Time for Europe to stand up to Putin
In Eastern Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing for war. The European countries should strengthen their deterrence capacity and put an end to their dependence on Russian gas.
Time for Europe to stand up to Putin
In recent weeks, Putin has been moving around his pieces in the game of chess that is European security. The end game has not yet begun, but it is now clear that a hard confrontation is almost inevitable. At stake is not only the fate of Ukraine, but also the political cohesion of Europe.
What is going on? Why have recent diplomatic encounters achieved so little? And above all, what can be expected in the coming weeks if the escalation continues? We need to look at the interplay of Russian military, economic and diplomatic instruments of power.
The Russian military build-up in Eastern Europe is by now well known. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the conflict in the Donbas region continued to smoulder for a long time. Last summer, Putin argued in an infamous essay that the Russian and Ukrainian peoples are historically one. Against that backdrop, the purpose becomes clear of the 100,000 or so Russian troops that are deployed around Ukraine today – including heavy firepower and air and sea support. Russia has brought into play the raw power to subjugate all or part of the Ukrainian state.
Additional manoeuvres in Belarus and the Baltic region continually make military analysts wonder what the next move will be. Perhaps the ideal outcome for Putin is that the Ukrainian state crumbles under the psychological threat of invasion. However, there is no doubt that a wide range of military escalation scenarios could help to further disrupt the status quo.
At the same time, Russia has been digging in over the past few months to withstand the pressure of economic sanctions. It has decreased its natural gas exports to the European market to an unusually low level. Monthly gas deliveries have already fallen to less than 80 per cent of usual volumes and continue to fall. The correspondingly steep rise in energy prices provided a painful reminder to European countries of their economic dependence on Moscow. The threat of economic sanctions as a possible Western countermove is thus skilfully neutralised. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi already came close to throwing in the towel: Those who are dependent on Russian gas have to stand idly by while Russia intimidates its neighbours and gradually tries to rob them of their sovereignty.
On the diplomatic stage, Russia issued an ultimatum to the US and its European allies in mid-December. Under the pretext of searching for security guarantees, Russia first asked NATO to stop its ‘open door policy’ towards new candidate members. In addition, Russia demanded that NATO should revert militarily to the pre-1997 situation. This would place the younger allies in Central Europe – Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov disparagingly referred to them as ‘orphaned territories’ – outside the system of collective defence.
Both demands proved fundamentally unacceptable, not only to NATO but also to neutral partners such as Finland and Sweden. The right of countries to determine their own course freely lies at the heart of the European security architecture. Moreover, Russia’s complaints about NATO’s posture are not founded on any objective grounds. While Russia likes to present itself as a military superpower – armed with an extensive and ultramodern nuclear arsenal – NATO’s defence of its eastern flank only consists in a light tripwire that lacks offensive power.
In the short term, Putin has completely seized the initiative. Under maximum military, economic and diplomatic pressure, he can now wait to see what concessions the West is prepared to make. Not unexpectedly, the Western response – a principled willingness to seek balanced measures of de-escalation – may be insufficient. As a matter of sound principle, the US refuses to discuss the fate of Europe without involving the Europeans themselves.
Putin can already put one important victory in his pocket, however. European capitals became seriously divided over Russia policy and appeared once more dependent on Washington for serious coordination. At the same time, Putin can hope that the Biden administration has other fish to fry than to get involved in a large-scale conflict in Ukraine. That is precisely why further escalation is now the default scenario. In doing so, Putin has a choice of a variable mix of military force, economic coercion and clandestine warfare.
In the longer term, this situation can only change if Europeans themselves straighten their backs. The task for the European countries is to rebuild NATO’s deterrence capacity and to reduce their economic dependence through the EU-led energy transition. Only from a position of relative strength can progress be made at the negotiating table with Moscow. After all, securing the right to exist of smaller countries – even if they have more powerful neighbours – does not only concern Ukraine. It is also a well-understood Belgian and European self-interest.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia )