Russia puts transat­lantic unity and security in Europe to the test

Photo: White House /​​ Imago Images

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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