Russia, Ukraine and the West: Déjà vu all over again

Opinion piece (Encompass)
21 April 2021

Whatever Russia’s President Vladimir Putin does, he seems to take the West by surprise, and by the time the EU and NATO have decided what to do, Putin has got away with it again. Western leaders’ inability to learn from (painful) experience only emboldens him to press on.

In the last 15 years, agents of the Russian state have irradiated, poisoned and shot Putin’s enemies on European soil, killing a number of them and at least one innocent bystander; they have interfered in elections in the US and France and perhaps elsewhere; and we now know that in 2014 they blew up an ammunition depot in the Czech Republic, killing two people.

The most urgent and important challenge to Western policy-makers at present is to respond to Putin’s continued military intervention in Ukraine, which Russian forces invaded in 2014. In recent weeks fighting has surged again in eastern Ukraine. According to the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, as of 19 April there were 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s border – a huge and menacing presence. What is Russian president Vladimir Putin up to, and what should the EU and NATO do about it?

Russia will hold parliamentary elections in September. Whether in relation to the COVID pandemic or Russia’s economic prospects, things have not gone well for Putin domestically since the Russian constitution was amended last year to allow him to stay in power until (potentially) 2036. Opinion polling shows that more Russians currently think Putin has been unsuccessful than successful in promoting economic development, raising living standards and fighting corruption. Perhaps that explains why he is turning to old stratagems: he hopes to silence critics inside Russia, create a burst of patriotic support and secure the election outcome he wants.

The manoeuvres around Ukraine may only be intended to emphasise to its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, how vulnerable his country is. Or Putin may think that talk of renewed war leading to the destruction of Ukraine (a phrase used by two senior Russian officials recently) will persuade France and Germany to lean on Zelenskyy to make concessions, such as giving Russian proxies in the Donbas more influence over Ukraine’s government. Or he may be testing US President Joe Biden’s reaction, seeing how he differs from Donald Trump.

Or the Kremlin may in fact be preparing a new invasion for the summer. One worrying indicator is increased Russian propaganda accusing Ukraine of preparing to attack the ‘separatist’ areas, and planning ‘genocide’ against ethnic Russians.

Regardless of which thesis is true, the US and other Western countries should have two goals: to reassure Ukraine; and to deter Russia by shifting the cost-benefit calculation in favour of de-escalation.

Ukraine’s forces are much more capable than in 2014, but Western countries should work with them to fill the gaps in their defensive armoury. Western countries also need to show more political support for Ukraine. As many EU and NATO countries as possible should hold high-level contacts with the Ukrainian authorities and civil society in the coming months, to show their concern about the situation.

Putin knows that the West has no wish to go to war for Ukraine; the West must therefore show it will also raise the cost of aggression in other ways. The EU, UK, US and other Western supporters of Ukraine should tell the Kremlin that they are working on co-ordinated packages of sanctions that could be deployed quickly in the event that Russian forces cross the border again. New sanctions should be designed to do real damage to the sectors of the economy on which the Putin regime relies, particularly the oil and gas industry, and to Russia’s access to the international financial system, as well as to a wide range of Russian elite figures.

The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea should be top of the target list for sanctions. If it goes into operation it will drive a wedge between Germany on the one side and the US, Poland and the Baltic States on the other, and enable Russia to shut down current pipelines transiting Ukraine. It will also perpetuate Europe’s excessive dependence on Russia for its energy.

Just as important as buttressing Ukraine is countering broader Russian efforts to subvert liberal democratic systems in Europe and North America. Western powers need to share information and best practice in combating disinformation and manipulation of voters, and to identify, expose and where possible prosecute Russian agents of influence in their political systems.

Western countries must also ensure that their armed forces are adequate to deter any future Russian efforts to intimidate or coerce them. Russia’s armed forces are much better equipped and more capable than they were when they defeated Georgia in 2008. Putin has laid particular stress in recent years on new nuclear weapons – little use for fighting a war, but able to intimidate a potential adversary. To maintain deterrence, NATO needs credible conventional and nuclear counters. It also needs a dialogue with Russia that ensures that each side understands the other’s aims and red lines.

In his annual address to the Federal Assembly – the equivalent of an American president’s ‘State of the Union’ address – on 21 April, Putin had little to say about Ukraine. But the threat will not have disappeared – not even if Russian troops withdraw to their usual locations. A more coherent Western approach to Russia must be based on limiting the damage it can do to the interests of EU and NATO countries and their Eastern European neighbours, above all Ukraine but also Belarus – still a possible target for incorporation into Russia. Putin could be in office for another decade or more; he is unlikely to shed his distrust of NATO and the EU, or stop seeking a sphere of influence in the former Soviet space. His zero-sum worldview, generally shared in the Russian political establishment, will guide Russia’s external behaviour for the foreseeable future. If Western leaders don’t shape their policies to reflect that reality, they will just keep making the same mistakes and Putin will just keep exploiting them.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform.