Seen in retrospect, Russia’s demand for a written response was a trap,
one neither the U.S. nor NATO yet recognizes, writes Scott Ritter.
By Scott Ritter
Back in December, Russia sent the U.S. and NATO two draft treaty
documents spelling out its demands for security guarantees related to
NATO’s posture in Eastern Europe. These demands came in a climate of
tension fueled by both a Russian military buildup bordering Ukraine,
and U.S. and NATO hysteria over what they deemed an imminent Russian
military incursion into Ukraine.
The written replies that arrived on Jan. 22 failed — as expected — to address any of Russia’s concerns, including the red line of continued
NATO expansion. Rather, the U.S. and NATO listed alternative pathways
to diplomatic engagement, including arms control and limits on
military exercises, and they now couch the ongoing crisis as a choice
between accepting the diplomatic offramp they dictated, or war.
Russia, however, is far too sophisticated to allow itself to be boxed
into such a corner. In the weeks and months ahead, Russia will be the
one dictating the outcome of this crisis — which will be a resounding
The Russian buildup in its western and southern military districts, as
well as in Belarus, has two purposes. The secondary goal is to
demonstrate Russia’s ability, at a time and place of its choosing, to
project sufficient military power into Ukraine to overwhelming defeat
the Ukrainian armed forces and bring down its government.
To be clear, Russia has threatened neither of these outcomes. It
maintains that the military buildup is simply an exercise designed to
ensure it can respond to NATO’s aggressive expansion of forces along
its western flank. It traces the confrontation to NATO’s “original
sin” of expansion.
Historical fact supports the Russian interpretation: The Russian
mantra of “not one inch eastward” is derived from an oral promise made
by former Secretary of State James Baker to Soviet President Mikhail
Gorbachev at the time of German reunification. But Russia’s goal is
not to score debating points, but rather to reverse NATO policy and
posturing it deems harmful to its national security.
To this end, the primary purpose of Russia’s military buildup is to
expose the political, military and economic impotence of the U.S./NATO partnership by a range of crises — independent of any military
incursion into Ukraine — for which the U.S. and NATO have no viable
response other than to give in to most, if not all, of Russia’s
demands for security guarantees.
The stage for the current crisis was set back in the spring of 2021,
when Russia mobilized around 100,000 troops along the lines seen
today. The U.S. and NATO immediately began a rhetoric-based war of
perception management, using mainstream media and think tanks to paint
a picture of Russian malfeasance and Western resolve.
A face-to-face meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and
U.S. President Joe Biden resulted, and Russia eventually drew down its
forces — but not before making several salient points: It demanded
that the West hold Ukraine’s feet to the fire regarding fulfillment of
its obligations under the 2015 Minsk agreement. And after a “freedom
of navigation” exercise which brought a British destroyer into
contested waters off Crimea, it declared red lines Russia was prepared
to defend, with force if necessary.
Russia took away two lessons from this. First, that neither the U.S.
nor NATO had a viable military response. Russian military superiority
in any future conflict with Ukraine was all but assured. Second, that
the only response either the U.S. or NATO could come up with would
center on economic sanctions. This stress test exposed several
critical weaknesses Russia could exploit.
Armed with these important insights, Russia waited until last fall to
repeat the stress test, again mobilizing more than 100,000 troops near
Ukraine and deploying tens of thousands of elite shock troops — the
First Guards Tank Army — into Belarus. Again, Russia issued no
threats, stating repeatedly that it was simply conducting routine
The U.S. and NATO, in contrast, immediately cast the Russian buildup
as proof positive of its intent to invade Ukraine. In drawing this
conclusion — despite Russian denials and Ukraine’s rejection of the inevitability of such an outcome — both the U.S. and NATO effectively
founded their position on the principle of the inviolability of NATO’s “open-door” policy, which says that any nation qualified for NATO membership should have the opportunity to join.
For its part, Russia noted that NATO’s eastward expansion has created
an unacceptable national security risk. It claims a right to exert a
sphere of influence around its borders, implying that any accession to
NATO by the former Soviet Republics of Ukraine or Georgia is viewed as
an existential threat that would require a “military-technical”
response. Russia said as much in the two draft treaties it submitted
in December. Furthermore, Russia demanded that both NATO and the U.S.
respond in writing.
Seen in retrospect, Russia’s demand for a written response was a trap,
one neither the U.S. nor NATO yet recognizes. By rejecting Russian
demands for security guarantees, the U.S. and NATO have married
themselves to a posture defined by the “open-door” policy on NATO membership. Moreover, when Russia refused to cease its mobilization in
the face of sanctions threats, the U.S. and NATO had no choice but to
shift gears and create the perception of a military response designed
to put pressure on Russia’s eastern flank — even though Washington has pointedly said it would not defend Ukraine from a Russian assault.
What emerged was, first, that neither the U.S. nor NATO is able to
project meaningful military power even within NATO’s own borders.
Putting 8,500 U.S. troops on alert for potential deployment to Europe
is like bringing a garden hose to a three-alarm fire.
Moreover, threatening to activate NATO’s rapid response force for a
non-NATO issue created fractures in the unity of NATO. Germany has
been hesitant. The Czech Republic and Bulgaria have forbade their
troops to be involved in any such adventure. Turkey views the entire
Ukraine crisis as a U.S./NATO conspiracy to contain Turkish regional
ambitions by tying it to a conflict with Russia.
These military fractures, in concert with Europe’s hesitation to
commit economic suicide by going along with sanctions that would sever
it from Russian energy it needs to survive, has provided Russia with
three main takeaways: NATO is militarily impotent; no unanimity exists
within either NATO or Europe on economic sanctions targeting Russia;
and NATO — a consensus-based organization — is deeply fractured politically.
Moves to Checkmate
Despite the repeated Western warnings, Russia is highly unlikely to
invade Ukraine — at least not yet. Instead, Russia appears to be
entering a new phase of crisis management that seeks to exploit the
weaknesses in the U.S./NATO alliance highlighted by their written
responses to its demands.
First, Russia will keep the diplomatic option open, but on its terms.
Moscow has already engaged in so-called Normandy Format talks
involving Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine over the ongoing crisis
in Donbas. In the initial meeting, all parties agreed to respect the
cease-fire in effect and to meet again in 10 days — the exact opposite
of any imminent invasion by Russia. Note the absence of the U.S. and
NATO from these talks.
Next, Russia will turn the threat of sanctions against the U.S. and
Europe. Russia has already declared that banning it from the Swift
system for international monetary transactions will result in the
immediate halt of Russian energy supplies to Europe. Russia is
expected to sign major economic agreements with China soon that will
further insulate it from economic sanctions. China has made it clear
it supports Russia in the current crisis, recognizing that if the West
prevails against Russia, it will soon face a similar attack.
Finally, Russia will exploit U.S. hypocrisy on spheres of influence
and military alliances by entering military relationships with Cuba,
Venezuela and Nicaragua and deploying a naval squadron to the
Caribbean, with the potential for additional force deployments in the
With these three measures, Russia seeks to further isolate the U.S.
from NATO and Europe. In the end, the U.S. will be confronted with one
of two options, either agree to trade NATO’s open-door policy for
Russian agreement not to deploy into the Western Hemisphere, or force
a confrontation that will result in a Russian invasion of Ukraine that
is seen by Europe as being the fault of the U.S..
The chess pieces are already being moved. While the U.S. may not see
it, a Russian checkmate can be predicted sooner, rather than later.
This article is from Energy Intelligence.
Scott Ritter is a former U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer whose
service over a 20-plus-year career included tours of duty in the
former Soviet Union implementing arms control agreements, serving on
the staff of U.S. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War and
later as a chief weapons inspector with the UN in Iraq from 1991-98.