|Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor|
The tense state on the Russian-Ukrainian border keeps the entire (pan-) transatlantic space, from Kyiv to Brussels and Washington, on high alert. The question is the survival of the current European security architecture under the pressure of possible military clashes between Russia (the aggressor) and Ukraine (the victim). The Russian side perceives the situation in Ukraine as an indivisible element of the regional security equation that includes the work of the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) throughout Central and Eastern Europe. In exchange for not launching aggression, Russia would like the West's military arm not to extend further to the East.
Since the initiative of the European Security Agreement in 2009 (which did not come to fruition), Russia has been constantly pedaling the concept of “indivisible security”. According to him, both NATO and Russia should not increase their security at the expense of others (MID.ru, January 2022). The same principle is also evident in Russia's proposals on "security guarantees" submitted to the US and NATO at the end of 2021 (Vedomosti, December 2021). The worst defect of these proposals is that the interests of states that do not belong to any military bloc and that want to get out of the gray zone (Ukraine and Georgia) in a transparent and constitutional way are ignored. Russia's position on the right of these states to guarantee their own security is exclusionary and anchored in thinking focused on geopolitical supremacy and revisionism. This approach is in contradiction with the principle of sovereignty, expressed by the will of the people within the framework of national constitutions and proclaimed by the UN Charter of 1945 (Art. 2).
The Russian side is focusing on achieving its own national security, based on a deliberately wrong assessment of exogenous risks. An elementary analysis of the military situation shows that the threats projected by Moscow are completely unfounded. With or without the "security guarantees" required by Moscow, no one would attempt to attack a country with the largest nuclear arsenal and military potential in Europe (see table below). Moscow's main goal is quite strategic, namely to restore and strengthen its sphere of influence in the immediate vicinity. The materialization of this scenario would imply enormous costs for Ukraine and Georgia, whose sovereignty would be undermined, denying them the right to join NATO in a neo-colonial manner. Although Russia's move is inadmissible, NATO, the EU and major member states (US, France, Germany) realize that ignoring Russia's "offer" could have military consequences for Ukraine and European security. For this reason, American, German and French diplomacy tries to establish an active dialogue with Russia, although without tangible results. In parallel, the US and the EU are developing (Reuters, January 2022), together and separately, individual sanctions (Vladimir Putin's oligarchic circle), financial sanctions (withdrawal of the SWIFT system and minimization of the possibility of lending in international markets), technology (restricting access to US technologies) and the energy sector (cessation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline).
The position of Russia in the military field in comparison with others in Europe
Military Strength Ranking, 2022
Army size (active military personnel), 2021
5. Russia (1,014,000)
15. Turkey (355,000)
21. France (270,000)
22. Ukraine (255,000)
Military budget (billions of dollars), 2020
4. Russia (61.7)
5. UK (59.2)
7. Germany (52.8)
8. France (52.7)
11. Italy (28.9)
Nuclear arsenal (nuclear warheads, total), 2021
2. Russia (6,255)
3. UK (255)
4. France (290)
Source: Data compiled by the author with reference to globalfirepower.com, statista.com and sipri.org
Russia's "window of opportunity"
Russia's timing of its attempt to redefine its spheres of influence in Europe, and through Ukraine, is not accidental. The mobilization of military forces on the border with Ukraine could take place at any time, but there are some explanations, the examination of which clarifies the motivation to do it right now.
Firstly, Russia's presence in the active military conflict in Luhansk and Donbas makes it possible to carry out the necessary maneuvers to provoke a head-on confrontation with Ukraine and its Western allies, respectively. The main pretext for triggering such a conflagration is the protection of Russian citizens, who in 2021 numbered about 530 thousand people (in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donbas).
Secondly, the energy crisis in the European market (gas prices will fluctuate between 1,000 and 2,000 euros per 1000 m3 at least until April) and Russia's position of absolute dominance in the field of natural gas supply give it an important strategic lever to retaliate and annihilate certain sanctions imposed by the West. The start of a military operation in winter, when the EU's energy security is highly dependent on Russian natural gas supplies, is a favorable scenario for Russia.
A third aspect that Moscow is considering is the serious pandemic (caused by the Omicron variant), but also the rise in energy prices, which worsen public perception of national governments and incite a spirit of protest in society. In the face of widespread public discontent, most EU states could whet their appetite for negotiating a compromise with Russia to stop a military conflagration in Ukraine, rather than commit to countering Russian aggression.
In addition, the fourth most important dimension in the Russians' calculations would be the transatlantic political and geopolitical context. A military conflict in Ukraine (of any magnitude) could impact the US midterm elections (November 2022), culminating in the rise of the Republican Party in Congress, even if President Joe Biden imposes harsh sanctions on Russia. Earlier, presidential elections will be held in France (April 2022), in which a possible Russian military aggression could force President Emmanuel Macron to take containment measures to keep his political opponents, Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemour, in the bottom of political preferences (IPN, December 2022). In this regard, it cannot be ruled out that, among other things, Russia sees a tactical opportunity to influence the results of the French and US elections, which will strengthen nationalist forces and work against unity among Western nations in the future.
The circumstances described above create a unique "window of opportunity" that Russia wants to capitalize on to undermine the potential for reform and democratization of its western neighborhood. Moscow understands that joining NATO can strengthen the EU integration process and potential in the Eastern Partnership as it did with Central and Eastern Europe. The synchronization of these two processes may reduce dependence on Russia, irreparably affecting its ability to exert influence in the far west of the post-Soviet space.
Three battlefronts: east, north and west
The military intervention of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to stabilize the situation in Kazakhstan following anti-government protests (CSTO, January 2022) tested the effectiveness of the implementation of Article 4 on collective defense. This means that the CSTO states could be drawn into military action by Russia against Ukraine if the escalation of the military conflict touches Russian territory. Therefore, it is very likely that at least Belarus will show solidarity with Russia. In this case, there are negative scenarios for the opening of new fronts against Ukraine, including in the north. Belarus recently hosted joint military exercises with the Russian side (Guardian, January 2022), and the instrumentalization of the migration crisis (IPN, November 2021) and the forced landing of Ryanair in 2021 show that Alexander Lukashenko is capable of anything.
Furthermore, the Russian military potential in the Transnistria region should not be overlooked. Although it is smaller (1,500 soldiers of the Russian Troops Task Force of Russia), it can cause challenges in the western direction. As in the case of a possible involvement of Belarus, the manifestation of any plausible risk from the Transnistria region will force Ukraine to disperse its forces in three directions: east, north and west. Even an insignificant weakening of the concentration on the eastern borders can provide maneuvering advantages for the Russian troops deployed on the border with Ukraine.
The peculiarities of the "Western unity" against Ukraine
As Russia ponders the next steps, the collective West acts at the level of political-diplomatic discourse in solidarity with Ukraine, whose concerns about Russia are fully shared in the EU, NATO and most OSCE countries. Even if Ukraine is not a member of NATO, Ukraine's eastern and northern borders are the focus of Western attention and are treated as an integral part of European security.
The transatlantic unity in support of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Ukrainian state is unquestioned, but this does not exactly translate into concerted action to boost Ukraine's military capabilities (by supplying weapons) in the face of the Russian military threat. Countries like Germany and France are calling for dialogue with Moscow in parallel, agreeing to extraordinary sanctions, which will go beyond the economic sanctions of 2014. Unlike the US, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Poland, which already have transmitted or plans to provide military assistance to Ukraine, other NATO states (France, Spain, Denmark) have focused on the deployment of military forces and equipment (both on land and naval) in neighboring states of Ukraine (Romania, Bulgaria). Although not involved directly in the renewal of military equipment in use, NATO is helping the Ukrainian authorities in the field of cybersecurity, in particular after some 70 state institutions in Ukraine suffered coordinated cyberattacks (Reuters, January 2022). In addition, NATO supports the modernization of communication technology capabilities within the Ukrainian military (NATO, January 2022). Thus, in practical terms, the standards of the Ukrainian military sector are rising to the level of the Euro-Atlantic ones, at an accelerated pace, including as a result of constant Russian threats.
However, Western unity is being challenged by suspicions that Germany is acting to the detriment of a tough stance on Russia. Although Berlin supports the Ukrainian side and condemns Moscow's actions (EuroActiv, January 2022), this is not considered enough to prevent possible Russian aggression. In addition to trying to shield the North Stream 2 pipeline from further sanctions, the German government is widely criticized for refusing to deliver weapons to Ukraine. The legal restrictions (that express Germany's own right to sovereign decisions) on the export of weapons to third countries involved in military conflicts, invoked by Berlin, are disapproved of by the Ukrainian authorities. Berlin's arguments are undermined by reports that German weapons have previously been sold to countries in the Middle East that are openly or latently involved in armed conflict (DW, January 2021). International pressure on Germany is growing, putting the coalition government to the test, which for the moment demonstrates common goals focused on establishing a "substantial and stable" dialogue with Russia (Federal Foreign Office, January 2022). The government headed by Chancellor Olaf Schölz is unlikely to fall due to foreign affairs. However, easing of tensions on the Russian-Ukrainian border is urgently needed. This will highlight whether or not the new German leadership can outperform Angela Merkel in resolving crisis situations.
In lieu of conclusions…
Russia would probably have avoided turning up the heat on the Ukrainian border if it had not been sure that the political and economic losses were manageable and that the stakes were worth it. While the maximum objective is to obtain security guarantees and establish a new European order (without NATO and reformed proximity at the front door), the minimum is to force Ukraine (preferably with Western hands) to negotiate with the separatist forces in Donbass (that is, the federalization scenario).
As a result of pressure from Moscow, European security is in a deep existential crisis, as its pillars are shaken and those outside of NATO are left exposed and vulnerable. If European security does not encompass Ukraine's security, it risks becoming a danger to non-NATO states within the EU. It is in this sense that European security must be Ukrainianized. This means the elimination of gray areas in Europe and the liberalization of the security space in accordance with the national popular will and not according to the egocentrism of regional geopolitical hegemonies.
This analysis is published for the German Hanns Seidel Foundation and the IPN News Agency.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
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IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.