The author is a former US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs
In light of the Kremlin’s military pressure on Ukraine, the US and European allies held their ground this week three rounds of discussions with Russia. As Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, and US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman put it, NATO and the US willing to discuss military transparency and weapons control measures such as reciprocal restrictions on missiles and military exercises.
But they did not concede to the Kremlin’s main demands. There will be no promise of ending NATO enlargement, no cut-off of military cooperation with Ukraine and no reduction of US troop levels in NATO members such as Poland.
The USA and Europe have shown consistency of principle, steadfastness and solidarity. But Western allies have made no clear progress in letting the Kremlin stand up to its threats of new aggression. Now what?
Russia’s initial response to the talks was cold. Sergei Ryabkov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, warned that there was no basis for new meetings with the US. The Russian military build-up against Ukraine continues. And the Kremlin is alluding to escalation. Ryabkov refuses to rule out deployment of Russian military assets Cuba or Venezuela. According to media reports from Stockholm, Russia is sending naval units to the Baltic Sea and the Swedish army is increasing patrols there.
We should not be surprised. Vladimir Putin initiated this crisis out of nowhere, seeking leverage through intimidation and relying on European discord and American diversion following the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is too much to expect that one week of allied unity will cause him to retire.
The US and Europe have prepared powerful countermeasures should Russia launch new attacks on Ukraine: new military equipment to Ukraine, US and other deployments to NATO’s eastern flankers, wider sanctions and other economic measures. But the US has also indicated that it will hold back on these steps until and unless the Kremlin acts. It offers Putin an opportunity to continue to apply pressure, to reduce Western resistance to the Kremlin’s demands. Moscow could launch cyberattacks or limited military action against Ukraine, testing NATO and US determination and Ukrainian resilience. The next few weeks could see an increase in Kremlin threats and even aggression.
The US and Europe are nonetheless well placed to triumph in this battle as they maintain their determination and power under pressure. As during the Cold War, the Kremlin has the tactical advantage of being able to threaten and make noise at random. But, like us learned in the cold war, domestic tyranny keeps Russia economically weak, politically fragile and ultimately unable to sustain a protracted confrontation with the US and Europe. At home, Putin has all the guns. But Russian society does not look enthusiastic about a long war against Ukraine. The launch of one would be a risky role of the dice for Putin. If the Kremlin does that, or otherwise provokes the West adequately, it will likely generate sustained backlash that will end badly for it.
The US and Europe must continue to put the issues in the right way: resist the temptation to respond to threats with concessions, and to maintain a willingness to discuss European security in a way that benefits everyone, not just Moscow.
One Kremlin trap to avoid is to talk about NATO as if its expansion is aggression for which Moscow must be compensated. There was no American promise not to enlarge NATO. In contrast, there was a formal Russian commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, violated when the Kremlin seized Ukrainian territory in 2014.
NATO’s expansion coincided with the development of a Born in Russia entente in the era of Boris Yeltsin and the Clinton administration. From the outset, the US and NATO were ready to discuss Russia’s military security, as NATO recruited new members and fulfilled commitments limiting its deployment in Europe.
Putin hates the core significance of NATO and EU enlargement: the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union, and in their place a united Europe, with 100 million Europeans between Germany and Russia free to join their Western European brethren close. Ukrainians have seen the progress in freedom and prosperity towards their west and want, understandably, something of it for themselves.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave the game away when he called the nations liberated by the fall of communism in 1989 and the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 not liberated, sovereign countries, but orphaned or masterless “territories”. Putin wants the empire back. He wants to reverse the end of the Cold War and regain Moscow’s sphere of domination.
The US and Europe should have no part in this. They need to be patient, determined and responds firmly to provocations. Then the Kremlin might just find a way to move from ultimatums to a more productive discussion of European security, perhaps to restore arms control, transparency and stabilization measures that the Kremlin has ignored, violated or downplayed in recent years. There is a way forward, but the coming weeks can be difficult.