When Putin decided to create the current crisis, it was probably beyond his wildest dreams that the reaction from Western allies was so divided.
The artificial Ukrainian crisis generated by the Kremlin has revealed deep divisions between NATO countries, which are currently struggling to identify a unified response. President Biden acknowledged this when last week he suggested that any response to Russian aggression could be “complicated by differences” within the NATO alliance. Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters during a visit to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv: “I think one of Moscow’s long-standing goals has been to sow divisions between and within our countries”.
As if to prove its point, Germany denied British military planes, carrying anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, a flight path over their country, forcing them to fly over the North Sea and Denmark, a route that added several hours to the trip. “It’s symbolic of the absence of any coordinated NATO effort to help a NATO ally and to help a European ally,” the head of the defense committee told Britain’s parliament. Soon after, Germany refused to grant re-export licenses to Estonia, which wanted to send German-sourced howitzers to help Ukrainian forces, citing their country’s post-World War II policy of refuse to arm the parties in conflict.
When Vladimir Putin decided to create the current crisis, it was probably beyond his wildest dreams that the reaction from Western allies was so divided. Gathering such a large contingent of troops on the Ukrainian border in January was obviously a good time for an invasion, but its action also exposed Western weakness and divisions, both within NATO and in terms of US relations. Europe with the United States. High oil and gas prices, largely triggered by the crisis, have left Russia teeming with money and Putin seeing a weak US president in the White House who has continually spoken tough but constantly signaled that he wants a quiet policy reset. As soon as Biden took office, the Kremlin began testing him with the initial set-up last year, and everything since then has confirmed their belief. Putin is clearly convinced that he will never have a better opportunity to reorganize the European security structure in his favor.
The Kremlin has grown bolder with the events of recent years. Why did Putin enter Crimea in 2014 and take it? Because he knew the West would talk but not act. Why did Belarusian President Lukashenko feel able to order a Ryanair plane and remove a dissident from it last year? Because he knew the West would talk but not act. Why did Moscow, via Minsk, continue to arm migrants against the EU? Because he knew the West would talk but not act. In all of this, Moscow suffered no real consequences for its behavior, so why stop now? Fiona Hill, Russia’s White House strategist during the Obama years, says President Putin’s real goal in this conflict is to force Americans out of Europe once and for all, inflicting on them the same humiliation his country has suffered with the collapse of the Soviet Union. . The Brussels-Paris-Berlin triangle accompanies the process by playing with fire.
Moscow is also aided by a hopelessly divided NATO. Germany, the powerhouse of Europe, has a new coalition that is divided over Russia. Signals from Berlin indicate that there will be no serious consequences whatever Putin does with his blitzkrieg forces and armored divisions on Ukraine’s borders. Like his predecessor, Angela Merkel, the new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz tries to remain vague and ambiguous to avoid any conflict with Russia and the West. Foreign Minister Annelina Baerbock and Economic Affairs Minister Robert Habeck have both been critical of Berlin’s Russian policy in the past, but have recently toned down their potentially more hawkish instincts towards Russia in light of the political pressures they face. Berlin, with its national faith in Ostpolitik, is underpinned by its enduring belief that it has a unique understanding and appreciation of Russia. While his companies have continued to invest heavily in the Russian economy, even after the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, Germany has become hostage to Russia, especially since it is currently dependent on Moscow. for more than 40% of its gas supply. Provisions.
French President Emmanuel Macron, facing a crucial presidential election in April, is reluctant to engage in the debate, except to call for a new strategic partnership between the EU and Russia, separate from the Americans, at the consternation of EU states on the front line that depend on America for their survival. In the UK, Prime Minister Johnson, while calling on Europe to act with the US in the face of the crisis, is embroiled in scandals over the alleged breach of his own Covid rules at the height of the pandemic, which are currently under investigation by the Metropolitan Police. . In Italy, currently in the midst of presidential elections, its lucrative trade relationship with Russia was the decisive factor in the 2014 Ukraine crisis, when Rome was at the forefront of diplomatic efforts to prevent sanctions. harsh EU measures against Russia. Given Italy’s history of opposition to sanctions, it’s no surprise that President Putin saw benefit in hosting video calls with the big beasts of Italian business last Wednesday. Diplomats from Poland, Britain, Sweden and the Baltics have railed against a ‘Club-Med’ of southern European countries led by Italy who opposed a hard line on Putin last time out , and it remains to be seen if there will be a redux this time .
By contrast, Putin has already achieved a number of victories in the crisis. It has caught the attention of the Biden administration and the West in general. President Biden rewarded him with a summit call late last month, and there were subsequent high-level meetings between Blinken and Lavrov. He forced NATO to focus on security challenges in Europe, and setting outrageous red lines in terms of NATO non-deployment to members who joined after 1997, which the United States rejected. last week, Putin reinforced his image as the strongman who calls the shots and the geopolitical poker player with all the cards. More than ever, he is perceived as a leader with whom everyone must deal if he wants solutions to the geopolitical problems that he generally creates himself.
The crisis has also allowed Putin to showcase Russia’s significant military capability to the world and demonstrate its use in support of coercive diplomacy. The buildup along the border with Ukraine served as a showcase for the huge upgrade achieved, thanks to the investments made in the Russian military over the past decade. But will he actually use it this time?
Reading Vladimir Putin’s mind has never been easy, and that’s how he likes it. In his current clash with the West, Putin has taken the guessing game to a new level. Is he about to plunge Europe into its most serious military conflict since World War II, or is he staging a bluff to show the West that he is more dangerous than ever? The state-controlled media in Russia is replete with stories about the wicked West sending huge amounts of deadly weapons to Ukraine in order to attack beleaguered Russian compatriots in the Donbass region, so that public opinion has been carefully prepared. All Putin has to do now is create a false flag incident (which is steeped in the KGB black arts of which he is an expert) and the war begins. It’s worth remembering that Putin hasn’t really shied away from using force in the recent past, catching the West off guard. And think what it would look like if it now backed down without firing a shot, after deploying thousands of troops around Ukraine’s borders at great expense. He would look like a leader whose bark is worse than his bite – not a good image for a bossy!
On the other hand, if Putin orders an attack on Ukraine, an invasion would almost certainly bring NATO together like never before. German resistance to spending more on defense would fade, and Sweden and Finland would urgently knock on NATO’s door, increasing the Organization’s presence on Russia’s borders. The White House would pressure a divided EU to follow through on the threat of imposing far tougher sanctions than anything currently in place, and the Nord Stream gas project will likely be canceled, squeezing Kremlin revenue and the balance Putin’s bank. Russia could be suspended from the financial payment system known as SWIFT, and crippling sanctions would be immediately imposed on Russian banks, making them nearly impossible to operate internationally. Beijing, on whom Putin would become increasingly dependent, will use a Russian invasion of Ukraine to conduct a cost/benefit analysis of a possible invasion of Taiwan, destabilizing the entire Indo-Pacific region.
So while the nations of a divided NATO wait with tense foreboding as the ground remains hard enough for an invasion by Russian tanks and artillery, the next step is yours, Vlad.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in the office of British Prime Minister John Major between 1995 and 1998. He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Plymouth.