East European Security Monthly
Issue №8 | March 10, 2023

"Tochki nad U" is a monthly analytical brief on regional security in Eastern Europe. Experts of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations identify key processes and analyze the main events that took place in regional security over the past month.

Issue №8 | March 10, 2023

Key Processes in February 2023

1. Russia’s reliance on the regular army is growing.

2. Additional limitations on the West’s military supplies to Kyiv — fears of “denuding” its own stockpiles and the actual state of equipment.

3. Poland and Lithuania are redoubling efforts to blockade Belarus.

4. Regional escalation around the war in Ukraine increasingly evolves into other confrontational scenarios at the global level

5. China’s peace proposals resemble Wilson’s 14 Points.

6. Stalemate on the battlefield and in economic confrontation fails to contribute to the negotiation process.

Frontline developments: Stalingrad-1942 or Verdun-1916?

The months-long standoff in Bakhmut, which is of no particular strategic interest (a conventional Stalingrad-1942 situation) is becoming a phenomenon of this war. Both sides insist that the battle enables them to exhaust the enemy. For instance, in Kyiv they speak of a “1 to 7 loss ratio”: as Russia’s losses exceed those of Ukraine several times, the latter appears to be grinding down Russian units while winning time to prepare for an offensive. Russia offers similar rhetoric, though. However, while losses are undoubtedly high, there is no evidence that either side is gaining a significant advantage in Bakhmut. Moreover, there are indications that the battle is shackling numerous combat-ready units and limiting capabilities in other directions. This is reminiscent of the Verdun-1916 case: the battle may have thwarted Germany’s plans, but not only did it fail to end the war, but it did not even help to break the stalemate on the frontlines.

As a result, the Kremlin is reconsidering its war policy. Specifically, it is phasing down the use of private military companies and Chechen volunteers. Those troops proved quite effective in operations against paramilitary units, but appeared incompetent in battles against the regular army. First, the Russian authorities forbade Wagner Private Military Company to recruit prisoners, and later its founder was quoted as saying that ammunition deliveries to Wagner soldiers were halted.
Moscow has shifted its focus to the regular army, but for political reasons is reluctant to undertake another round of mobilisation.

Western aid to Ukraine

February saw the first anniversary of the war, which implied the need to further demonstrate the West’s commitment to support Ukraine “as long as it takes.” That symbolic date by definition called for not only new sanctions packages against Russia, but also high-level events, such as Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visits to London, Paris and Brussels, and Joe Biden’s visit to Kyiv and Warsaw.

The U.S.-led Ukraine Defence Contact Group, a.k.a. the Ramstein group, which had its 9th meeting in Brussels in mid-February, remains the central mechanism for coordinating Western military assistance to Ukraine. In parallel, narrower formats — such as the UK-led International Fund for Ukraine — are developing as well. In our January issue we noted that a sort of European coalition of the most active lobbyists for military assistance to Ukraine had emerged. This means that even in the event of an expected escalation of contradictions between Western allies over further military support for Ukraine, the various mechanisms currently in place will ensure, at least for some time, uninterrupted flows of critical volumes of supplies.

In February, the U.S. announced three (!) new military aid packages for Ukraine, which probably reflects not only the symbolism associated with the anniversary of the war, but also the realities on the battlefield and Kyiv’s increasing dependence on growing external support with each passing day. On 3 and 20 February, Washington authorised a Presidential Drawdown of security assistance valued at up to USD 425 million and USD 460 million, respectively. The mechanism has already been used 32 times since the onset of the war. The Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI) mechanism was used twice during the period under review, on 3 and 24 February, totalling USD 1.75 billion and USD 2 billion respectively. On 24 February, Washington also announced a new USD 10 billion aid package to Ukraine to support energy and budget costs.
However, as the West transits from promises of military assistance to actual implementation, additional factors emerge, such as the current state of equipment available to Western armies and fears of critically “denuding” their own stockpiles.
Quite indicative is the joint statement by the German economy and defence ministries, in which Berlin announced its willingness to send up to 178 Leopard 1A5 tanks to Ukraine; however, the exact number will depend on “required repairs”. In total, according to the Pentagon, 11 countries have pledged to supply tanks to Kyiv, and most of them have encountered challenges when trying to deliver on their promises.

Escalation of regional tensions

The already routine militarization of Eastern Europe, of which Poland remains the main driver, is paving the way for the expansion of the conflict. The U.S. Department of State approved a USD 10 billion sale of HIMARS systems, related equipment and ammunition to Warsaw. The Polish capital played host to a meeting of the Bucharest Nine (B-9), attended by the U.S. president and NATO secretary general. The format was established in 2015 to bolster cooperation between NATO’s southern and eastern European members, most of which are known for their uncompromising stance on Russia. The tone of the meeting became a reflection of those attitudes: only Hungary and Bulgaria have taken a moderate line on the war.
On 10 February, Poland closed another border crossing with Belarus, Bobrowniki-Bierastavica, “for national security reasons”. In response, Minsk allowed trucks and tractors registered in Poland to enter Belarus only via the Belarus–Poland section of the state border (i.e. disallowing them to come from the territory of Lithuania and Latvia). On 21 February, Warsaw banned Belarusian trucks from Kukuryki-Kazlovichy, the last border crossing point available for the transportation of goods. A single crossing remains open to passenger vehicles on the Belarus–Poland border now. Lithuania, too, has limited traffic with Belarus, both unofficially and officially. On 16 February, Vilnius announced the closure of a railway checkpoint, leaving only one operational railway crossing, Kena-Hudahai. On the same day, Lithuania unilaterally ceased cooperation with the Belarusian border and customs services originally aimed at ensuring uninterrupted traffic across the border and increasing the capacity of the road checkpoints.
Those decisions marked a new stage in the blockade of Belarus.
Historically, such transit restrictions were seen as acts of war (e.g. Egypt’s closure of the Red Sea to Israel’s shipping in 1967), but the Western media barely mentioned developments on the Poland–Belarus border. Moreover, Poland started installing additional fortifications near its border with Belarus and Russia, including antitank hedgehogs, thereby contributing to further escalation. It is somewhat ironic that those actions by Belarus’s neighbours are in fact a reproduction of the Eastern bloc’s policy during the Cold War.

The new aggravation of the situation in and around Moldova added a new escalation twist. Amid the hard socioeconomic situation in that country and mass protests, the Ukrainian security services and official Chișinău accused Moscow of preparing a coup d’etat. Tensions were further heightened by the desire of the ruling party of Moldova to change the name of the state language from Moldovan to Romanian. Furthermore, some Moldovan political forces interpreted Russia’s decision to reverse its May 2012 decree on measures to implement its foreign policy as a move against Chișinău.

From regional to global escalation

For several months now, Washington has claimed that Moscow ceased to comply with its obligations under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). On 3 February, NATO issued a statement condemning Russia for violating the agreement. On 21 February, during his address to the Federal Assembly, Putin said that in the current international situation — especially given the role of the U.S. and Western countries in the war in Ukraine and their desire to “inflict a strategic defeat on Russia” — Moscow suspended its membership in the New START Treaty. The Russian Foreign Ministry outlined Russia’s position in much detail and stressed that the decision could be reversible, but only under certain conditions. Specifically, Russia will now consider “the combined nuclear capacity of the three NATO nuclear powers”, and not just those of the United States, as a factor in future activities in the context of strategic stability.

Moscow’s decision leaves the world without a single fully operational arms control instrument and finalises (following the U.S.’ withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002) the breakdown of the entire treaty architecture that has ensured strategic stability for many decades.
This fact is symbolic both as a historic phase in the collapse of the international security model and as a vivid example of the way regional escalation around the war in Ukraine goes global.
A number of other developments in February can also be regarded in the same context, first of all, NATO’s increasingly persistent attempts to engage countries outside the Euro-Atlantic space in countering Russia. On 4 February, the Price Cap Coalition (which sets caps on the price of seaborne Russian oil products), comprising the EU, G7 countries and Australia, announced a new ceiling to apply to Russian energy prices to complement the EU’s December decision. A similar trend is observed with respect to the supply of arms to Ukraine. This sort of disposition prevailed at the main political and expert event of the Western world — the Munich Security Conference 2023.

In parallel, Washington’s accusations of China’s possible intention to begin military supplies to Russia began to mount. It is hard to measure the validity of such accusations on the basis of publicly available information alone. However, we need to reiterate that now that the entire system of international relations is out of balance, this is an inevitable component of the tendency — that we outlined long ago — for the war in Ukraine to be embedded into other, increasingly global, conflict scenarios.

China’s card

At the same time, China itself released a position paper “on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis” on the anniversary of the war in Ukraine. The document does not constitute a peace plan; it is rather a depiction of the general principles of a future global agreement as desired by Beijing. In this sense it is reminiscent of the 14 Points put forward by Woodrow Wilson, who in 1918 attempted to define some general principles and norms for the organisation of international life, which eventually accelerated the peace agreement, achieved as early as 1919. The similar international situation of the U.S. then and the PRC now also contributes to the similarity: both countries were rapidly moving towards the leading roles in the world economy while still making tentative steps in big European politics.
Beijing’s proposals are in line with the traditional tenets of Chinese diplomacy after 1949. Ideologically, they remind such a fundamental concept as the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence formulated by Zhou Enlai in 1953. China seeks to stay above the fray: it demands both the preservation of territorial integrity (important for Kyiv) and abandonment of unilateral sanctions (important for Moscow). In the spring, President Xi Jinping intends to visit to Moscow to call for peace talks. Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed Beijing’s peace initiatives: “The fact that China is already talking about it, this already means some first steps, this is very good.” Kyiv sent Beijing a proposal for a meeting. Biden, on the other hand, said the document would benefit only Russia.

Prospects for peace talks

Neither side has made any efforts to start the peace process. Bruno Kahl, head of the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND), said that so far Moscow has no intention to negotiate and is trying to “obtain as many advantages as possible” on the front. The Russian Foreign Ministry says that Russia is ready to negotiate with Ukraine “on the basis of the reality that exists”, i.e. subject to the recognition of the annexed territories. In parallel, both Russia and Ukraine are preparing offensives, which they expect will become a turning point in the war. Kyiv speaks of the need to get back to the 1991 borderlines and publicly discusses the return of Crimea, despite scepticism on this possibility in most Western capitals, including Washington. According to media reports, Macron and Scholz encouraged Zelenskyy to embark on peace talks with Russia at a recent trilateral Franco-German-Ukrainian meeting. Back in January, CIA chief William Burns warned the Ukrainian leadership of a possible reduction in military aid and pointed to the need to “make progress on the battlefield as quickly as possible”. Given Ukraine’s dependence on Western support, Kyiv will be unable to permanently ignore its allies’ opinion.
Overall, though, the stalemate is not conducive to negotiations. There is an impasse not only on the battlefield, but also in the economic confrontation.
Neither widespread hypothesis has been justified: Russia as a “gas station of a country”, which can be smothered by sanctions, and Europe, which is freezing without Russian energy resources. The deadlock could persist for a very long time, unless there is an abrupt major escalation, which could have a variety of origins. Attempts to trigger this kind of escalation at the regional level may include the attack on the Russian A-50 aircraft in Belarus and destabilisation in Transnistria.

The key countries of the “collective West” are as a whole disinclined to add fuel to the confrontation and put the squeeze on Russia, although reconciliation with Putin is out of the question. Some Eastern European countries, on the other hand, may find it acceptable to up the ante as a way of preventing the Ukrainian war from turning into a years-long regional conflict.

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