Ukraine is a battleground in the competition between the major world powers. Kiev has become the object of the dispute between Russia and the European allies of the United States, especially after the 2014 crisis made it possible for Moscow’s strategic nightmare to come true: NATO advance in the heart of a country that represents the cradle of the Russian civilization and has been orbiting within the Kremlin’s sphere of influence for centuries.
The concentration of Russian troops and military assets around the Ukrainian borders in recent weeks is the last act of a dispute that risks catching fire at any moment. By mobilizing his army in the west, President Vladimir Putin sent a truly clear message to the Atlantic Alliance. The time for the progressive eastward movement of its borders is over and any initiative in this sense will involve an extremely elevated level of risk.
The uncertainty about the outcome of the crisis owes much to the attitude of the United States. Said of Russian intentions, determining what the Americans want is a more complex undertaking. It all stems from a basic misunderstanding: in this historical phase the superpower is committed to countering the rise of its Chinese rival, concentrating its immense military, diplomatic and economic resources and with them its attention in the Indo-Pacific.
The outcome of the 2014 uprising in Ukraine against the pro-Russian regime of President Viktor Yanukovič had convinced a large part of the American establishment that from then on Russia would be reduced to the rank of a “regional power”. This should have allowed the superpower to devote itself to something else, without fearing the emergence of any threats to the stability of the Old Continent.
The events of recent weeks suggest otherwise. Moscow does not intend to give up the status of a great power, even at the cost of invading Ukraine to prove it. So, Washington is forced against its will to take care of Kiev, despite having other strategic priorities to manage. The objective is to find a solution that avoids the outbreak of a conflict that the US does not want to fight and that can shatter even NATO – split in half between the bellicose Nordic and Eastern European members and the more conciliatory Western members.
Meanwhile, the stalemate over the crisis has opened a window of opportunity for France. During the week, President Emmanuel Macron had a face to face with Putin, who admitted that some of the French proposals could defuse the crisis, while reiterating his threat of conflict should Kiev join NATO.
If the tenant of the Elysée nurtures the ambition to claim the role of the Russian president’s main Western interlocutor, France sees the crisis in Ukraine as an opportunity to reaffirm its rank as a great power, laying the foundations for a reorganization of the security architecture of the Old Continent that takes into account the needs of Russians and other Europeans, as long as it is the product of its own vision.
To this end, the French are wedging themselves into the uncertainties and inconsistencies that grip Washington and Berlin. Of those of the superpower it has been said; Germany, on the other hand, must deal with the constraint of belonging to the American strategic field and its own relevant economic interests, which make it impossible to break with the Kremlin.
On this point, the outcome of the meeting between presidents Biden and Scholz, which took place concurrently with the Franco-Russian one, was paradigmatic. The first threatened the immediate end of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline (which has not yet come into operation) in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, without the German chancellor being able to articulate anything other than a vague promise of unity with the “American friends”. German ambiguity infuriated Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who canceled a scheduled meeting in Kiev with Berlin’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock.
The latest events suggest that Washington has accepted the French mediation, after having made it clear in every way that US troops will not set foot in Ukraine. In doing so, the Americans have communicated to the Russians a vague willingness to consider Kiev a neutral territory. It is the negotiating basis needed to avert war. Even if to finally get out of the Ukrainian trap, the United States will have to recognize Russia’s increased rank and role. The next few days will tell if Moscow accepts.