Reporter's Notebook: Russia's intentions emerge with Ukraine troop buildup

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Many in the West have opined that Russian President Vladimir Putin likely must be doing “something” of significance.

After all, he didn’t mass all those troops on Ukraine’s borders for a little exercise. Or even a big exercise.

But according to Russian foreign policy insider Dmitry Suslov, Russia’s moves are going according to plan.  

“The whole reason behind the concentration of troops by Russia at the Ukrainian border is to create tension, to accompany the Russian political demands with the demonstration of military force, which has already brought some significant positive results to Russia,” Suslov, who is deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at HSE University, told Fox News.

“From the Russian perspective, and this is the predominant opinion really widespread in Moscow, without the concentration of the Russian troops, without belligerent rhetoric, without speculation about the ‘military-technical’ response by Russia, Russian security guarantee demands would have gone directly to the dustbins everywhere in the West.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Feb. 1.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Feb. 1.
(Yuri Kochetkov/Pool, File)

Suslov explained that Russia considered escalation a “tool of diplomacy,” so Ukraine shouldn’t count on seeing the back of its tanks until Moscow’s demands are met. Those demands, well-known to many by now, are a pledge that Ukraine will not join NATO and that an East European buffer zone of some sort between the alliance and Russia is configured. Also key: that Donbas, comprising those eastern Ukrainian regions now controlled by Russian-backed separatists, is given a significant degree of autonomy as spelled out by the as-yet unfulfilled Minsk agreements.

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“The implementation of the Minsk agreements would both deliver the kind of Ukraine which Russia wants: a decentralized Ukraine, a Ukraine which, by definition, cannot be consolidated on an anti-Russian basis, or on the basis of Ukrainian ethnic nationalism, as it is today with Ukrainian language, Ukrainian nationalist ideology and so on and so forth, being the basis of their national identity.” Suslov continued, adding that Russia didn’t want Ukraine to be “a Western fortress at the edge of the Russian border.” 

A Ukrainian marine border guard after a patrol in the Sea of Azov, waters near Mariupol, Donetsk region, in eastern Ukraine, on Feb. 2.

A Ukrainian marine border guard after a patrol in the Sea of Azov, waters near Mariupol, Donetsk region, in eastern Ukraine, on Feb. 2.
(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

But, to Ukrainians aspiring to a future hitched to Europe, Russia’s wants haven’t been their concern. They’ve worried about losing more territory to Russia after what happened to Crimea in 2014. The West has stood by their rights to choose the security alliances or arrangements they wanted, and their self-determination.

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Suslov claimed a full invasion of Ukraine would not serve Russia’s interests. Instead, he said it would “result in enormous costs – economic, social, political, foreign policy, military. It will not be kind of a parade. It will be a very difficult military operation, followed by a guerrilla war, because there will be insurgency from different places in Ukraine and so on and so forth. And I don’t think that anyone in the world would among the great powers, including China, would explicitly support Russia in such an endeavor.” 

Suslov added, “Russia, I think, will continue to look as if it is preparing for invasion unless the Russian demands are addressed.”

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I asked Suslov if the crippling energy costs hurting Europe were part of this pressure campaign. He said no; he saw Europe’s problems as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the slower-than-expected transition to green energy on the continent. But, he added, Russia certainly was not running to the rescue by voluntarily opening the taps.

“It is weird for the European Union to be surprised with this Russian refusal because Russia would have certainly increased its volumes of supplies to the European Union if we were friends, if the relations were based on partnership. But come on, we perceive each other as adversaries. So, you expect a friendly behavior from the party, which the European Union has made its adversary against, which the European Union has adopted sanctions and continues to promise new and new sanctions? This is bizarre.”

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