Exploiting what he judges a superior strategic position in the face of US retreat and fragmentation and weakness in Europe, Putin sees opportunities to make substantial gains in what Russia considers its sphere of influence in Europe’s East.
Faced with this set of challenges to its authority and cohesion, the West really has no choice but to stand firm in the face of Russian aggression.
These are serious threats and could signal a winter of Russia-induced hardship, the likes of which Europe has not experienced for decades. There are at least five immediate threats. Russia is:
- Squeezing Europe’s gas supplies ahead of the winter, making plain to potential opponents that European action to restrain it threatens the heating in citizens’ homes;
- Using Belarus to drive migrants toward the European Union (EU);
- Massing troops and heavy armor in and around Ukraine, particularly to the north of Kyiv, in Crimea and Donbas, and to the east in Russia’s southern military district;
- Threatening new conflict in the Balkans by stoking Serbian nationalism, including moves toward a possible break-up of Bosnia-Herzegovina and challenges to Montenegrin independence; and
- Promoting a 3+3 framework for dealing with the South Caucasus (Russia, Iran, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia) to supplant US influence and the EU’s Eastern Partnership.
These latest moves follow years of hostile Russian acts and interference in the internal politics of the West, including disinformation, assassination, sabotage, bribery, and other means designed to weaken Europe and the United States.
The Threat to Ukraine
The most immediate threat is to Ukraine. Russia has put in place the forces for a new military assault, which could be launched at very short notice:
- In a 10,000-word quasi-historical essay, along with public statements from others such as former President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin has called into question Ukraine’s legitimacy as an independent state and justified Russia’s ongoing aggression in Eastern Ukraine. Putin has accused Ukrainian authorities of being “Russophobic” and warned against the use of “former Soviet territories” to threaten Russia.
- Russia has effectively taken security control of Belarus, meaning Putin is now able to threaten Ukraine from the north as well as from the east. Russia’s current major military build-up is the third this year: The first was in April, massing over 100,000 troops and their equipment in and around Ukraine; the second was the Zapad-21 exercise; and the third is the current, unannounced and unexplained massing of forces and equipment around Ukraine in even larger measure than in April.
- The timing of Russia’s moves is auspicious: December 8, 2021, marks the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, something Putin has lamented as the greatest tragedy of the 20th Century. It also comes as Chancellor Angela Merkel hands power to an SPD-led government in Germany, while Russia seeks to clear the final hurdles to bring the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline online. France eyes elections in April. President Joe Biden has pulled U.S. forces from Afghanistan and signaled he wishes to do so from Iraq and Syria as well, while his political position in the United States is weakening.
Putin has reacted to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s moves to counter Russian influence in Ukraine, particularly those aimed at Viktor Medvechuk (whose children are Putin’s god-children), by shutting off official Ukrainian-Russian contacts. In a recent public commentary, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev attacked Zelenskyy and his team directly, implying that because they are Russian-speaking and Jewish, they do not know who they are and are not “Ukrainian.”
None of this means that Russia is irrevocably committed to a new invasion of Ukraine. Rather, Putin is readying the forces and argumentation needed to give him the option; an option that would not be feasible if these preliminary steps had not been taken. Indeed, the likeliest explanation of events is that Putin is seeking concessions and gestures of de-escalation from Ukraine and the West in exchange for deciding not to invade. But the fact that he has massed the forces necessary means that a strong Western response is essential to demonstrate that such a move would be too costly for Russia.
The Western push-back
Against this backdrop, the Biden Administration and several European governments have commendably begun to push back. Perhaps in an effort to demonstrate that the West will not repeat its failure to prevent Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea in 2014, several important steps have been taken:
- The United States has called public attention to Russia’s aggressive activities at a high political and diplomatic level, including by providing intelligence briefings and demarches at NATO and in European capitals;
- The US, Germany, France, the UK, and others have strongly re-emphasized their support for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. This was reinforced with a visit from Secretary of Defense Austin to Kyiv, a reciprocal visit of Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov to Washington, and through deliveries of security assistance;
- Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez has introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act which would trigger major new sanctions on Russia if its forces advance further into Ukraine;
- The United Kingdom has announced consideration of a temporary deployment of British troops for training and exercising in Ukraine;
- French President Emmanuel Macron has publicly stated there would be grave consequences if Russia makes a further military incursion into Ukraine; and
- German regulators have blocked the final certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline for at least two months.
Predictably, despite its openly aggressive actions, Russia has claimed that it is not threatening anyone and has accused the US and others of themselves escalating toward conflict. Even a relatively factual comment from the Editor of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica drew a swift and insulting rebuke on Facebook from the Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova.
The West should not be deterred by this aggressive Russian rhetoric – quite the contrary. Only consistent, firm counter-pressure will ensure that Russia does not escalate the situation further.
Additional measures to apply such counter-pressure could include the following:
- The US and EU should announce in advance what sanctions or other actions would be taken immediately, and in a coordinated fashion, if Russia moves its forces further into Ukrainian territory;
- Western nations should conduct a steady stream of high-level visits to Kyiv by key foreign policy and defense officials – including visits to conflict areas in the East;
- The US and other NATO Allies should increase the levels and quality of security assistance and training for Ukrainian forces;
- The United States should declassify intelligence concerning Russia’s military build-up and its leadership of military forces inside Ukraine (Donbas); and
- The United States and several other allied countries should appoint new special representatives dedicated specifically to ending Russia’s war on Ukraine.
As the West contemplates its policy options, it must keep in mind the strategic role Ukraine plays in the future of Europe. EU members may think the future of their continent depends on monetary policy, or the new Chancellor of Germany, or the French elections, and there are arguments to be made in these directions.
From a different perspective, however, Europe’s future will be determined by whether Russia remains a hostile neighbor, or one day changes to become a constructive partner. Given the system created under President Putin, the only way Russia will change from its current hostile posture is if Russia itself changes – if the Russian people are able to put in place a government that reflects the interests of the country, rather than the interests of the former KGB elite.
In that perspective, Ukraine’s success as a market democracy, with security and sovereignty over its own territory, is of vital importance to the United States and Europe. A Ukraine that lives up to European standards will be a beacon to the many Russians who want their state to match these tests of governmental decency. A Ukraine that is dragged down by Russia will be used by the Kremlin to perpetuate Russia’s current state of authoritarianism at home, and aggression abroad.
Ambassador Kurt Volker is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. A leading expert in U.S. foreign and national security policy, he served as U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations from 2017-2019, and as U.S. Ambassador to NATO from 2008-2009.