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Situation Assessment 16 December, 2021

Ukraine Crisis: Prospects for Confrontation and Solution

The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

On 7 December 2021, US president Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin held a virtual summit to discuss the escalating tensions on the Ukrainian border, with US intelligence anticipating a possible military invasion. Biden threatened harsh economic and political measures against Russia in the event of a military action against its western neighbour and stressed his country's support for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, calling for a return to diplomacy.[1] Meanwhile Putin reiterated that he would not allow NATO to expand into Ukraine and acquiring forces and offensive weapons on its territory, thus enhancing its military capabilities.[2]

Russian Calculations and Demands

Moscow fears the expansion of NATO and the European Union in its vital space, encroaching on its direct borders, besieging and pressuring Russia politically, economically and militarily. The Kremlin says that NATO's eastward expansion poses an existential security threat to Russia.[3] Russia also considers Ukraine a historical and cultural extension of itself.[4] Consequently, Moscow refuses to accept Ukrainian accession to Western political, economic and military institutions, and asserts that this would be reason enough for it to launch a war. By amassing forces on the border with Ukraine, Moscow is seeking to send a clear message to the West that it will not stand idly by if it does not back down from its attempts to draw Ukraine further into its orbit.[5] Russia's demands are as follows:

1. Western guarantees on Ukraine and NATO

During this virtual summit, and during conversations with French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin stressed that his country wants to launch immediate and direct security negotiations with the United States and NATO “in order to develop international legal guarantees for the security of our country.”[6] Russia demands that NATO cease eastern expansion, and not deploy forces and weapons in its neighbouring countries, including Ukraine, calling to mind the Georgia crisis, which heralded the return of Russia to a superpower role, at least within its immediate geographical environment.[7] Russia fears that the deployment of advanced strategic missile systems by the United States and NATO, including ICBMs, will directly threaten its security, upset the mutual military balance, and reduce its deterrence capacity.

2. Cessation of military escalation in eastern Ukraine

Russia demands that Ukraine stop attempts to retake the areas controlled by Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region, which includes the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, and sees this as a violation of the terms of the Minsk 1 protocol in 2014 and Minsk 2 in 2015, which were reached under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and provided for a form of autonomy in the two provinces. Russia and its separatist allies in the Donbas region also did not respect the terms of the agreement, especially with regard to “withdrawing illegal armed groups and military equipment, as well as fighters and mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine” and allowing early elections,[8] in a declared and open violation of Ukraine's sovereignty.

US Calculations

Diplomatically, the Biden administration is trying to appear more assertive than the Barack Obama administration was in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea.[9] Biden also sees this crisis as an opportunity to rehabilitate his prestige as Commander-in-Chief of the US armed forces, which was largely shaken by the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. In addition, Washington is interested in restoring its dented credibility with its allies and its waning deterrence capabilities. On this basis, the Biden administration is keen to coordinate with its European allies, realizing that failing to deter the Russian threat to Ukraine could encourage other opponents of the United States to do the same in other regions of the world, specifically China, whose invasion of Taiwan looms.[10] However, US action in the Ukrainian context remain constrained by a red line, which is not to get involved in a direct military clash with Russia. Hence, the Biden administration is trying to balance two things. The first is not to be drawn into a US-Russian military conflict, and the second is to impose heavy economic, political and military sanctions on Moscow if it goes ahead with its military action in Ukraine. The US calculations are based on the following determinants:

1. Non-Involvement in Military Conflict

The United States realizes that Russia is a large military power, both conventional and nuclear, whose geographical proximity to Ukraine gives it a great geostrategic advantage in the event of a military confrontation, and makes the region extremely important to its national security, while the United States and its allies do not have enough direct national security interests in the region to enter a war of this magnitude.[11] The United States held back when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and when it intervened in Syria in 2015. Biden believes that force is an option that should be resorted to only when absolutely necessary, “only to defend US vital interests, when the objective is clear and achievable, and with the informed consent of the American people.”[12] Not all of these conditions are fulfilled in the context of the current Ukrainian crisis, as there are no direct American vital interests, nor a clear and achievable goal. It is unlikely that the American people would consent to such a war in light of the difficult economic conditions resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic and the depletion of the US economy through two decades of continuous wars. Biden was clear in his negative response when asked if he would send troops to Ukraine. But he certainly added that the United States has a “moral obligation and a legal obligation to our NATO allies if they were to attack under Article 5, that's a sacred obligation. That obligation does not extend to ... Ukraine.”[13]

2. Raising the Cost of Military Action for Russia

Rather than taking a military option, the Biden administration is counting on the threat of unprecedented sanctions against Russia as a deterrent for Putin from attacking Ukraine.[14] Biden has threatened “unprecedented” economic sanctions against Russia,[15] as well as an increase in his administration's military support for Ukraine by providing advanced lethal offensive weapons, and measures to isolate Russia internationally. According to the US National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, Biden is determined to counter the Russian military escalation on the Ukrainian border, and during his virtual meeting with Putin he refused to make “commitments or concessions” on Ukraine, making clear that he would not accept the “red lines” set by Putin.[16]

Economically, the Biden administration is considering comprehensive sanctions against Russia if it invades Ukraine, including impeding its access to bond markets in New York, imposing sanctions on major Russian commercial banks, including those in which the government has stakes, and undermining Russia's ability to convert its RUB currency into dollars or other foreign currencies, targeting the oligarchs linked to Putin with financial and travel restrictions, and possibly preventing Russia from accessing the Swift system for banking and international money transfers, [17] which would have dire effects on the Russian economy, regardless of its negative effects on US and European companies. The US State Department official, Victoria Nuland, confirmed that her country ‘is ready to isolate “Russia completely from the global financial system with all of the fallout that would entail.’”[18]

The Biden administration also threatens that the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline to Germany via the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine, will be suspended.[19] In this regard, Sullivan noted that the “things we did not do in 2014, we are prepared to do now,” in coordination with our European allies.[20] However, US officials do not expect sanctions to include Russia's energy sector, as this could lead to higher oil and gas prices in Europe and the United States.[21]

It seems that the Biden administration has made up its mind to increase the cost of Russian military action in Ukraine through packages of military aid to Ukraine that include anti-tank missiles.[22] According to the US Department of Defense, in 2021 Washington provided Ukraine with nearly $450 million in military aid. The volume of US military aid to Ukraine since 2014 has reached more than 2.5 billion dollars. Limited US forces are training and advising Ukrainian forces to enhance their self-defense capabilities.[23] Although the Biden administration confirms that it will not place combat forces on Ukrainian soil, it has warned Moscow that it will strengthen the US military presence in NATO countries in the region.[24]


Biden refused to allow Russia to veto Ukraine's request to join NATO,[25] and in turn, this request is unlikely to be accepted in the foreseeable future to avoid provoking Moscow. Sullivan has hinted that Washington and its European allies are open to discussing Russian “strategic concerns,” something the Kremlin has welcomed.[26] Washington realizes that its ability to deter a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine is limited, and it will not risk a direct military clash with Russia in its geostrategic environment, which could lead to a nuclear war.[27] While the sanctions that the Biden administration threatens will have catastrophic repercussions for the Russian economy, this administration also realizes that any economic sanctions will cost Russia less than the cost of a NATO military presence on its western borders that threatens its national security and undermines its military strategy. However, the Kremlin is concerned about being drawn into a protracted battle of attrition in Ukraine, backed by Washington and NATO.[28] Since Putin cannot appear to be the one to back down in the face of American and NATO threats, he is unlikely to withdraw his forces before reaching a deal that works in his interest.

Ultimately, Washington does not to escalate with Moscow, nor does the latter. Its dire economic repercussions will impact everyone, especially in light of the ongoing pandemic, which means that the hope remains that the Minsk diplomatic track is revived, pending better conditions that each side awaits in order to achieve its goals.

[1] “Readout of President Biden’s Video Call with President Vladimir Putin of Russia,” The White House, 7/12/2021, accessed on 16/12/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3s7Ycd5.

[2] Justin Sink, Ilya Arkhipov & Henry Meyer, “Biden Told Putin He’d Bolster Ukraine Military If Russia Attacks,” Bloomberg, 7/12/2021, accessed on 16/12/2021, at: https://bloom.bg/3IU1p5W.

[3] Amanda Macias, “Biden didn’t Accept Putin’s ‘Red Lines’ on Ukraine – Here’s What that Means,” CNBC, 8/12/2021, accessed on 16/12/2021, at: https://cnb.cx/3yxkmGX.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Andrew Latham, “The US Can't Deter a Russian Invasion of Ukraine - and Shouldn't even Try,” The Hill, 7/12/2021, accessed on 16/12/2021, at: https://bit.ly/33Ac99q

[6] “Putin Wants 'Immediate' Talks with NATO on Russia's Security,” AFP, 14/12/2021, accessed on 16/12/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3m8HDKg

[7] Azmi Bishara, “A Return to the Cold War, or a New and Different International Reality?” Al-Mustaqbal Al-‘Arabi, Vol. 31, No. 356 (October 2008), pp. 9-24.

[8] “Factbox: What are the Minsk Agreements on the Ukraine Conflict?” Reuters, 6/12/2021, accessed on 16/12/2021, at: https://reut.rs/3E3NRB4.

[9] Macias.

[10] Paul D. Shinkman, “Putin Signals Change of Tone on Ukraine After Biden Call,” U.S. News & World Report, 8/12/2021, accessed on 16/12/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3qjAyb9

[11] Matthew Rojansky & James Jeffrey, “History Shows that Biden is Handling Putin the Right Way,” Politico, 9/12/2021, accessed on 16/12/2021, at: https://politi.co/3dYeFrP

[12]Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy after Trump,” Foreign Affairs (March-April 2020), accessed on 16/12/2021, at: https://fam.ag/3ISmuxy

[13] Kevin Liptak, “Biden Says US Troops in Ukraine are off the Table but Promises Withering Sanctions if Russia Invades,” CNN, 8/12/2021, accessed on 16/12/2021, at: https://cnn.it/3pVf2cm.

[14] Matthew Bodner, Dan De Luce & Alexander Smith, “Russian Troops Mass on Ukraine's Border. West Worries this isn't Like the Last Time,” NBC News, 2/12/2021, accessed on 16/12/2021, at: https://nbcnews.to/3q0BFfv.

[15] “Remarks by President Biden before Marine one Departure,” The White House, 8/12/2021, accessed on 16/12/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3262DKy.

[16] Macias.

[17] Dan De Luce et al., “Biden Team Weighs Unprecedented Sanctions against Russia over Ukraine,” NBC News, 8/12/2021, accessed on 16/12/2021, at: https://nbcnews.to/3saHr0P.

[18] Sink, Arkhipov, and Meyer

[19] “Germany Says Russia will Face 'Massive Consequences' if it Invades Ukraine,” Reuters, 14/12/2021, accessed on 16/12/2021, at: https://reut.rs/3F0AEu5.

[20] Macias

[21] De Luce et al.

[22] Leo Shane III, “Russian Invasion of Ukraine could be Costly even without US Troops Involved, Experts Say,” Military Times, 13/12/2021, accessed on 16/12/2021, at: https://bit.ly/326T6mi.

[23] Oren Liebermann, “US Small Arms and Ammo Arrive in Ukraine as Pentagon Details Troops to Train Country's Military,” CNN, 10/12/2021, accessed on 16/12/2021, at: https://cnn.it/3dWi7Dt

[24] “Remarks by President Biden before Marine one Departure.”

[25] Zachary Basu, “Inside Biden's Call with Zelensky,” Axios, 10/12/2021, accessed on 16/12/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3yzCLD0.

[26] Sink, Arkhipov & Meyer.

[27] Latham.

[28] David Leonhardt, “What Does Russia Want with Ukraine?” The New York Times, December 8/12/2021, accessed on 16/12/2021, at: https://nyti.ms/3ytKzWR.