, although this risks infuriating Congress. In fact, Washington made most of the possible concessions to Moscow before the Russia-US talks in Geneva, scheduled for January 10, even started. But the Kremlin is pressing ahead with demands that it knows will not be granted. Why?
Putin seizes moment
Putin considers the West, and the European Union in particular, to be enfeebled by the pandemic, state capture by big business and lack of coherent leadership. Biden made a mistake when he invited Putin for direct talks issued in spring in the wake of Russia's first menacing armed forces deployment near Ukraine's border. Putin read it as a sign of weakness and readiness to "trade" Ukraine in exchange for Russia's noninterference in Washington's century-defining struggle with China. The Russian strongman was also infuriated by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's decision to arrest and put on trial for treason Putin's closest Ukrainian friend and the country's No. 1 pro-Russia politician, Viktor Medvedchuk. In addition, he finally understood that no Ukrainian leader will ever fulfill the 2015 Minsk agreements. They are seen as signed at gunpoint and humiliating.
On top of it, Putin sees the Ukrainian forces' use of Turkish-produced drones, as well as its navy modernization program and expanding cooperation with NATO countries, as a dangerous trend. In the Kremlin's view, it could eventually lead to Kyiv's launching a victorious offensive against the Russian-controlled areas of Donbass. After all, Azerbaijan unexpectedly succeeded in such an endeavor in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 after many years of rearmament.
The Russian leadership thinks that the moment to press for inflexible demands is right — and unique. Germany is headed by the Russia-friendly Social Democrats, who refuse to abandon the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. France is in the midst of a scandalous presidential campaign, with one leading contender promising to take the country out of NATO and lift anti-Kremlin sanctions. The United States is headed by a nearly octogenarian president with an administration split between "China first" realists and "Let's not forget Russia" internationalists. Ukraine itself is weakened by permanent political turmoil and severely undermined by its slow response to the pandemic.
There is one more consideration: As commander-in-chief, Putin cannot afford to kick the Russian forces back and forth in massive, costly deployments twice a year for the sake of mere phone calls with the US president. This produces an image of indecisiveness and weakness — something Putin abhors. Russia is not a democracy, so keeping key elite constituencies on board and happy is of paramount importance for the leadership. The army top brass is one of them. This is one of the main tools of ensuring regime stability.
Putin knowingly paints himself into a corner because he strives for a fight with Ukraine. He seemingly views it as both a strategic necessity and a matter of his historical legacy. So forget the Khrushchev-Kennedy and Brezhnev-Nixon summits. Putin's Russia thinks of itself as much more desperate and much freer to act than the Soviets.
This article was changed on January 3, 2022, to reflect the correct spelling of the Ukrainian leader.