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Talks between American and Russian representatives on the security relationship between Russia and the West have gone nowhere. There are, however, a couple small, encouraging signs when it comes to Ukraine. The first is that the Russian envoy, Sergei Ryabkov, has said Russia has no intention of invading Ukraine – though with Russian troops still massed on Ukraine’s border, it still has the capability to do so.

The second is that the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has hinted that it may be willing finally to put real weight behind the Minsk II agreement of 2015 on a settlement to end the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. The agreement ws signed by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine and endorsed by the United States. It establishes autonomy for a demilitarized Donbas within Ukraine. 

This is indeed the only possible solution for this conflict. Since 2015 however Ukrainian governments and parliaments have repeatedly refused to establish the legal basis for this autonomy, and Washington has brought no pressure on them to do so.

The reason for this Ukrainian refusal is also an indication of why a solution to the Donbas conflict can lead to a wider agreement between Russia and the West. For the Ukrainian government fears that an autonomous Donbas would act to block Ukraine from ever joining NATO. By the same token, therefore, autonomy for the Donbas would also indirectly allay Russian fears about Ukraine joining NATO, without the necessity (already categorically excluded by Washington) of any formal agreement that Ukraine cannot do so. The West and Ukraine would lose nothing significant by granting Donbas autonomy; so long as the Donbas conflict remains open, Ukraine cannot join NATO in any case. In other words, the U.S. insistence on keeping NATO membership for Ukraine open, and Russian opposition to this, are both largely pointless.

Russian fears go well beyond the prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine. Over the past year, U.S. arms supplies to Ukraine, together with loose talk of Ukraine becoming a “major non-NATO ally” of the United States, have made the Russians fear that, in Putin’s words in October,

“Formal membership [of Ukraine] in NATO may not take place, but it is not necessary to be a NATO member to deploy American, British military infrastructure on the territory of Ukraine, and this really poses a threat to Russia.”

The Russian establishment also remains convinced that Ukraine will not join the European Union in the foreseeable future, due to Ukraine’s deep corruption, its economic and political dysfunction, and the unwillingness of Western European governments and publics to take on the responsibility and expense of accepting a troubled former communist state.

However, the Kremlin once believed that Ukraine’s inability to join the EU would inevitably push Kyiv to seek good relations with Russia. That conviction has faded. 

The Russian establishment is deeply alarmed by intensified moves by the Ukrainian government and parliament to reduce the role of Russian language and culture in Ukraine. Over the past two years, these have included the denial of indigenous status to the Russian language, as well as laws ending teaching in Russian and the use of Russian in government offices and in service industries.

Russians fear that if applied consistently over decades, these moves will destroy the cultural basis of the Ukrainian-Russian relationship, and reduce the Russian minority in Ukraine to the tolerated but marginalized status of the Russians of Latvia and Estonia.

For historical, cultural, ethnic, economic and strategic reasons, Ukraine is considered by the Russian elites to be the most vital Russian interest beyond its own borders. Compared to U.S. interests, it is rather as if Canada, the UK and Australia not only threatened to become Chinese allies but adopted the Chinese language as their lingua franca.

The Russian establishment has given up hope that without the threat of war, Western governments will ever put pressure on Ukraine to implement its part of the Minsk II agreement on autonomy for the Donbas. In addition to blocking NATO membership for Ukraine, Moscow believes that an autonomous Russian-speaking Donbas within Ukraine would act as a wider guarantee of the linguistic, cultural and civic rights of the Ukrainian-Russian minority. This is a goal that the West too should support, both in the name of the values that we have advocated elsewhere in the world and to counter the threat of future ethnic conflict within Ukraine.

There is nothing mysterious about Russia’s motives. And while we do not know what exactly Moscow will do if threats alone prove to be insufficient to achieve key Russian goals, we do know – from the examples of Georgia in 2008 and 2014 – that in the last resort Russia will fight to defend what its establishment sees as its vital interests in the former USSR. We also know that NATO will not fight Russia. Preventing an unnecessary war that the West cannot win should be the America’s first priority.

Anatol Lieven is a senior fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author of Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry. The views expressed are the author's own.