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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