4 February 2022
Russia’s military build-up at the Ukrainian border has triggered alarm in the West over a possible intervention in Ukraine. Against this background, Moscow has proposed new agreements with the U.S. and NATO, demanding a fundamental change of the European security order and the end of Western security assistance for Ukraine. Moscow has stated that it is not planning a military intervention but announced a military-technical reaction if negotiations are unsuccessful. Western capitals have reacted with their own warnings of severe sanctions on Russia in the case of an escalation and have reinforced support for Ukraine. While the EU has been struggling to find its role in this crisis, a first round of diplomatic talks with the US, NATO, and the OSCE in January did not yield any substantial results.
EUREN Members answer: How is the current crisis – its roots, causes and potential further development – perceived in your country? How do you assess Russia’s demands and the West’s reactions? What could be concrete steps to defuse the current crisis? What could be an appropriate format of future negotiations and what role should the EU play in them?
“the French President appears to be pursuing a three-track strategy: demonstrating unity with EU and NATO allies; promoting a European solution to the crisis; pursuing the dialogue initiated with Russia”
As in other EU countries, the Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian border has been making the headlines in France for the past weeks. There is a genuine concern that the situation might escalate, deliberately or accidentally, into another war, whose first victim will be the Ukrainian population. The crisis is not only capturing public attention; it is also the focus of Emmanuel Macron’s diplomatic activism, two months before the start of the French Presidential election and at a time when France is holding the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU.
In addition to reaffirming the country’s commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the French President appears to be pursuing a three-track strategy: demonstrating unity with EU and NATO allies; promoting a European solution to the crisis; pursuing the dialogue initiated with Russia.
First, while French officials have seemed to question American and British assessments about the imminence of a military attack by Russia, they have stressed France’s commitment to a firm and united response should such an attack occur. In addition, Paris has recently announced its readiness to contribute to a NATO Enhanced Forward Presence mission in Romania as a strategic reassurance measure.
Second, France has been looking to secure, for Europe and for itself, a seat at the table of negotiations about the regional security order. The sidelining of the EU in such discussions is seen in Paris as yet another reason to develop European sovereignty and strategic autonomy. Furthermore, France, together with Germany, has sought to re-launch mediation and conflict resolution talks through the Normandy format.
Third, in line with his previous positions, Emmanuel Macron has insisted on the need to maintain a political dialogue with Russia and to opening discussions about a new European security architecture. As he expressed most recently in a speech to the European Parliament, this new architecture can only be built on the basis of, and not in contradiction to, the principles of the 1990 Paris Charter. He also emphasised that such dialogue should be the subject of prior intra-EU discussions.
“In the negotiations that will follow, it is vital that the EU shapes the agenda”
One of the most striking things about the current situation is how Russia is writing the facts on the ground, in a manner not dissimilar to how it did in Syria in the absence of a committed and unambiguous focus from the West. Russia is having all too much success in shaping the agenda, narrowing perceptions of what is possible. As such, we have witnessed some frankly disturbing commentary, from European and American commentators and practitioners, triggering comparisons, however inaccurately, to 1939 and 1968. A second thing of note is that we can no longer claim as we have been, not least within EUREN, that both the EU and Russia are waiting, each believing time is on their side. Clearly, Russia is no longer waiting, time is on no-one’s side. Perhaps most obviously, where we are today tells us something about EU and US priorities relative to Russia’s. If 2008 and 2014 did not sufficiently confirm the fact that the Kremlin is determined not to lose more influence in its backyard, the overt build-up of Russian military on Ukraine’s borders in 2021 and 2022 should.
In the negotiations that will follow, it is vital that the EU shapes the agenda. Notwithstanding the important virtues of hearing a wide range of voices when building its response, at some point, the EU needs to speak with a coherent voice that allows for the types of alternatives that any actor needs to bring to the negotiating table but also one that emphasizes the values that all member states signed up to. Three come most immediately to mind.
First, Ukraine must be part of any talks. Russia has for a long time championed multipolarity. For the US, this comes at the expense of their unipolarity; the EU has long understood that it comes too at the expense of multilateralism. Leaving Ukraine’s fate to be decided outside of Ukraine and among just a few more powerful states and Russia would chalk up a mark for multipolarity. Second, the EU must insist unwaveringly on the protections that sovereignty brings to states and on the proper, unselective application of the rule of law. Third, the weight of history has to be faced squarely. Russia is very good at reminding the West of its historical failings, stirring a few verifiable facts in with a lot of inventions. In acknowledging any errors that were made after the collapse of the USSR in the West’s treatment of Russia, it must be remembered that the USSR also collapsed from within. Ukraine cannot serve as compensation or assuagement.
“The situation certainly resembles a ‘big game’ scenario between powerful nations over smaller ones“
The current tension between Russia and the united West over Ukraine raises several concerns. Western media coverage of the situation throughout 2021 often represents the situation as being on the ‘brink of war’. Commentators and politicians have created public alarm over the outbreak of a major war in Europe with thousands of victims. In this situation, coverage does not always manage to separate facts from personal concerns and the lines between what is real and what is probable often become blurred. Certainly, the temperature of discussions has been rising since late December. The outbreak of real violence in Kazakhstan for a short period of time in early January cooled down this discussion of a ‘possible Russian invasion of Ukraine’. Direct talks between Russian high representatives with officials of the USA, NATO and the OSCE did not reduce the tension. Yet, talks offer opportunities for a meaningful conversation about the concerns and actions of the various parties.
The situation certainly resembles a ‘big game’ scenario between powerful nations over smaller ones. Russia opened this game by turning directly to the USA over Ukraine about its own security concerns after months of media escalation. This loudly manifested claim by Russia presents Ukraine as a cause and an object, but not as an actor in international negotiations. For the USA and the European Union such rhetoric is unacceptable and it is certain that the Russian authorities and foreign relations experts are well aware of this. Nevertheless, the big power interaction continues to recklessly ‘play chicken’ with military preparedness escalating every day from all sides.
All sides provide ample justifications for their actions being rational, timely, proportionate and necessary. Yet, those dynamics, evoking the constant question of: “When will the war start?”, make one realize the complete madness of this development. The important question to ask is what the involved parties gain from such an escalation. Some benefits seem to be possible for the USA: financial (arms industry), economical (cut off Russia from the gas supply to Europe) and political (Biden’s popularity). For Russia, Ukraine and the EU, the damage would outweigh any benefits, while not solving the core issue of the Ukrainian conflict resolution and European security.
“in the case of a “minor incursion”, to use Joe Biden’s unfortunate words, the divisions within Germany’s government will be exposed anew”
For Germany’s new government, the renewed military build-up at the Ukrainian border came at the worst possible time. Social Democrats, Greens and Liberal Democrats had mostly avoided the thorny topic of Germany’s Russia policy in their coalition negotiations. Only a few boilerplate sentences about the relationship to Moscow made their way into the coalition treaty, while Nord Stream 2 is not mentioned at all.
As the pressure on Germany rose over the past weeks to position itself more clearly within the Western alliance, the initial lack of a common foundation showed. The government had not yet developed a coherent narrative on what its stance regarding arms exports to Ukraine and sanctioning Nord Stream 2 exactly was. Apparently, internal channels of communication were also not yet functioning smoothly. Some attempts by Berlin’s officials to justify the position with Germany’s history and emphasize Berlin’s solidarity with Ukraine through the delivery of 5000 helmets came up short or may even have been counterproductive, leading to more confusion and criticism among Germany’s Western partners.
Over time, the German government gravitated towards the position that it would not send weapons to Ukraine to remain a credible diplomatic broker vis-à-vis Russia, but that “everything is on the table” in terms of sanctions if there were to be an invasion into Ukraine. This is a practical formula for Berlin’s party officials and policy-makers, because it sounds determined, while it contains no commitment on what kind of escalation would trigger which kind of sanction. If there will be a large-scale war, many questions will answer themselves, including the eternal one about the future of Nord Stream 2. But in the case of a “minor incursion”, to use Joe Biden’s unfortunate words, the divisions within Germany’s government will be exposed anew.
Even if the winter of 2022 will not end in a military escalation, as may still be hoped, it will have lasting effects on Berlin’s foreign policy and its relationship to Moscow. The current tensions have caused intense public debates around issues that were avoided or even considered a taboo in the past. This does not only concern arms deliveries, but also the Russian-German gas relationship. The worst-case scenario that Russia could suddenly stop supplying gas to Germany was never really taken seriously before. Now it is driving a renewed attempt to manage gas reserves and diversify supply, including the construction of new LNG terminals.
If Russia is concerned about NATO’s military infrastructure, it should then focus on this rather than on a hypothesized NATO expansion. Let us not forget that the last NATO expansion took place 18 years ago, and there are no immediate plans to move on with this enlargement at present. However, there is nothing to prevent its military infrastructure from spreading across Europe even without formally accepting new members into the organization. On the other hand, if this is almost impossible for NATO to give Russia reliable legal guarantees to abandon its open-door policy to any nation that meets its criteria for membership, then Moscow could—and indeed must—insist on legally-binding guarantees that NATO’s military infrastructure will not be deployed close to Russian borders. There have been a number of instances in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union when attempts to limit the geographical expansion of the NATO infrastructure in Europe have been successful.
Shifting the emphasis from counteracting NATO’s inchoate expansion plans to searching for concrete options to limit NATO’s military infrastructure in Europe should not be seen as Russia capitulating to the West. It is simply the most rational, and potentially most productive, response to the real threats to its security. Following Friday’s meeting of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, President Putin instructed its members to finalize a draft of the new concept of Russia’s foreign policy, taking the changes that have taken place in the world over the past five years into account. Let us hope that the updated version will reflect not only the emerging international changes, but also the opportunities that remain for finding mutually acceptable political compromises, including with Russia’s Western partners.
“the US-Russia direct talks mark a new geopolitical state of affairs between these two great powers in Europe and will undoubtedly affect Lithuania and the entire north-eastern Baltic Sea region”
Many in the West overlooked the way Russia aims to guarantee its own security and the threat that it potentially poses if not properly addressed. It is a conventional military menace which took Lithuania, and the rest of the eastern EU and NATO members, by surprise.
Having de facto abandoned direct political-diplomatic dialogue with Russia bilaterally from 2012, we now have a situation in which Russia is no longer negotiating with us, but only with the US. This is very symptomatic of the factual lack of power and strategic thinking in the EU and even the capacity to deal with the challenges facing the Union’s eastern members. However, the US-Russia direct talks mark a new geopolitical state of affairs between these two great powers in Europe and will undoubtedly affect Lithuania and the entire north-eastern Baltic Sea region.
Vilnius’ defiant, often arrogant and unpredictable stance towards third countries, especially Belarus and China, began after Lithuania’s elections of 2020 when a new center right parliament majority was formed. The policies towards Belarus were especially ill-planned and marked a considerable divergence from the traditional Lithuanian approach, which had been based on three pillars: the defence of national interests; participation in the EU-transatlantic defence system; and the principle of a good neighbourliness.
Lithuania’s policy to delegitimise Lukashenka‘s rule has contributed to the consolidation of Russian hegemony in Belarus, the destruction of its civil society, the further erosion of media freedom and the abuse of human rights. It has made Lithuania itself vulnerable in bilateral relations.
Based on the Belarus example, one can make the conclusion that no one can gauge the direct impact of their actions nor anticipate changes in the environment. In a self-defeating manner, apparently lacking capacity even to predict its own actions, Lithuania seemingly does not accept the claim that reality has changed, but also fails to see that the basic tenets, upon which the European security order had been constructed since the end of the Cold War, have lost their validity too. An inability to reverse these developments became a shocking realisation for the local foreign policy establishment accompanied by a deafening silence in Vilnius today.
“we ask ourselves: what does the European security concept consist of?”
The interpretation of security issues has expanded extraordinarily in recent times. It should be clear that discussions about security are often based on the interest of one side or the other. In this context, we ask ourselves: what does the European security concept consist of? Is it feasible to set forth a policy in Europe disregarding Russia’s interests (which geographically is also part of Europe)? This question can be articulated more distinctly – is Europe willing to consider Russia as a constituent in European security? And here it would be quite consistent to suggest that Russia and the European Union need mutual involvement in a dialogue on the thorniest issues. Ukraine also constitutes a part of Europe. Following this perspective, however, the primary question is whether Ukraine is an object or a subject in this international situation. As such, the evacuation of diplomats, which Ukraine deems absolutely unnecessary, only provokes tensions inside the country. At present, Ukraine should demonstrate to the world and to neighboring nations its ability to control the situation, and provide reassurance that it can keep it under control. Still, Ukraine’s subjectivity can only be secured if there is no speculation out there about the issue of a Russian military threat. Therefore, as far as security is concerned, a dilemma arises – either to follow the irrational scenario, thus imagining escalation of the conflict (i.e. to believe that Russia is about to assault Ukraine), or opt for negotiations and expedience in the political process. The stance of another actor – NATO – appears to be quite interesting. NATO has pointed out that Ukraine never was its member-state. From that point of view, deployment of troops on Ukraine’s territory is necessarily postponed. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, called for a “balanced approach” in this intricate situation. And against this background, it should probably be asked – who else needs escalation? This topic brings us back to the fundamental matter – what is European security? Is a focus on the US more important than closer ties with Russia? But if we still elaborate on the issue of a nascent understanding of contemporary European security, the views of all parties should incontestably be taken into account, rather than facilitating fragmentation in the political space, which disrupts relations between neighboring countries.
“For Berlin, NATO remains the backbone of European security”
Russia’s troop build-up on the border with Ukraine and its far-reaching demands for security guarantees have, in the view of many Europeans, made NATO indispensable for years to come. The US has learned a lesson from last year’s transatlantic rifts over Afghanistan and AUKUS and has bent over backwards in recent months to coordinate as closely as possible with its European allies. The Biden administration has demonstrated that it is still willing to ensure transatlantic security – despite the US pivot to Asia – and to send more soldiers to Europe.
At the same time, their own irrelevance in the current crisis with Russia has shown Europeans that they are light years away from “strategic autonomy”. In Northern, Central and Eastern Europe, where the idea was never received with great enthusiasm anyway, countries will double down on their efforts to keep the Americans engaged in Europe. Close ties to Washington are seen as life insurance. The Russia crisis has not divided the West but brought it closer together.
One should not be fooled by the cacophony of voices from Berlin and the refusal to supply arms to Ukraine. The German government is investing a lot to remain gesprächsfähig (“able to talk”) in its relationship with the Kremlin. Within the Western alliance, Berlin sees itself as particularly responsible for facilitating dialogue and has therefore joined forces with France to revive the Normandy format.
Behind this, however, Germany remains firmly embedded in the Western alliance. For Berlin, NATO remains the backbone of European security. After Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the German government made a significant contribution to increasing the alliance’s defence capabilities, especially so as to reassure its eastern allies. The new traffic-light coalition also feels a special obligation towards them. At the same time, the perception of Russia in Germany has changed considerably. This also applies to Germany’s social democrats. Should Ukraine once again become the victim of a Russian attack, the German government will see its central role in rallying the EU behind a tough sanctions package. And it will ensure that NATO stands firm and united.
The current European security crisis: a Dutch view
In the Netherlands, the current crisis is widely perceived to be the result of an escalation of Russian actions with much wider implications than the future status of Ukraine. Basically, Russia’s present threatening posture would further undermine the European security order, built after the Cold War on the basis of commonly agreed documents, like the Charter of Paris.
For a long time, the dominant narrative has been that it would be possible to build Gorbachev’s Common European Home on our continent and that a return to a new form of the Brezhnev Doctrine would never be possible.
However, Moscow’s claims that its great power status also implies an inherent right to have its own sphere of influence in our Common Neighborhood are seen as unacceptable for most of the Dutch political elite. While there is limited support for Ukraine’s membership of the EU or NATO, there remains a fundamental belief that good neighborly relations should prevail and countries should have the sovereign right to choose their own alliances and partnerships.
Russian demands for security guarantees, implying a complete roll-back of NATO from Central and Eastern Europe and a legal commitment for Ukraine never to become a NATO member, are viewed as unrealistic and totally unacceptable by the Dutch government. Moscow’s military threats have only pushed EU- and NATO-member states more closely together in support of their allies and partners. Although a lot of discussions have been taking place on European strategic autonomy, the present crisis has reminded Europe once more of its dependence on the US in security matters and has only strengthened transatlantic cooperation.
The new Dutch government has committed itself to reassuring NATO allies (including air policing in Bulgaria) and to supporting Ukraine (with the provision of defensive arms no longer excluded as a possibility). And even though the Dutch are acutely aware of the risks to domestic energy security and dependence on Russian gas, the government supports the development of a strong sanctions package to deter further Russian military action. Although the Netherlands supports all efforts to find a diplomatic solution, which would not violate fundamental principles, strengthening deterrence prevails in current circumstances.
“The military nature of the crisis initially put the EU on hold. Yet it is its economic power, which, if properly used, could be indispensable for a comprehensive Western response.”
Russia’s recent military build-up and political demands are perceived in Poland as a direct threat to the European security order, which is based on the sovereign equality of states. The predominant view is that concerts of powers are a thing of the past. Not only for legal and moral reasons. There is simply no chance of achieving lasting stability in the region solely on the basis of great powers’ preferences while disregarding the interests of small and medium-sized states.
The Kremlin’s efforts to portray NATO enlargement as part of a competition over “ownerless territories” and therefore as the main cause of the crisis are considered to fit the narrative of Russia’s long-term plan to weaken and ultimately subordinate firstly Ukraine, and later, perhaps, even the Baltic countries.
Russia’s demands went too far. NATO managed to develop a coherent and principled position as a whole, regardless of inconsistent signals coming from some capitals. If Russia’s goal was to deepen divisions and discredit NATO, it had achieved the opposite: transatlantic unity likely to be followed by consolidation of public support for NATO within the alliance and among its partners. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for reducing the risk of kinetic conflict.
The Kremlin has just entered a new phase of undeclared war with the West and behaves accordingly to get as much as possible out of this self-manufactured escalation. Even if the risk of invasion passes, the crisis will not be over. Russian troops will probably stay where they are to intimidate Ukraine and to keep the West in a state of constant uncertainty.
De-escalation requires clear communication and credible deterrence measures. The military nature of the crisis initially put the EU on hold. Yet it is its economic power, which, if properly used, could be indispensable for a comprehensive Western response. The exposure of the Russian economy to the EU is much more significant than vice versa. The EU’s vulnerability has been constantly inflated in the public discourse, creating a false impression that harsh restrictive measures would lead to prohibitive costs. One might wonder, however, whether the losses of a dozen or so energy corporations and financial institutions based in a few member states can by any means be comparable with the economic, social and political costs of war in Europe at the borders of four of its member states. And truth be told, if sanctions are to act as a real deterrent, they must be costly for the sender.
“Overcoming the more fundamental dispute on how to repair the European security order, however, would require a reconciliation of the freedom of alliances with the OSCE commitment to take into account legitimate security concerns of its participating states”
The outcome of the current showdown in Russia-West relations is open as both sides continue to paint gloomy scenarios of what might happen should diplomats fail to reach an agreement.
The pessimistic scenario would take only one side to be unwilling to abandon maximalist demands that are non-negotiable for the other. In this case, diplomacy may fail, and we would see increasing military buildup along the Russia–NATO border, as well as around the conflict area in Donbass. However, this buildup is most likely to stop short of hostilities. Ukraine knows that Moscow would strike back should Kyiv launch an offensive in Donbass, and it knows that the West would not come to its defense. Russia knows that any direct incursion in the conflict area would have a high price. Failing to reach an agreement would lead to the ultimate collapse of the NATO–Russia Founding Act, and Europe may see an arms race with inherent risks of escalation.
The optimistic scenario would require a realisation that a political solution can only be built on a compromise. It is good that both sides now have their proposals on the table. The gap between them is huge. A compromise would require that both drop extreme demands. It will take some time for the diplomats to sound out how much the other side is ready to concede, but the obvious common ground is the recognition of the need for reciprocal material security guarantees.
These guarantees can be framed as an arms control arrangement establishing a disengagement area along the Russia–NATO border, as well as around the conflict area in Donbass. The purpose of such an arrangement would be to prevent rapid concentration of forces capable of conducting surprise cross-border offensive operations.
Overcoming the more fundamental dispute on how to repair the European security order, however, would require a reconciliation of the freedom of alliances with the OSCE commitment to take into account legitimate security concerns of its participating states. So, why not transform the NATO-Russia Council into a platform where mutual security concerns can be voiced and acted upon?