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Russia’s destabilisation of Ukraine: A litmus test for transatlantic partners

Amanda Paul

Date: 02/12/2021
A weak response from the EU and US to Russia’s multi-pronged effort to destabilise Ukraine will only embolden Putin, threatening transatlantic interests and security, with serious implications for the wider region.

Russia’s deployment of some 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, military manoeuvring in the region, and intensified hybrid activity are raising alarm bells in the West. While this could simply be Russia flexing its muscle or a ploy to have Brussels and Washington pressure Ukraine into making concessions on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, a new invasion cannot be excluded.

Rather than wait for Russia’s next move, pre-emptive measures should be the name of the game. Moscow must be made to understand that if it does not cease its provocative actions, there will be crushing costs, including tough sanctions and the freezing of talks planned with Washington on strategic stability and cybersecurity.

Why Ukraine?

President Putin has never viewed Ukraine as an independent nation. As recently as this summer, he openly questioned Ukrainian statehood, stating that the “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”

Ukraine’s pro-Western course has undermined Russia’s influence in the country. Russia’s annexation and occupation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent Moscow-backed war in the Donbas accelerated this trend. While Ukraine’s chances of joining the EU and NATO are slim at best, Moscow is still uneasy. It wants a watertight guarantee.

Ukraine’s democratic transformation is a headache for the Kremlin. While still in its infancy and imperfect in many ways, there can be no doubt that Ukraine has changed and continues to transform. Democratic elections, a loud civil society, and independent media – oligarchs and other vested interests, while still too influential, are being squeezed.

Ukraine is no longer a dysfunctional state with a useless military. Crucially, its citizens are playing a central role in the future of their country. They have embraced the European identity and become empowered, demanding more accountability from their government. The situation in Russia could not be more different.

For the Kremlin, Ukraine’s transformation is a threat, particularly when trust in Putin is plunging. Ukraine is an example that many Russians would like to follow. Consequently, the Kremlin’s ‘besieged fortress’ mentality is in overdrive. And yet, despite the monsoon of Russian disinformation raining down on Ukrainians and pro-Russian political projects in the country, opinion polls show that Ukrainian support for Euro-Atlantic integration remains high, while that for integration with Russia is rock-bottom.

Why now?

Negotiations for a peace deal for the conflict in Eastern Ukraine – the Minsk II agreement – are frozen. Russia wants a solution that would give Moscow influence over Ukraine’s foreign policy. Moscow believed that President Zelenskiy, the political novice elected in 2019, would be softer than his predecessor. That was not the case. With his popularity currently in the doldrums, he has adopted a more rigid position in the talks.

The Kremlin now views negotiations with Kyiv as pointless and has beefed up its political and military support to its proxies in occupied Donbas. Barriers to trade between Russia and Russian-occupied regions (i.e. parts of Donetsk and Luhansk) have been lifted. Those living in the occupied areas could vote in Russia’s September parliamentary election and are receiving more humanitarian assistance. Russian passports are being offered to the local population, despite it violating Moscow’s international obligations.

Secondly, using its hybrid playbook, Moscow has strengthened its military presence in the region. Besides Ukraine’s border, the Black Sea and occupied Crimea, the Kremlin is increasing its military footprint in Belarus. Russia had a hand in crafting the instability at the Polish–Belarus border, with an artificial migration crisis. Energy also continues to be weaponised. Russia is reducing the volume of gas it transits across Ukraine in favour of other routes.

Popular blowback over Zelenskiy’s poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been exacerbated by Russian disinformation, undermining trust in vaccines. Zelenskiy has accused Russia of plotting a coup with Rinat Akhmetov, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarchs, to overthrow him.

Finally, the evolving geopolitical environment is likely to have also triggered Russia’s destabilisation efforts in Ukraine. With Washington recalibrating its foreign policy to prioritise China and the Indo-Pacific region, the Kremlin may believe the time is right to test how important Ukraine is to the West and the latter’s readiness to back it up.

What next?

Russia seems to be preparing for war. Units have been deployed from other locations to the Western Military District, which borders Ukraine. Other troops have been sent to join units in Crimea. Yet realistically, a full-scale invasion seems unlikely. Russia does not need the heavy casualties and financial costs that war implies. Rather, Moscow wants Kyiv to make concessions vis-à-vis the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, based on its interpretation of the Minsk II agreement. This would have significant implications for Ukrainian sovereignty and foreign policy, including a veto on NATO/EU memberships and devolution of power to its proxies.

While a smaller military sortie in East and Southeast Ukraine could be possible, a doubling-down on hybrid warfare – Moscow piling on the pressure on multiple fronts to force Kyiv into making a misstep – is more likely. Russia could then claim that Kyiv provoked a military escalation, to which it is simply responding. This is what Russia did in 2008 to explain its invasion of Georgia. In fact, Moscow is already claiming that Ukraine has been provoking Russia with NATO-supplied weapons. Such a development could change the status quo in Russia’s favour in Eastern Ukraine. This would strengthen Russia’s hand in the negotiation process, or – as was the case in Georgia – result in Russia annexing the occupied regions totally to ‘protect’ the populations.

The litmus test

Western wavering will embolden Putin. A strong, coordinated and quick transatlantic response stating that Russia’s aggressive and destabilising shenanigans will not be tolerated is vital.

France and Germany jointly issued statements of support for Ukraine and talked about serious consequences for Moscow, including new sanctions. France is ready to defend Ukraine’s “territorial integrity”. EU member states should agree on concrete measures and targets and coordinate them quickly with Washington and other like-minded states, including Canada and the UK. For example, Germany’s new government should ‘freeze’ the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to prevent Russia from further weaponising it against Ukraine. The offshore financial holdings of Putin and his cohorts should also be frozen. More than ever, the EU should agree on a common strategy on Russia – something that has proved elusive so far.

The US’ response is far more important to Russia than the EU’s. This reflects the Kremlin’s view that the EU is a weak foreign policy actor. Despite Washington’s preoccupation with China, high-level US officials have warned Russia against taking military steps against Ukraine. They include CIA Director Bill Burns, who visited Moscow in early November, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Furthermore, the US–Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership was signed on 11 November. This signals that Washington could provide more serious support to Kyiv.

Already this year, Ukraine received a consignment of US ammunition and Javelin missiles, along with two refitted US Coast Guard patrol boats as part of a $2.5-billion assistance package. Such steps send a strong message and should be built on further, as Ukraine has a sovereign right to defend itself. Washington should also make clear that if Russia does not pull back from the border, their talks on strategic stability and cybersecurity will be frozen.

Other regional partnerships should also be reinforced. The defence cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine is important and should be encouraged and enlarged both within and outside the NATO framework. Support from other NATO members is also crucial in helping Ukraine build up its resilience and capacity to push back against Russian aggression. The recent Ukraine–UK defence deal to enhance Kyiv’s naval capabilities and undergo military training is one example. Ensuring that Ukraine has the ability and capabilities to discourage Russian aggression should be a priority in the 2022 NATO Strategic Concept.

Moscow has long desired to restore a regional order where Russia and the West have an equal say on European security. A continued contest for influence in Ukraine is unavoidable. But backing down or appeasing Russia by pressuring Ukraine into making concessions in the Minsk II process is not the answer. In fact, it would send the message that aggression pays off.

At this crucial time, the West must stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Ukraine and put the onus on Moscow to de-escalate. It should also better anticipate such crises, as this will not be the last.

Amanda Paul is a Senior Policy Analyst of the Europe in the World programme at the European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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