The Russia-Ukraine Crisis: A Deceptive Geopolitical Jigsaw
Seven years after the Crimean annexation and the events in Eastern Ukraine, there has been talk again of a possible Russian attack on the Ukrainian state, scheduled for early 2022. One should remember that these speculations were not fuelled by Russia, but by the Western press and policymakers. A state attack is never announced in advance, just as it is not announced by states that do not plan to attack. Behind these speculations was an exercise in anticipation, warning and active deterrence.
Although Kiev has strong NATO support, Putin is aware that he has to cross many red lines in Ukraine to trigger the West's strong retaliation. In fact, the Secretary General of the Alliance openly stated that NATO does not envisage a military involvement in Ukraine in the perspective of military escalations, favouring scenarios based on political, diplomatic and economic sanctions of unprecedented harshness. Sanctions comparable to those imposed on Iran or North Korea are being discussed in the event of the intensely speculated Russian invasion.
Beyond the initial pretext, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are dealing with a (tentative) resettlement of spheres of influence, although the West is working to ensure that it does not fall into the traps of 20th century geopolitics, in which Europe's security architecture would have been reversed to its pre-1997 configuration. As we speak, smaller states from outside the Alliance, and even some from within, are afraid of concessions or agreements made over their heads by global power brokers. Everyone is speaking of negotiations and the ability to achieve compromise, but no one seems to fully understand what this compromise should look like. At this point, the response sent back by NATO to Kremlin requests seems to show little room for bargaining. This is good news in terms of solidarity and commitment to fundamental values, but in real terms it brings us one step closer to the escalation scenario.
In recent months, Moscow has been quick to point out and speculate the animosities within the North Atlantic Alliance, Turkey's confusing position, not to mention how it has conducted the withdrawal from Afghanistan. NATO's image has suffered in the media, so for Moscow it might seem an appealing moment to test NATO unity over Ukraine, as it was recently in the case of the challenges experienced by Poland at its border with Belarus.
Perhaps this is also the reason why the NATO Secretary General was much more assertive in his statements than the American president. Although Ukraine is not a member of NATO and is unlikely to become one for many years to come, Russia insists that the prospect of Kiev's accession to the North Atlantic Alliance would be a threat. Moscow has even called on NATO to revoke its 2008 commitment to Ukraine and Georgia that the two countries will one day become members of the Alliance, while insisting on guarantees not to deploy security systems in neighbouring countries that would allegedly pose a threat to its security.
What options does the West have?
Although NATO leaders admit that they do not have a mechanism in place to impose sanctions, Jens Stoltenberg stressed that the Alliance is the most important structure available to member state governments to coordinate their unilateral policies, while the allies together “account for 50% of the world GDP”.
One of the most important sanctions against the Russian Federation would undoubtedly be the cessation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, especially since, in Berlin, the Greens who have always been against this project are in the new governing coalition. The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, 1200 km long, passes under the Baltic Sea and bypasses Ukraine. In the fully operational phase, it will deliver 55 billion cubic meters of gas per year, doubling the transport capacity achieved today through Nord Stream 1. Consumer needs in the EU market have risen by 7% in the last year, to around 132 billion cubic meters of gas. The main challenge in putting the pipeline into operation is the regulatory process, which the German authority has temporarily suspended. Conditionality is alleged in compliance with the relevant German legislation, including the access of a German company to the NS2 distribution infrastructure. Although, initially, ambiguous signals came from Berlin regarding the determination to introduce North Stream 2 in the package of sanctions against Russia, clarifications have been made in recent days, revealing an (apparently) unwavering stance.
Also, one of the main retaliatory measures available to the West is the disconnection of Russia from the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) International Banking Network. This would be a particularly severe blow because it means excluding Russia from the flow of international transactions and settlements. The SWIFT system is the main interconnection hub in the international banking system to which more than 10,000 banking institutions (in more than 200 countries) are connected. SWIFT is based in Belgium, and is subject to the regulations of the Central Bank of Belgium and European Union ones. Therefore, it is important to highlight that if the United States would like to use this instrument it needs the support and approval of the European Union. We also have a precedent, as the United States has previously tried to put pressure on Iran and Syria, but failed to disconnect those states from SWIFT until the decision was taken at EU level.
Another tool with effective potential might be the official recognition by NATO that an important goal is to equip the Ukrainian armed forces so that they can face any aggression from the Russian Federation at any time. This recognition can now be made and reiterated by the new Strategic Concept to be adopted in 2022. However, after the reluctance shown by the Germans or by Croatia (which through the President's voice threatened to withdraw its troops from NATO to prevent a collision with Russia) it seems quite implausible to reach common ground in the short term.
Does Moscow have an ace up its sleeve?
The initial crisis in the Donbas showed the international community how Russia can influence the behaviour of other states by “simply” threatening a large-scale military invasion. Russia is repeating the ostentatious military consolidation on the Ukrainian border in 2021 and 2022. Thus, Moscow is proving that the use or at least the threat of military force is one of the most important foreign policy instruments the Kremlin has over Kiev.
From a military point of view, is the Russian Federation ready for a major offensive? Statistically, Russia has 900,000 troops, while Ukraine has 209,000 - the ratio is thus more than 1:4. The Russian Federation has another very concrete advantage: the presence of Russian paramilitaries in the Donbas, forces that know the situation on the ground very well and can cooperate very effectively with the regular army.
Moscow does not want a long or protracted war, but a quick one – a raid on the Donbas, for example, a blitzkrieg that would destabilize Ukraine – this would be a signal that NATO's promises are worthless. The consequence of military action in Ukraine would be to limit its foreign policy options. The West's reluctance to respond militarily, despite imposing rough sanctions, will generate consequences only in the medium and long term.
This positioning resembles more something like a poker game in which everyone waits for the opponent to blink first. The West is betting behind closed doors that Russia will not intervene militarily in Ukraine. Putin is trying to push the propaganda and speculations as much as possible so that such action becomes credible, if not probable. The Kremlin needs to be sure that if the blitzkrieg is carried out, NATO will not get involved materially. The Alliance’s direct military intervention is off the table right now, but even a strong support in terms of firepower could add complexity and hazard for Russia’s planners.
Deterrence by increasing resilience
None of the states around the Black Sea can challenge Russia alone. They all need Western support to increase their resilience and defence capacity to cope with Russia's challenges or even escalation in the event of a major war. This support, including through the deployment of troops, if possible, should enable these states to impose significant costs on Russian military aggression.
In order to significantly reduce Moscow's chances of winning and increase its risk of losing troops and weapons, Black Sea states must: reduce the penetration of Russian intelligence into their institutions; establish secure command and control centres, both civilian and military; operate military systems that Russia is unfamiliar with and whose signals cannot be intercepted and decrypted; adopt Western military procedures and tactics, which are more difficult for Russian specialists to counter; and, last but not least, train and equip their armed forces to a level that allows them to participate in NATO allied operations.
These actions will detract from the area's familiarity to Russia. And for the Kremlin, as we said before, based on the experience of previous conflicts, the likelihood of starting a war decreases if the predictability of the outcome gradually diminishes. In this regard, the West needs to increase the intelligence capabilities of the states in the region, in order to gain insights into the Russian Black Sea Fleet and the Crimean military. For now, the US is doing this for the states in the region, using satellites, P-8 Poseidon and unmanned aerial vehicles. For the US, it will become increasingly important to monitor the Chinese naval fleet and allocate more resources there. Thus, in order for states to improve their Terrestrial Situational Awareness, they need to invest more in UAVs and other aircraft that increase their ability to identify and process information.
At the same time, NATO needs to support Romania and Bulgaria in modernizing their ports, maritime surveillance infrastructure, including radars and sonars, air bases, air surveillance radars and air/maritime command and control infrastructure. In times of crisis, Allied forces will use this infrastructure.
In another train of thoughts, Russia has gone too far in this adventure to pull back. The costs of maintaining more than 100,000 troops (and related logistics) on the border with Ukraine amount to more than 50 million euros a day. It is clear that Vladimir Putin cannot take a step back without showing a profit from this stalemated situation. Therefore, the ground images, but also the whole context, rather indicate an escalating scenario. No one can predict what Vladimir Putin will decide, but the analysis indicates that a full-scale war is unlikely. Russia can defeat Ukraine, but the really difficult part comes later, namely the establishment of control over the seized territories. The costs for such an adventure are colossal, both in terms of human casualties and financial costs. Moscow, no matter how hard it tries to simulate unpredictability, is actually playing after a rational and carefully weighted scenario. And it understands very well that a Pyrrhic victory may spell the end of the Kremlin regime.