The Message Putin Needs to Hear

Opinion

Rob Dannenberg is a 24-year veteran of the CIA, where he served in several senior leadership positions, including chief of operations for the Counterterrorism Center, chief of the Central Eurasia Division and chief of the CIA’s Information Operations Center. Dannenberg is a member of the Board of Advisors to the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center and is a senior fellow at the GWU Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. He is now an independent consultant and speaker on geopolitical and security risk, after serving as the managing director and head of the Office of Global Security for Goldman Sachs, and director of International Security Affairs at BP.

View all articles by Rob Dannenberg

EXPERT OPINION — “Peace for our time,” declared British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain upon his arrival at Heston Aerodrome outside London on 30 September 1938.  It was a statement that followed the agreement reached that day in Munich between Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy announcing the subsequent Anglo-German declaration. 

Shortly thereafter, Czechoslovakia yielded to military pressure by Germany and diplomatic pressure from the UK and France and agreed to give up territory to Germany on the terms agreed in Munich.  Adolph Hitler announced the annexation of the Sudetenland as his last territorial claim in Europe.  We all know the rest of the story. 

On 17 December 2021, Vladimir Putin placed a set of demands for “security guarantees” to the United States and NATO.  The demands were placed in the context of a threatening build-up of Russian forces along the border with Ukraine that has been underway since at least March of 2020, the Russian annexation of the Crimea in March 2014 and support for and direct involvement in the establishment of secessionist “republics” in the Ukrainian Don River Basin in 2014.   

The Russian military buildup can reasonably be viewed as a threatening prelude to future military action against the Ukraine.  The United States and the Russian Federation are scheduled to hold bilateral discussions in Geneva on 9-10 January.  Moscow has expressed the view that these discussions will pave the way for agreement between the US/NATO on Russia’s security demands.  What can be done to prevent this turning into a 21st Century version of the Munich Agreement?

The Russians put forward separate draft agreements, one to the US and one to NATO.  The central demand of both Russian proposals is that the US reject accession of any other former Soviet Republics (including Ukraine and Georgia) into NATO as well as remove all US troops from those countries.  The wording of the proposal to NATO (Article 4) also prohibits the presence of any US or NATO troops in the Baltic States.  More specifically, the Russians are insisting upon a “legally binding” international agreement ruling out any further NATO enlargement “eastwards” in proximity to Russia’s borders. 

A legally binding international agreement ruling out NATO weapons systems deployment “eastwards” whether NATO member or not, thus Sweden or Finland, for example, could not purchase US weapons systems. Russia is further demanding a withdrawal of all NATO forces deployed since May 1997, as well as demands for discussion of new systems for managing risk on the seas in the Baltic and Black Sea areas (read new lines of demarcation).  In the aggregate, if accepted, the Russian proposals would create a massive “buffer zone” or “sphere of influence” from Finland in the north to Turkey in the south, in some ways replicating the 1945 Yalta Agreement.

The manner in which the Russian proposals have been presented and subsequent comments from senior Russian officials suggest the two draft treaties are not proposals subject to negotiation and discussion, but rather demands. Per Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov: “If the West does not deliver a constructive answer [to Russia’s demands] within a reasonable time frame…then Russia will be forced to use all necessary means to ensure the strategic balance and to eradicate threats to our security,” adding that “Russia will not allow never-ending discussions” on its demands. Lavrov also said, “As for the residents of Donbas, where hundreds of thousands of our citizens live, Russia will take all necessary measures to protect them.” It should be noted that the Kremlin, after the annexation of Crimea and the facilitating of the “separatist” republics in eastern Ukraine, has handed out well over half a million passports, close to 700,000, to residents in these areas.

Russia has put forward a list of “security guarantees” that it knows perfectly well are difficult if not impossible for the US or NATO to accept.  In addition to the very fundamental question of whether an international organization can sign a legally binding agreement affecting the behavior of its members, the Russian proposals essentially put the US and NATO in a position of negotiating away the security of third countries, in this case, Ukraine, Republic of Georgia, Finland, Sweden, Azerbaijan, among others.  The Russian demands are all the more interesting given the decision by the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to intervene in Kazakhstan to quell civil unrest.


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Putin has likely carefully sized up his geopolitical opponents in the US and West and concluded that the time is right to put forward a clearly-unacceptable list of security demands.  Hitler likely made a similar assessment in 1938.  Without a doubt, Putin observed with glee the poorly timed and horribly mismanaged US withdrawal from Afghanistan and may believe that level of competence is the new normal for the US.  Putin also likely interpreted the US decision not to sanction the NordStream II pipeline despite much previous rhetoric to the contrary, as a sign of weakness.  Putin also understands he now has greater leverage over Europe’s energy supply than he has had in the past.  What better time to take advantage than in winter? 

Putin may also view NATO as a more fragile organization, given the friction between the US and NATO in recent years. Putin may also view the departure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel as an act that leaves Europe without a strong leader.  In recent conversations with US President Joe Biden, Putin has heard threats of severe or crippling sanctions in the event Russia undertakes further military action against Ukraine.  Putin is likely highly confident that the US is not willing to engage in direct military action to defend Ukraine, therefore the most likely action Russia can anticipate is sanctions. 

Putin may well believe the US sanctions threat lacks credibility if Europe does not fully participate.  Moreover, there is no evidence that sanctions or the threat thereof, are influencing Putin’s geopolitical actions in the slightest.  Putin is likely highly confident in his ability as a geopolitical strategist, and he has surrounded himself with a national security team that thinks as he does and shares his paranoid worldview.

Has Putin assessed the situation correctly?  We’ll find out in the coming weeks.  If the aftermath of Munich in 1938, and the lessons of history in general teach us anything, it is that appeasement does not work.  Negotiations under duress rarely achieve the desired result and authoritarian regimes are unlikely to be influenced in their decision-making by anything other than strength.

The “security guarantees” upon which Putin is insisting will not be his last “security” demands. Of that we can be certain. 

A better way to respond to Putin’s demands may be to refuse to negotiate new security guarantees—as a start—until after Putin withdraws the forces arrayed on the Russian-Ukraine border and withdraws Russian mercenaries and undercover military forces from the Don Basin. Further, if the withdrawals do not happen forthwith, the US and NATO should initiate discussions with the Ukraine and the Republic of Georgia on accession to NATO and the US should undertake the provisioning of significant defense armaments to the government of Ukraine.  Let us let Putin know that he, as other authoritarians before him, has fundamentally misjudged the strength and resolve of the world’s democracies.

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Opinion

Rob Dannenberg is a 24-year veteran of the CIA, where he served in several senior leadership positions, including chief of operations for the Counterterrorism Center, chief of the Central Eurasia Division and chief of the CIA’s Information Operations Center. Dannenberg is a member of the Board of Advisors to the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center and is a senior fellow at the GWU Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. He is now an independent consultant and speaker on geopolitical and security risk, after serving as the managing director and head of the Office of Global Security for Goldman Sachs, and director of International Security Affairs at BP.

View all articles by Rob Dannenberg

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