Once again Ukraine is back in the news, albeit for unfortunate reasons.
On 10 November US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken issued a warning to Russia saying it would be making a “serious mistake” by committing another act of aggression against Ukraine. This was in response to the large troop build-up Russia has undertaken in recent weeks, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said amounts to nearly 100,000 troops Although Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, dismissed reports of potential Russian aggression as “hollow and unfounded”, we should not take the Kremlin at their word.
What is behind Russia’s recent amassing of troops at the Ukrainian border? Secretary Blinken said that the motivations were “unclear”, yet one explanation for Putin’s recent show of strength is that Europe is currently so fragmented that there is no serious check on Russian aggression.
Take for example the two most important European powers, Germany, and France. Germany is currently facing a vacuum in political leadership after the September elections left no clear successor to Angela Merkel as Chancellor. Germany’s three dominant parties, the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Free Democrats have started negotiating to form a new government, yet numerous points of contention persist, such as climate and economic policy, raising doubts about the likelihood of a successful coalition being formed in the near future.
French President Emmanuel Macron is fighting hard for his political life before the 2022 Presidential Elections and with serious contenders including Marine Le Pen, his efforts will be largely domestic focused. The unresolved domestic problems facing Europe’s two main powers serve to partially explain Putin’s actions.
However, Europe’s fragmentation exists in both domestic and foreign policy, as shown by the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The underwater pipeline, in its final phase, would transport natural gas directly from Russia to Germany. It was designed this way to circumvent Ukraine’s gas processing facilities, thereby reducing an already weakened Ukraine’s influence.
Proponents of the pipeline, including the Russian and German governments, argue that it will deliver Germany some much needed gas, yet critics like the US argue this will only increase energy reliance on Russia, whilst states such as Poland and Slovakia fear the project will threaten their physical security.
In this context it is easier to understand Putin’s recent actions. Not only do major European powers have domestic issues that distract from foreign policy, but on issues that concern Russia, Europe doesn’t seem to agree. This European fragmentation is occurring just as Vladimir Putin’s determination to retain control of Ukraine is stronger than ever.
In July of this year, Putin released a 5,000 word essay titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” which emphasises his view of Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” and suggests that another invasion could be imminent by arguing that “Kyiv does not need Donbas [an Eastern Ukrainian city where Russia has supported pro-Russian separatists]”. This essay, along with the fact that the current troop build-up along the Ukrainian border is not the first one this year, should concern us all.
Evidently there is a problem, but what can be done about it? The issues that divide Europe are unlikely to disappear overnight but there are some things the West and Europe can do to effectively confront Putin.
The first is to push back in Russia’s proxy conflicts, such as the current migrant crisis along the Belarus-Poland border. Although Europe is divided, it is not totally broken and Putin is unlikely to want a direct conflict with Europe, especially if this will invite American involvement. So, Putin uses proxy conflicts to destabilise Europe and it is in these scenarios that the West should push back against Russia.
Belarus is very dependent on Russia for money and military support, meaning anything it does is likely to have Moscow’s consent. Therefore, in response to the current migrant crisis the UK, EU and other relevant actors should provide Poland with logistical, military, and diplomatic support to deal with Belarus’ efforts to destabilise its borders. A successful pushback of Belarus’s, and by extension Russia’s, “gangster-style” tactics will provide a much-needed display of strength against Russia.
We should also consider that Ukraine is not the only state Putin is interested in. The Baltic states that share a border with Russia are of strategic interest to Moscow and so the West should forge closer defence and security ties with them to show Putin that it will not tolerate Russian aggression on any part of Europe’s eastern flank. In October, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss hosted a meeting with the foreign ministers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania where, among other things, the threat posed by a hostile Russia was discussed. These sorts of events are a good step forward.
Ultimately, the West must recognise Putin’s ambitions will not go away. Without a commitment to defend the states that are most vulnerable to Russian aggression, we might as well forget about the idea of Europe as part of the liberal democratic order.