Editor's note:

As the crisis between Russia and NATO and Ukraine has developed over the past three months, the Kremlin increasingly has painted itself into a corner, argues Steven Pifer in the Center for International Security and Cooperation.

As the crisis between Russia and NATO and Ukraine has developed over the past three months, the Kremlin increasingly has painted itself into a corner. Continuing its military build-up around Ukraine while rejecting U.S. and NATO offers of a diplomatic path to ease tensions, Moscow appears to be limiting itself to two choices: war or an embarrassing climb-down.

The size of the Russian military arrayed near Ukraine has grown steadily and now numbers some 130,000 troops. Large Russian formations have positioned themselves near the Russia-Ukraine border, in occupied Crimea and in Belarus, providing multiple potential attack vectors.

On February 11, National Security Advisor Sullivan warned of the possibility of a Russian assault and urged American citizens to leave Ukraine. The same day, the Pentagon ordered 3000 U.S. soldiers to Poland. They will augment 1700 troops already deployed there, and the U.S. military has moved 1000 other troops from Germany to Romania. These will not enter Ukraine but will bolster NATO’s defense on its eastern flank (other allies are taking similar steps).

The Kremlin has framed the crisis as one between Russia and NATO, citing NATO enlargement as bringing the alliance closer to Russia. However, the last ally to join NATO that borders on Russian territory joined in 2004. So, why the crisis now? Moreover, if Moscow’s beef is with NATO, why is it posturing its military to threaten Ukraine?

This Kremlin-manufactured crisis is as much if not more about Ukraine. Moscow fears Ukraine is falling irretrievably out of its orbit, though nothing has done more than Kremlin policy to push Ukraine away from Russia and toward the West. It should surprise no one that Russia’s military seizure of Crimea in 2014 followed by its instigation of and support for a conflict in Donbas that has taken 14,000 lives would affect Ukrainian attitudes toward Moscow.

This crisis is not about Ukraine’s entry into NATO. Alliance members show little enthusiasm for putting Ukraine on a membership track. Moscow knows that but wants more: Ukraine in a Russian sphere of influence, denying Kyiv the right to choose its own foreign policy course.

In December, the Russian government gave U.S. officials a draft U.S.-Russia treaty and draft NATO-Russia agreement, then promptly made them public—hardly a sign of serious negotiating intent. U.S. and NATO officials responded in January meetings with their Russian counterparts and subsequently in writing.

Washington and NATO rejected Kremlin demands that NATO foreswear further enlargement and withdraw forces from the territory of allies who joined the alliance after 1997. However, their responses picked up on some ideas in the Russian drafts, proposing discussions and possible negotiations on arms control, risk reduction and confidence-building measures that could make genuine contributions to European security, including Russia’s.

Moscow replied that the responses addressed only questions of secondary concern and ignored the key Russian demands regarding NATO. Oddly, in addition to demands on no further enlargement and withdrawing forces, Russian President Putin claimed the West ignored his demand regarding offensive missiles near Russia. In fact, both Washington and NATO indicated a readiness to negotiate the question of missiles.

While offering Russia a diplomatic “off-ramp” from the crisis, the United States, NATO and European Union have sought to deter a military assault by specifying costs they would impose on Moscow. Those costs include substantially more painful sanctions, increased military assistance to Kyiv and a bolstering of NATO force presence on its eastern flank.

Washington has consulted intensively with its NATO allies, the European Union and Ukraine on how to manage the crisis. The West seems relatively unified in its reaction to the Russian proposals and support for Ukraine—perhaps more so than the Kremlin expected.

French President Macron visited Moscow on February 7. Following a five-hour meeting with Putin, he reported an agreement not to escalate the crisis. The Kremlin spokesperson the next day refuted that claim, saying “Moscow and Paris could not have struck any deals. It is simply impossible… France is a NATO member, where it doesn’t hold leadership—another country holds this bloc’s leadership. So, what kind of deals can you talk about?”

On February 10, British Foreign Secretary Truss made no headway during a frosty meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. Lavrov played a game of gotcha and treated Truss brusquely at their joint press briefing.

On February 12, President Biden spoke to Putin, their third conversation in two months. No breakthroughs resulted. On February 15, German Chancellor Scholz will meet Putin in Moscow.

The current situation offers few grounds for optimism. Moscow denies any intent to attack, but the Russian military build-up continues and has brought more troops and equipment close to Ukraine. While Russian military capabilities may overmatch Ukrainian armed forces, the latter would fight, and Ukrainian civilians are arming up to resist as well. (Above and beyond the penalties imposed by the West, the main costs to Russia of an assault would be inflicted by the Ukrainian military and partisan operations against an invading Russian force, particularly if the Russians got bogged down in a quagmire.)

Moscow thus far has turned aside Western attempts to engage in dialogue on de-escalating the crisis, insisting on demands it knows will not be met while not engaging on offers that could enhance the security of both sides. The rude treatment accorded to Macron and Truss in Moscow does not bode well for diplomacy.

Putin may not yet have made a final decision, and Moscow has left the door ajar for negotiation. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Kremlin is painting itself ever tighter into a corner. It can launch an attack on Ukraine, one that would be viewed by the world as an act of outright aggression, or it can back down and accept offers that have been on the table for weeks. The latter could prove embarrassing. It could appear that Russia’s military build-up was a bluff that had been called. Putin does not seem one who wants others to think that he bluffs.

If the Kremlin chooses war, that will be a calamity for Ukraine—and it could well prove the same for Russia. Hopefully, Moscow will conclude that the costs of an attack would outweigh the political gains it might hope to achieve and turn to a more realistic diplomatic approach, however awkward that climb-down might seem.