Standoff over Ukraine: why this, why now?, by David Teurtrie (Le Monde diplomatique

Vladimir Putin and chief of staff Valery Gerasimov, Moscow, December 2021

Mikhail Tereshchenko · Sputnik · AFP · Getty

Military build-up on the periphery of Europe alarms Western leaders. In December Russia, demanding guarantees that its territorial integrity would be respected, presented the United States with two draft security agreements intended to reform Europe’s security architecture. It simultaneously massed troops on the Ukrainian border. Moscow has demanded a formal halt to NATO’s eastward expansion, the withdrawal of Western troops from Eastern Europe and the removal of US nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. Since these demands cannot be met in their current form, the threat of Russian military intervention looms over Ukraine.

There are two opposing interpretations: one suggests Moscow has raised the stakes to extract concessions from the US and European Union. The other maintains the Kremlin wants to use a rejection of its demands as a pretext for invading Ukraine. Either way, it raises questions about the moment Russia has chosen to engage in this power struggle. Why play this risky game, and why now?

Since 2014 the Russian authorities have significantly increased their economy’s ability to withstand a severe shock, especially the banking and financial sectors. The country’s central bank has drastically reduced its US dollar holdings and 87% of Russians now hold a Mir card that uses a national payment system. If the US carries out its threat to disconnect Russia from the SWIFT international payments system, as it did to Iran in 2012 and 2018, financial transactions between Russian banks and businesses can now be made via a homegrown financial messaging system. So Russia feels better equipped to face severe sanctions if it comes to a conflict.

On the other hand, the last mobilisation of the Russian army on the Ukrainian border, in spring 2021, prompted the revival of the Russian-US dialogue on strategic and cybersecurity issues. And this time, too, the Kremlin has clearly reckoned that upping the tension was the only way to get the West’s attention, and that the new US administration might be willing to be more accommodating to free it up to focus on its growing confrontation with China.

Ukraine pulls away

Vladimir Putin seems to want to end what he calls the Western project of turning Ukraine into a nationalist ‘anti-Russia’ (1). He had been counting on the Minsk Protocol, signed in September 2014, to give Russia a say in Ukrainian politics through the intermediary of the self-proclaimed, Russia-backed Donbass republics. The opposite happened: not only is the protocol’s implementation deadlocked, but President Volodymyr Zelensky, whose election in April 2019 made the Kremlin hope for improved relations with Kyiv, stepped up his predecessor Petro Poroshenko’s policy of distancing Ukraine from Russia.

Worse, military-technical cooperation between Ukraine and NATO continued to grow, and Turkey, itself a NATO member, has delivered combat drones to Ukraine that make the Kremlin fear an attempt to retake the Donbass militarily. So Moscow may see its current action as a way of taking the initiative again before it is too late. But, beyond the circumstantial factors feeding into the current tensions, it’s worth noting that Russia is simply updating demands it has been making since the end of the cold war, without the West considering them acceptable or even legitimate.

Russia believes that European countries are hopelessly incapable of strategic autonomy with regard to the US and that they refuse to take responsibility for the deteriorating international situation

Isabelle Facon

The lack of understanding dates back to the collapse of the Communist bloc in 1991. Logically, the Warsaw Pact’s demise should have led to the dissolution of NATO, which was set up to deal with the ‘Soviet threat’. This moment offered an opportunity to create new structures to integrate this ‘other Europe’ which aspired to a closer relationship with the West. The timing seemed especially propitious as Russia’s elites, who had probably never been more pro-West, had accepted the break-up of their empire without a fight (2). But proposals to this effect, particularly from France, were buried under US pressure. Not wanting to be cheated of their ‘victory’ over the USSR, the US pushed for NATO’s eastward expansion to consolidate its supremacy in Europe. To do this, it had a strong ally in Germany, which wanted to re-establish primacy over ‘Mitteleuropa’.

In 1997 NATO’s eastward enlargement was agreed, although Western leaders had promised Gorbachev this wouldn’t happen. In the US, some leading figures expressed dissent. George Kennan, considered the architect of the USSR containment policy, predicted this decision would inevitably have harmful consequences: ‘expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking’ (3).

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Ukrainian soldier in Donestk Province near the front line, January 2022

Anatolii Stepanov · AFP · Getty

Pushback against US hegemony

In 1999 NATO, celebrating its 50th anniversary with great fanfare, implemented its first eastward enlargement (Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic) and announced it would continue to expand right up to Russia’s borders. Crucially, NATO simultaneously went to war against Yugoslavia, transforming the organisation from a defensive bloc into an offensive alliance, in clear violation of international law. The war against Yugoslavia was conducted without UN approval, which prevented Moscow from using one of its last remaining instruments of power, its Security Council veto. The Russian elites who had staked so much on their country’s integration with the West felt betrayed: Russia, then under President Boris Yeltsin, who had worked for the USSR’s dissolution, was not treated as a partner worth rewarding for helping end of the Communist system, but as the cold war’s big loser who had to pay the geopolitical price.

Paradoxically, Putin’s arrival in power in 2000 began a period of relative stability in relations between Russia and the West. The new president made repeated goodwill gestures to Washington after the 9/11 attacks. He accepted the temporary installation of US bases in Central Asia, shut down Soviet-era bases in Cuba and withdrew Russian troops from Kosovo. In exchange, Russia wanted the West to accept that the post-Soviet space, which it defined as its backyard, fell within its sphere of influence. But while relations with the EU, especially France and Germany, were reasonably good, tensions with the US were increasing. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 without UN approval was a further violation of international law, which was censured by France, Germany and Russia. This joint opposition by the three main powers on the European continent confirmed US fears of the potential threat to American hegemony from a Russian-European rapprochement.

In the years that followed, the US announced its intention to site components of its missile defence shield in Eastern Europe, in contravention of the Russia-NATO Founding Act (signed in 1997), which gave Russia a guarantee that the West would not install new permanent military infrastructure in the East. In addition, the US challenged nuclear disarmament agreements, withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in December 2001.

Russia saw the ‘colour’ revolutions in the post-Soviet space, whether out of legitimate fear or because of a persecution complex, as operations intended to install pro-West regimes on its doorstep. In April 2008 the US put strong pressure on its European allies to back Georgia and Ukraine’s requests to join NATO, though most Ukrainians opposed it. At the same time, the US pushed for the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, yet another violation of international law, since it was legally a Serbian province.

As the West had opened the pandora’s box of interventionism and challenged the inviolability of borders in Europe, Russia responded by intervening militarily in Georgia in 2008, and then by recognising the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In doing so, the Kremlin signalled its readiness to do all it could to prevent NATO’s further eastward enlargement. But by challenging Georgia’s territorial integrity, Russia was in turn violating international law.

Russian resentment of West’s ‘coup’

Russian resentment reached the point of no return with the Ukrainian crisis. In late 2013, Europe and the US supported the demonstrations that led to the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych, whose election in 2010 had been recognised as complying with democratic standards. Moscow saw the West as backing a coup to bring Ukraine into the Western fold at any price. Thereafter, Russia presented its interference in Ukraine — the annexation of Crimea and unofficial military support for the Donbass separatists — as a legitimate response to the pro-West coup in Kyiv. Western governments condemned this as an unprecedented challenge to the post-cold war international order.

The Minsk Protocol, signed in September 2014, gave France and Germany the opportunity to regain control and seek a negotiated solution to the Donbass conflict. It may have taken the outbreak of armed conflict on the continent for France and Germany to snap out of their passivity. But seven years later, the process had stalled, with Kyiv still refusing to grant autonomy to the Donbass, as provided for in the agreement. Faced with the lack of reaction from France and Germany, accused of aligning themselves with Ukrainian positions, the Kremlin sought to negotiate directly with the US, which it regards as Ukraine’s real sponsors.

In the same way, Moscow was surprised that the Europeans had gone along with all the US initiatives, even the most questionable ones, without reacting. For example, Washington’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in February 2019 should have aroused their opposition, given that they are potentially the first targets for such a nuclear strike. According to researcher Isabelle Facon, Russia ‘consistently believes, with evident annoyance, that European countries are hopelessly incapable of strategic autonomy with regard to the US, and that they refuse to take responsibility for the deteriorating strategic and international situation’ (4).

Even more surprising, when the Russians and Americans resumed their dialogue on strategic issues, such as the five-year extension of the New Start nuclear arms reduction treaty and the Biden-Putin summit in June 2021, the EU, far from pushing for détente with Moscow, rejected a meeting with Putin on principle. To Poland, one of the nations which torpedoed this initiative, ‘this would have [validated] President Putin instead of punishing an aggressive policy’ (5). Contrast this with the EU’s attitude towards its other powerful neighbour, Turkey: despite its military activity (occupation of Northern Cyprus and part of Syria, troops sent to Iraq, Libya and the Caucasus), the authoritarian regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is also an ally of Ukraine, has avoided any sanctions.

In the case of Russia, however, the EU’s only policy is to regularly threaten a further round of sanctions, depending on the Kremlin’s actions. As for Ukraine, they are reduced to repeating the NATO orthodoxy that the door remains open, even though the major European states, led by France and Germany, have voiced their opposition in the past and have no intention of letting Ukraine into their military alliance.

Western Europe’s lack of vision

The crisis in Russian-Western relations demonstrates that the security of Europe cannot be assured without Russia, and certainly cannot be in opposition to it. But the US is working to promote its exclusion as it strengthens American hegemony in Europe. For their part, Western Europeans, led by France, have lacked the vision and political courage to block the US’s most provocative initiatives or to put forward an inclusive institutional framework that would prevent the re-emergence of fault lines on the continent. As a result of their unquestioning conformity to Atlanticism, the French, and the rest of Europe, are being ill-treated by the US. The uncoordinated withdrawal from Afghanistan, like the establishment of a military alliance in the Pacific without France’s knowledge, are the latest instances of this highhandedness. Europeans are now onlookers to Russian-American negotiations on European security while the threat of war in Ukraine rumbles ominously in the background. Standoff over Ukraine: why this, why now?, by David Teurtrie (Le Monde diplomatique

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