Russia puts transatlantic unity and security in Europe to the test
After failing to agree on exclusive spheres of influence in Europe with the Trump administration, the Kremlin is challenging Washington’s ability to keep unity among Euro-Atlantic allies and protect European partners who share core NATO values. US, NATO, and the EU should further consolidate efforts and provide military support to Ukraine to deter Russian invasion.
Troublemaking as Russian-style policymaking toward the West
Unlike Donald Trump, who sought common ground with Russia regardless of how European countries might see it, Joe Biden has condemned Russian meddling in US elections, approved sanctions for Russian cyberattacks, and worked hard to restore relations with European partners, namely Germany.
Moreover, Washington and Brussels have taken a united position on domestic Russian politics — a sensitive issue for the Kremlin — such as intimidation of political opponents and repressions against free media. Above all, it was painful for the Kremlin to see that US and EU leaders jointly identified Russia as a warring party and not a mediator in the war in eastern Ukraine.
The emerging revival of transatlantic ties has challenged all Russian achievements and influence in the area of the former Soviet Bloc and, more importantly, threatened Putin’s role as champion of restored Russian power at home and abroad, especially in Europe.
Therefore, the Kremlin must have decided to act with what remained its ultimate tool of influence and coercion, a military power backed by nuclear weapons, short and intermediate and new hypersonic missiles, and the biggest army in Europe.
Two sudden military drills in April and November 2021 in Belarus and near Ukraine, and the hybrid operation of staged “migration crisis” in Belarus showed that the Kremlin would not look for excuses to use their military and subversion to win concessions from its European neighbors.
So far, the Kremlin has only achieved consent from the US and NATO to talk about Russia’s security concerns and explore to what extent they are realistic and whether they do not undermine collective security in Europe. Still, the Kremlin can weaponize diplomacy to divide the West and mask its true intentions.
Russian goals in talks with the West
The recent diplomatic and public exchanges between leaders of the United States, NATO, and Russia showed that Kremlin pursues three major goals in the talks with the West. Moreover, they all have an impact on the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia in Donbas.
First, Putin uses bilateral negotiations with the White House to undermine trust between the American and European governments. Russians want to create an impression that since Americans are more concerned about their homeland security vis-à-vis Russian nuclear arsenal and hypersonic missiles, they might make it a top priority and decrease commitments in support of the security of the European nations.
Recent examples of growing national egoism – like Nord Stream 2 — and international rivalry for lucrative arms markets – like in the recent US/French clash over submarines for Australia — can make such an impression plausible.
The Russian goal is to spread fear that Trump’s policy “America First!” is coming back at the expense of the EU security and use it to build exclusive relations with separate European nations.
When it comes to Ukraine, Russia’s plan is that the Ukrainian authorities, sidelined by the US-Russian talks, must give up ideas of European and Euro-Atlantic integration and begin peace talks about the future of Donbas without “unreliable” western partners.
It is not surprising that since 2014 Russian propaganda has been disseminating the narrative that Washington is trying to “sell out” Ukraine. A number of the Ukrainian political parties, including the pro-Russian wing of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s “Servant of the People” party, also share this view. They will use current talks between Russia and the West to continue to brainwash their potential constituents and call on Zelenskiy to accept Russia’s terms.
However, Ukraine has strong trust in western security institutions. According to a December 2021 DIF poll, more than 53% of Ukrainians believe that NATO is the best option for guaranteeing the security of the country, compared to non-bloc status (26%) or membership in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (8%). Since the poll was conducted before the events in Kazakhstan and CSTO intervention, we expect that support for NATO membership and trust in the Alliance will only increase in Ukraine.
Secondly, the Kremlin wants to demonstrate defiance against any future Western sanctions. Russia is exploring whether the West is united behind the US and ready to pay the price of new sanctions and subsequent confrontation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has already threatened Joe Biden that more sanctions would mean returning to the times of mutual nuclear blackmail and strategic uncertainty. In Europe, Russia can use physical and media subversion against political leaders, violence against the enemies of Putin’s regime combined with economic preferences, and donations to a variety of situational or traditional supporters.
Moscow knows that NATO is not going to attack but it is testing the Alliance’s readiness. As soon as Russia sees that some alliance members try to avoid confrontation then it can act more assertively.
This has direct impact on Ukraine’s security. If resoluteness toward Russia suffers from the lack of unity among western allies, then Moscow will play with increasing and decreasing military escalation in eastern Ukraine and continue to test NATO’s eastern members’ resilience by staging border crises or making cases for the protection of the “Russian-speaking population” in the Baltic region.
Thirdly, Russia is seeking to discourage the US and other NATO member countries from arming the Central European nations that joined the alliance after 1997 and North European neutral states like Sweden and Finland. Deputy foreign minister Sergey Ryabkov openly said that before his meeting with the US delegation in Geneva.
Its experience of eight years of war with Ukraine has made Russia concerned about the transfer of new technologies, sophisticated weapons, and professional training to the armies of former Soviet and Warsaw Pact countries. Even in the case of a complete US withdrawal from Eastern Europe, these nations will be capable to inflict tremendous damage to the Russian military, which it has not seen since the first Chechen war (1994–1996). The memory of losing the war to Islamic guerillas in Afghanistan (1979–1989), supported and trained by the West, is another powerful argument to this end.
It is dangerous for the United States and other advanced western powers to consider Russian demands about limiting military training and the stationing of NATO troops in member countries as potentially negotiable because that can only make the Kremlin more determined in pursuing a policy of military domination in Europe.
European nations who share a land or sea border with Russia, understand this threat. For instance, Sweden’s Supreme Commander Micael Byden warned that Russia’s demands “would destroy the foundations of our security policy structure”.
Moreover, in Ukraine, according to the DIF poll conducted in December, a majority of 48 percent believes that delivering weapons to Ukraine and conducting joint military exercises with the United States and NATO states can deter a Russian invasion — while only 33 percent share the opposite opinion.
Therefore, the latest news about a quiet approval of additional US military aid to Ukraine before talks with Russia increases not only the chances for deterring fresh Russian aggression but also contributes to the confidence of US allies in the region. Estonia and Latvia have already approved to share their weapons and equipment with Ukraine and the same can be expected from other NATO members, should Russia provoke crises at their borders.
What can happen next?
The outcomes of the talks with Russia have not so far been what Moscow has been aiming at.
The Biden administration urged Sweden and Finland to join NATO if they feel insecure in the light of Russia’s demands and promised to arrange a swift accession process. Then, the White House suggested that it is ready for any decision by the Kremlin, be it negotiations or invasion of Ukraine or other hostile acts. Meanwhile, the US Democrats have presented a bill that can crush the Russian state-owned biggest banks, a backbone of the debt-ridden Russian domestic economy.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has described coordination with the US as “excellent”: “Russia wants to divide us, and the U.S. isn’t going to play this game”. Sources in the US administration have revealed that the Americans have been working with EU countries to mitigate the impact of possible Russian energy blackmail by facilitating natural gas supplies to Europe from alternative sources. And the US has promised to increase its troops and equipment in Central and Eastern Europe if Russia attacks Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s and Germany’s top diplomats are at pains to persuade their Russian peers to continue peace talks in the Normandy format as a way to defuse tensions and reach a permanent ceasefire in Donbas.
During her visits to Kyiv and Moscow this week, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock will probably check why Russia rejected the Ukrainian proposal on “10 steps on implementation of the Minsk agreements”, developed after US-Russian and US-Ukrainian consultations in December, and whether the Normandy format can help to reach de-escalation.
However, her task as well as American efforts to keep the door open for a diplomatic solution of the conflict in eastern Ukraine seem hopeless after recent clear signals from Moscow.
Frustrated with results that are the exact opposite of what it wanted, Russia responded with new threats and subversion. Its hackers launched massive cyber-attacks against the Ukrainian government. The Russian Defence Ministry announced new military drills and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russian troops won’t withdraw from Ukraine’s borders.
To continue this game on its terms, the Kremlin must either deliver its threat and start invading Ukraine or find a way to increase pressure without invasion or pretend that it has achieved what it wanted.
The first scenario would be disastrous for all sides.
In order to avoid it, key NATO members, including Germany, must immediately provide Ukraine with urgent advice, intelligence, arms, and equipment, including air defence systems and hardware for electronic warfare. It must be remembered that Russia has never attacked a well-defended modern country, except Finland in 1939. Soviet political and territorial gains hardly paid off the consequences for the USSR, mostly its devastating military losses and undermined international reputation. Putin might remember these lessons.
Petro Burkovskyi works as Senior Fellow for the Democratic Initiatives Foundation in Kyiv, Ukraine.
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