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Ukraine Crisis: Are Russia’s Diplomatic Demands A ‘Smokescreen’ For War?

Ukraine T-90
Russian T-90 Tank Firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

A massive Russian military buildup around Ukraine indicates a tangible risk that the Kremlin may begin military actions this winter against Kyiv, which has turned to the U.S. and NATO for aid after Putin’s forces seized the Crimean Peninsula and invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Facing U.S. and European diplomatic pressure not to pursue such a calamitous war, Moscow presented on December 15 an eight-point list of treaty demands with the U.S. and a nine-point proposed agreement with NATO to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried —and made the ostensibly non-negotiable ultimatums public two days later, with a vaguely implicit “…or else” should they not be satisfied, after earlier denying intent for military action.

The seemingly hastily drafted demands have been widely dismissed by analysts and diplomats as non-starters, a pie-in-the-sky wish list that would never be aired prior to serious negotiations. Russian newspaper Kommersant observed “…it is obvious that the West will not agree with the key theses.”

In fact, some analysts fear that means the proposed treaties were crafted with the intent they would be rejected outright, forestalling negotiations that might otherwise derail a planned military offensive.

Revealingly, the Kremlin’s diplomatic effort is aimed at NATO and the U.S., not Ukraine, the possible object of military action. Putin apparently believes Kyiv is on a course to becoming a member of NATO, either formally or de facto, and that in turn means its territory could host U.S. weapon systems that would threaten Russian security.

This belief, coupled with Putin’s publicly expressed sentiment that Ukraine shouldn’t be a separate country from Russia, informs his conviction that Kyiv cannot be permitted to retain its current military ties with NATO and Washington.

For a good measure, Putin claims to distrust any treaty he might sign with the U.S. or NATO, making demands to sign new treaties peculiar. He maintains the West “tricked” Russia in the 1990s into believing NATO would never add additional member states closer to its border, though such assurances were not formally made.

Setting aside the uncontroversial language about non-aggression in the two documents, let’s look at Moscow’s key demands.

NATO promises not to admit any more states—or maintain any bilateral military cooperation with them.

NATO will refuse on principle to give Russia a veto on who’s allowed to become a member of a military alliance aimed principally at defending against Russian military power. Currently, while Kiev and Tbilisi would like to join, they are unlikely to be admitted anytime soon due to their ongoing conflicts with Russia. Moreover, the ultimatum submitted to NATO requires a promise not to admit any other states such as Sweden and Finland.

Moscow’s demand that the U.S. and NATO refrain from any bilateral cooperation with non-NATO states is also a non-starter. NATO’s presence in Ukraine amounts to a few hundred trainers in western Ukraine, some sharing of surveillance and communication networks, and provision of armaments—anti-tank missiles, sniper rifles, jammers, counter-battery radars, and short-range drones purchased from Turkey. These do enhance Ukraine’s military capabilities versus Russian separatists on its territory but bring little to project power outside of Ukraine.

Ban deployment of NATO forces to any countries that joined after 1997 (ie. any members east of Germany and Italy except for Turkey.)

This basically asks NATO to stop providing physical security via boots on the ground to most of its East European member states (see this map). This is not going to happen.

Ban deployment of medium-range land-attack missiles and tactical nuclear weapons outside national territory, or within range of the opposing party while within national territory.

Just like the U.S. objected to Soviet missiles stationed in Cuba in 1962, the Kremlin fears NATO land-based missiles in Ukraine could strike Moscow with just a few minutes of warning. Such concerns led to the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty in 1987 banning Moscow and Washington from deploying land-based medium-range missiles, but in 2019 the Trump administration exited the treaty, citing Russia’s apparent violation for deploying the Iskander-K Novator cruise missile.

Ironically, NATO doesn’t have any land-based medium-range land-attack missiles, let alone strike missiles deployed in Ukraine. True, the U.S. is currently developing non-nuclear land-based missile weapons, but securing permission to station them in Europe outside of a military crisis would prove politically difficult.

By banning missiles “outside national territory”, Moscow would get to keep its medium-range missiles and tactical nukes on its soil, while banning the U.S. from deploying missiles to Europe and 150 air-dropped tactical nukes which it shares with NATO allies. Because Russia’s medium-range missiles and tactical nukes are mobile, stationing them in Russia but outside the range of NATO states wouldn’t prevent their use.

Putin also claims NATO Aegis Ashore air defense systems deployed in Poland and Romania to protect against ballistic missile attacks could end up in Ukraine (which is highly unlikely)—and that these are in truth an offensive capability because the systems use naval Mark 41 launchers which might also accommodate land-attack Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Ban deployment of ships and heavy bombers outside of national waters and airspace.

No nation restricts its air force and navy from operating in international waters and airspace “where such deployment could be perceived by the other Party as a threat to its national security”—a subjective call if there ever was one—but this is what Russia’s proposal requests.

This likely reflects an underlying belief that certain stretches of international airspace/waters like the Black Sea ought to be formally recognized as falling within Moscow’s sphere of influence.

Indeed, since Russia’s seizures of Ukrainian territory, NATO warships and aircraft have increased patrols and military exercises in the Black Sea for intelligence collection, enhancing Ukrainian military effectiveness, and showing the flag. Such actions are legal, but the Kremlin would rather they weren’t. The Russian military, it should be recalled, does the same—staging carrier-attack exercises close to Hawaii and dispatching nuclear bombers to overfly the Caribbean.

Washington can dial back more provocative activities such as patrols by nuclear-capable B-52 bombers near Ukraine to lower the temperature with Russia. However, the U.S. is highly unlikely to agree to permanent, binding restrictions on legal patrols in international airspace/waters, or exercises in sovereign countries.

Resumption of military-to-military lines of communication, and reintegration into security institutions Russia was excluded from after it seized Crimea.

After Russia’s actions in Ukraine in 2014, it was expelled or marginalized in most European security institutions. Theoretically, rebuilding military-on-military communication should help lower risk of incidents that could lead to war. However, the U.S. and Europe may fear Russian reintegration into security institutions could serve as a Trojan horse to render those organizations less effective in confronting Moscow’s post-2014 military activities.


The urgency Moscow places meeting its demands is odd considering some are quite old, and likely couldn’t be resolved in the “short timeframe” Russian diplomats are demanding results.

Perhaps the Kremlin is high-balling its diplomatic demands as a “smokescreen” for Russia’s real asks, which might involve having NATO pressure Kiev to accept loss of sovereignty by fully adhering to the Minsk II accord.

However, some defense analysts fear the smokescreen is intended to buy time for military action, citing as evidence the size of Russia’s military buildup and the increasing angriness of Putin’s rhetoric.

For example, Russia specialist Michael Kofman writes “Moscow has not only been asking for things it cannot get but in a way they know will ensure they cannot attain them… Serious negotiations are done behind closed doors. The military side of the equation does not align with the political ask, or prospective timelines for engagement. Even a potential dialogue won’t emerge within the span of a few months. [Since then, U.S.-Russia talks have been scheduled for January 10.)  Moscow will have to make a call on the use of force, but climbing down empty-handed equals political loss.”

In this view, Russia’s unrealistic diplomatic demands may be proposed in bad faith, with NATO and U.S. rejection of the ultimatums cited to justify resort to force against Ukraine.

Not all experts agree. For example, Sergey Radchenko, a Cold War historian at SAIS, writes at War on the Rocks “It is important to unpack the Russian proposals and perhaps salvage something from them that will give Putin a dignified way out of the unpleasant situation he presently finds himself in.” Elsewhere he writes the West and NATO should “pursue and see what happens” to more palatable Russian asks, such as a new ban on medium-range missiles and improved military-on-military communications.

Despite legitimate doubts about Moscow’s sincerity, NATO and the U.S. have far more to gain than to lose by engaging diplomatically in hopes of redirecting Putin away from military action that would result in a highly destructive war that with far-reaching ripple effects on Europe and international relations. That doesn’t mean caving to unacceptable ultimatums or legitimating onerous impositions on Ukraine, but instead searching for concessions that address both parties’ security concerns equitably, or that are of limited importance to one side while substantially easing the concerns of the other.

Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the 19FortyFiveThe National InterestNBC and War is Boring.  He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.  You can follow his articles on Twitter.

Written By

Sebastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the 19FortyFive, The National Interest, NBC News,, and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.