It was widely anticipated after being so soundly defeated in Afghanistan last year – governmental collapse in Kabul, chaos at the airport, the shame of it all and the state western powers have left Afghanistan in – that the world’s autocrats would not be able to resist the temptation to exploit western weakness. Moscow’s challenge in Europe has arisen quickly. Beijing’s challenge, probably in the South China Sea, is unlikely to be far behind.
President Putin has manufactured this crisis out of nothing; warming up the ‘frozen conflict’ that he created in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea – the first change of European borders at gunpoint since the end of the Second World War. And he is back in 1930s political territory, claiming Russia has some sort of natural right to a ‘sphere of influence’ over Europe, and arguing that Russian-speakers in other countries have to be ‘defended’ from unspecified threats. The last time that argument had any political traction in Europe was when Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland was claimed as legitimately part of Germany during the Munich Conference.
The news this week does not make these comparisons seem stretched. More Russian troops have moved from Eastern Russia to bases and training areas within striking distance of Ukraine; Iskander missiles that could strike anywhere in Ukraine have been moved within range, Russian assault ships are in the Black Sea and more forces have moved to Belarus to ‘exercise’ with their dictatorial neighbour, less than 250 miles from Kiev itself. Mr Putin seems determined to frighten the Ukrainian government, not to mention the rest of Europe, while he considers what actions he may now take to exploit the weakness he thinks he sees among his western adversaries. It’s a short road from Kabul to Kiev.
Of course, the fiasco in Kabul last August was not the only trigger for this naked Russian opportunism. This is the biggest European crisis since the end of the Cold War in 1991 and for the west, some chickens have come home to roost. NATO has enlarged itself nine times since its foundation – six times since 1991. The European Union has enlarged itself three times in the same period. The borders of the western ‘family of nations’ are over 1,000 miles closer to Moscow than during the Cold War. Of course, in the globalised, twenty-first century world, this should not be a problem for Moscow. ‘Security’ is a far more multi-layered concept these days. But Putin has a determinedly nineteenth-century view – and a Russian nineteenth century view at that – of national security. Russia is only secure, in his view, with weak buffer states around his western borders.
That should not have been any barrier to the enlargement of the western family of nations. NATO and the EU felt, rightly, that they had some responsibility to western values to extend their benefits to other states who sincerely wanted them. But far too little thought was given at those times to the wider geopolitical and strategic effects of successive enlargements – or to the strategic commitments we were taking on, either treaty-based or merely implied through ‘associate status’ arrangements.
The west’s new members and friends that merely irritated the Kremlin were the smaller minnows like Croatia, Montenegro or North Macedonia. But Putin assumes we are now down to the bigger cases that really matter to him. Finland, even Sweden, are toying with the idea of formally applying for NATO membership. And the prospect of Ukraine or Georgia joining NATO – however distant that prospect actually is – awakens historic Russian paranoia in both cases. Some western politicians and officials were very foolish in 1998 to speak so loosely about just that.
So, Putin has created this crisis to lay down some red lines that would simultaneously establish his sphere of influence across Europe and (Ukraine and the Sea of Azov being firmly within it) allow him freedom to intervene in Ukraine, aiming to destabilise it to the point of a regime change, and return it to Russian puppet government status. With western powers, particularly the United States, on the back foot after Afghanistan; with energy prices surging in ways that will make all European powers think twice, or thrice, before engaging in sanctions against Russia; with a cash-rich treasury and $630 billion now in foreign exchange reserves; and growing domestic opposition in Russia that needs to be distracted, this looks to Putin like a good moment to act.
But President Putin might be biting off more than he can chew. The longer this has gone on, the more nakedly his threatened aggression has been apparent to the world. His actions, let alone his ministers’ rhetoric, is not opening up the fissures between western countries that he might have expected – though it still might. But so far, the shame of Kabul might even be having the opposite effect in western capitals, making leaders more inclined to be resolute in this case which, after all, is now in Europe’s own backyard.
Ultimately, it won’t be threatened sanctions that will deter aggressive Russian action, so much as the realisation that the security situation in Europe will likely become worse, not better, for Russia if Putin provokes NATO into more readiness, more US reinforcement, more countries looking to join to counteract Russian threats. Even a one-dimensional Putin must understand that there could be many unintended consequences.
Against that, we have Putin’s record in crisis behaviour. He has a lot of previous. Some past crises have been visited on him by events; others he has created and sought to manipulate. But faced with choices, he has a tendency to opt for the riskier courses of action, moving quickly and decisively to wrong-foot his opposition. For that reason, the US, NATO and now the UK have gone public with a good deal of information, actually talking up the prospects of an ‘invasion’ of Ukraine – a concept that could mean anything – to deprive Putin of his customary weapon of surprise.
We will probably know if this has worked quite quickly. Russian forces have been building up, through exercising, to a ‘readiness’ status for quite some weeks. Unit and personnel rotation will begin to happen soon; the ground is hard now but may be softening again by March. Forces cannot be held at high readiness for too long. If Mr Putin has not frightened the west into some major concessions soon – and all that is being conceded so far is talks and structured dialogue, a la Cold War détente – then he will be faced with another of his difficult choices; go military or go home.
Western leaders need to convince him that his risky options could really be very risky, and that there are better ways of thinking about Russia’s future security and ambitions. But that will also require western leaders to be less gung-ho about Europe’s strategic future than was the case during the last twenty or thirty years.
Michael Clarke, Former Director General, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)
Photograph: UK MOD © Crown copyright 2021