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We need to talk about Russia, again

Russia’s aggressive posturing continues to energise NATO. However, this does not mean that Ukraine and Europe are becoming more secure.

May 19, 2021 - Wojciech Michnik - Articles and Commentary

Ukrainian soldiers in Poltava. Photo: Oleh Dubyna / Shutterstock

NATO-Russia relations have not been this tense since the end of the Cold War. This assertion has been true ever since February 2014, when Russia attacked Ukraine, annexed Crimea and started a de facto war in the east of the country. In late March and early April, tensions caused by Russian military movement near the Ukrainian border, as well as a diplomatic scandal involving Russian personnel spying in the Czech Republic, only deepened this crisis. Some observers have argued that the appearance of more than 100,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine and increased naval activity in the Black Sea could result in a repeat of the 2014 scenario. This would see Russia attack the Ukrainian Donbas region with the participation of ‘little green men’ and ‘peacekeepers’. Others believe that even an open invasion of Ukraine should not be ruled out. However, nothing of the sort has happened so far.

Faced with a weak response from the European Union and its diplomatic ‘concern’, NATO and the United States have shown a little more resolve. NATO and Ukraine held urgent talks in Brussels, whilst NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on Moscow to de-escalate the situation. The United States European Command (EUCOM) was even placed on high alert for a potential imminent crisis in Ukraine. Additionally, two British navy ships have been dispatched to the Black Sea. It is unclear how these actions and diplomatic pressure have affected the Kremlin’s decisions.

On April 22nd the Russian government announced the withdrawal of thousands of troops that had moved near the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu reported that the troops had demonstrated “capability and readiness to defend the state”. The minister subsequently decided to complete a “review” of the Southern and Western Military Districts and return most of the troops to their home bases. Despite this, it appears that Moscow has only withdrawn part of its military forces (around 10 per cent to be more precise). This leaves 90 per cent of these forces in close proximity to Ukraine and occupied Crimea. As analysis from the Centre for Eastern Studies has pointed out: “the size of the Russian Armed Forces groupings targeted at Ukraine and the occupied territories (along with the forces of the so-called separatists) remains at the level of around 150,000 soldiers”.

It seems therefore that there was a temporary de-escalation. However, it is hard to believe that the overall situation will be resolved anytime soon. At the same time, there are still many questions surrounding the purpose of such a large and rapid mobilisation of Russian forces. What can be expected from Russia in this context in the near future? What means of response does the West have at its disposal? With regards to the first point, it is difficult to know whether this demonstration of force was intended to intimidate Ukraine and the West or to test the Biden administration’s reactions. Of course, it could also have been a prelude to a future invasion, or perhaps a classic Kremlin move focused on domestic policy. While this speculation is interesting, it is difficult to confirm and verify at the current time. It is probably true that only Vladimir Putin and his closest circle of advisors know what is really going on. Due to this, vital questions remain unanswered about the future of Eastern Europe’s security architecture, as well as the possible reaction of the West to the threat posed by aggressive Russian behaviour on NATO’s eastern flank.

If anything positive can be taken from this situation, it is clear that some Western countries are  now gradually waking up to what Russia has been up to since the war in Georgia in 2008. Overall, Moscow has aimed to destabilise Europe and, consequently, Euro-Atlantic security. Following the events near Ukraine, as well as the unresolved diplomatic crisis between Prague and Moscow, fewer and fewer representatives of Western states (NATO and EU members) are questioning the seriousness of the security problem posed by Russia’s aggressive and revisionist foreign policy. Even if this awareness does not immediately result in coherent action against Moscow, it will help build a long-term European strategy that takes into account the real security challenges facing NATO and the European Union. For example, it is currently difficult to imagine that the potential completion of the Nord Stream 2 project will not be met with fierce opposition from the United States and some European countries. It will also be increasingly difficult for Berlin to convince its allies that this project is a simple business venture that does not affect European energy security. Overall, both NATO and the EU have a wide range of tools to signal their steadfast opposition to Russia’s disruptive policy. These include firmer and more comprehensive economic and energy sanctions and closer cooperation with Ukraine. So far, NATO has indicated that it takes these developments seriously, as stability and territorial integrity of Europe directly affects the Alliance’s security. Yet, it is the European Union – which on paper has even more reasons to be concerned about the potential escalation of the situation in Eastern Europe (i.e., economic and security concerns including possible flaw of immigrants and energy supply shortages) – that has sent ambiguous signals as it still lacking a unanimous and coherent approach towards Russia. Should the EU wish to be ever treated as a serious ‘geopolitical’ player on at least the regional scale, it would definitely need to produce a comprehensive set of policies with regard to Russia. Until now, it has failed to do so.

Moscow is expected to resume its provocative actions, just as NATO is expected to continue its policy of deterrence against Russia and to deepen its cooperation (including military) with Ukraine. The most important issue will remain Ukraine’s potential membership of NATO. Today, there is no appetite in the Alliance for such a move. At the same time, Russia continues to remind Kyiv and the West of the potential consequences of further NATO enlargement to the east. By destabilising Ukraine from time to time, the Kremlin is employing a strategy that has already proven effective in Georgia. After all, states that are embroiled in armed conflicts and unresolved territorial disputes are not desirable candidates for the Alliance. Despite this, a more transitional partnership and enhanced cooperation between Ukraine and NATO may prove to be an obstacle to Putin’s ambitions to push Kyiv away from the West. Whether this pro-Western orientation will be maintained or further developed depends largely on the Ukrainian people themselves.

There also remains the repeatedly posed question of whether Russia’s recent military build-up will result in another attack on Ukraine. The most intuitive answer to this question is no, at least not in the form of a massive conventional attack. More likely scenarios include a combination of diversionary tactics, disinformation, the use of local separatists and the now the notorious ‘little green men’. The costs of the last campaign – both financial, human, and diplomatic – would be too high for Moscow to risk again. Simultaneously, the effectiveness of such hybrid operations might not prove sufficient to achieve the Kremlin’s intended goals. It seems therefore that the current and future escalation of offensive actions against both Ukraine and selected NATO countries (violations of airspace, espionage disguised under ‘diplomatic’ cover, election interference) should be understood more in terms of Russia flexing its muscles. Moscow is simply signalling its position in the region, rather than attempting to seriously provoke NATO or ‘win’ in Ukraine.

From NATO’s perspective, the Russian attack on Ukraine in 2014 provided the Alliance with additional energy and cohesiveness. The Kremlin’s current aggressive behaviour has only reinforced the decisions NATO took more than seven years ago. The coming NATO Summit in Brussels later this June could prove to be a real opportunity for the Alliance to address the increasingly important question of how to properly respond to Russia’s actions. If Moscow’s recent moves were in any way intended to raise the West’s awareness of its actions, it clearly got NATO’s attention.

Wojciech Michnik is an Assistant Professor of International Relations and Security Studies at the Institute of Political Science and International Relations, Jagiellonian University; and Contributing Editor for New Eastern Europe


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