Just over a year ago, the western system of alliances largely lay in ruins, its confidence sapped by Covid and by a US president who saw Europe as a protection racket, treated Nato with contempt and seemed in mysterious thrall to Vladimir Putin. Six months later, Nato suffered the ignominy of the retreat from Kabul and two months after that it lost Angela Merkel – the former German chancellor who was its last best interpreter of Vladimir Putin’s mind.
So as a hinge point in the Ukraine crisis arrives, western diplomats are awarding themselves a sigh of relief that diplomatic and security institutions, atrophied by lack of use, have at last cranked back into life and held together. No one is proposing a victory lap – the situation is too tense and unstable – but there is satisfaction that Putin knows he faces a surprisingly cohesive, even galvanised, western diplomatic effort built on exhaustive consultation and shared analysis.
Whether the Russian president will as a result wager that the long-term price of an invasion of Ukraine is too high seems unknowable until the missiles launch. Merkel herself once said Putin lives in his own world. The only problem is that he makes us all inhabit it as well. So even if it is too early to tidy up events still in flux, it is already clear where the west has succeeded, and may yet fail.
Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine Forum at the Chatham House thinktank, said: “The west has grasped the importance of this moment. Putin may control the narrative, but the west has not turned away.”
Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, made a similar point when he said: “What is important is that western countries had been able to agree on what they were confronting. If we had not been able to do that, it would have scared me.”
There has not just been a shared analysis, but a sharing of responsibilities. The military deployments to shore up the eastern flank have been quick, including French troops into Romania and US troops into the Baltic states. Many of these deployments may prove permanent, UK officials say privately, an assessment they believe Poland, France and Germany shares – although that would require full Nato endorsement.
Intelligence has been used in a new way – if a somewhat “the Russians are coming” one – in a bid to win an information war, signal Putin’s next steps and so block them.
Dr Anders Åslund, adjunct professor at Georgetown University, said: “The western strategy – I mean here primarily the US and UK strategy – I think has been just right: expose it all, emphasise as much as possible what is going on, and provide as much intelligence as reasonably can be provided, and by doing so, the west is really pushing Putin into a sort of dead end. Either he goes for everything, and then he is likely to lose, or he is not getting anything.”
Sanctions and Nord Stream 2
Putin may also have inadvertently engendered unity. The UK may still – slightly neurotically – harp on about its leadership role, but it has also tried to stop being rude about the European Union. French and British defence ministers, for instance, met bilaterally this week in Brussels, ending their standoff caused by the row over the Aukus pact between Australia, the UK and US. David Miliband, the former foreign secretary, said: “The UK has been trying to run a foreign policy as if Europe did not exist. That is a problem when your closest ally, the object of your ardour, the US, thinks self-evidently the EU does exist.”
Boris Johnson even went so far as to congratulate the EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, for her cooperation so far over sanctions. The UK has also been forced, in the face of international ridicule, to wake from its slumbers about Russian dirty money circulating in London, going so far as to say that in the event of an invasion Russian firms will be unable to raise capital in London.
Differences still exist within the EU over the precise triggers that would launch the sanctions package, but something credible spanning energy and finance is now ready to go, even if it would require Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, to withhold his veto.
In a concession to the US, Germany has made it understood that Nord Stream 2, the Russian-German pipeline, will not go ahead in the event of an invasion. Even if Scholz did not say as much on his visit to Moscow for legal reasons, US senators came away from private briefings with him the week before, happy with what they heard. Scholz is anyway losing patience with the former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Putin’s placeman on the Nord Stream supervisory board and an increasing embarrassment to the country’s Social Democratic party.
All of this meant at the time of a maximum tension last Friday the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, was able to give a warning to the Kremlin that rang true.
“If Russia proceeds,” he said, “its long-term power and influence will be diminished, not enhanced, by an invasion. It will face a more determined transatlantic community. It will have to make more concessions to China. It will face massive pressure on its economy and export controls that will erode its defence industrial base. And it will face a wave of condemnation from around the world.”
But Joe Biden has also made clear the limits of the deterrence he is proposing. To the frustration of Kyiv, he insists the west will help arm Ukraine, but will not intervene militarily or impose sanctions before an invasion. British diplomats acknowledge that the US president has probably read the mood of Americans right on their limits in terms of protecting Ukrainian sovereignty.
That is the good news so far, and a rebuff to those only a year ago warned of a “westless world”. For a whole generation of Europeans that have never conceived of a war on their continent, Nato has introduced itself, and has not fallen over.
Deterrence and its limits
Beneath the surface, the differences linger about the west’s strategy of deterrence, and how best to constrain Putin. Some of it is about little more than emphasis or tone, but it is also the product of geography, national histories and different politics. The British sniffer dogs in Whitehall in particular remain on patrol for the first “whiff of Munich” or appeasement to emerge, ironically, from Berlin.
No one denies the difference in outlook between London and Berlin, to take the two most extreme examples. Scholz, for instance, assured Putin that security in Europe was not possible against Russia, “but only with Russia”. He refused to describe the crisis as hopeless, saying: “War in Europe has become unthinkable for my generation.” Politicians must ensure “that it stays that way”. Bilateral economic relations continued to have great potential, Scholz said.
Those that criticise the west’s strategy most also point to the pilgrimage of European politicians to Moscow and worry that it only encourages Putin to conclude armoured tanks massed in the right place can bring the level of attention the country’s status and grievances warrant.
Putin felt Russia’s demands had been ignored ever since he put them on the table in a speech to the Munich Security Conference in 2007. “What Putin is after, in part, is our full attention. He has certainly succeeded in that,” said Fiona Hill, the former White House Russia adviser.
The critics worry that Putin is not only getting leaders running to his door, but results. Coercive diplomacy works. Russia can already point to the revival of the Nato-Russia security council, a body founded in 2002 that had not met for three years. In response to Putin’s unrealistic treaty demands tabled in December, Nato has replied by making formal offers to hold talks on conventional forces, a replacement for the intermediate nuclear treaty as well as proposals on the transparency of weapons.
Two distinguished former British diplomats, Roderic Lyne and David Manning, admit this should have happened anyway, writing in a Chatham House report: “Many agreements underpinning European security and strategic stability between Russia and the US have dissolved, so a more stable order would bring obvious benefits to both sides.”
But arms reduction, in Putin’s current mood, is a third-tier prize. Ukraine is his real target, and here Putin can claim to have at least forced the west to pay new attention to the frozen conflict in the Donbas. Political directors in the Normandy format – the four-nation body that oversees the Minsk agreements signed at the end of the 2014 conflict in eastern Ukraine – have met twice after not meeting for three years.
Little progress was made, but Putin will have detected that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, long critical of the support he was receiving from Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, has come under private pressure to shift ground on how to interpret those agreements.
Scholz brought with him to Moscow from Kyiv firm promises that three legal texts needed for the Minsk process to continue were being prepared in the Ukrainian parliament – on the status of eastern Ukraine, on a constitutional amendment and on the preparation of elections.
Putin is maintaining the pressure by describing what has been happening in the east as genocide and by allowing the Russian Duma, by 351 votes to 16, to back a proposal to recognise the people’s republic in the Donbas as an independent state, a move that was quickly condemned by the US State Department as calling into question Russia’s stated desire to return to diplomacy.
Putin will also be surveying the cracks in the west’s resolve about Ukraine’s future security status. More and more western politicians and analysts say out loud that Ukraine’s membership of Nato, put on the table at a Nato summit in Bucharest in 2008, was a mistake that raised false expectations and it would be better to admit as much.
Scholz told the German press accompanying him to Moscow: “There’s a fact and this fact is that all participants know that Ukraine’s Nato membership is not on the agenda. So everyone should take a step back and be clear that we can’t have a situation where there might be a military conflict over an issue that isn’t even on the agenda.”
In saying Ukraine cannot join Nato as long as it has a pre-existing conflict with Russia, as the UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace, did on the BBC this week, he was stating a fact. But, perhaps inadvertently, he was giving Russia a near veto over Ukraine’s membership.
Others, including Sir John Sawers, the former head of M16, propose as “a sensible solution” the possibility of some form of neutrality status for Ukraine akin to Austria’s from 1955.
“This issue needs to be finessed,” Manning said. “If the border conflict was settled, and other measures agreed to ensure Ukraine’s independence was no longer under threat, the way would be open for Ukraine to leave its Nato application on the table but commit not to proceed with it within a defined and lengthy period. This would recognise reality without breaching Nato’s principles.”
No half measures
This approach would be hard to sell to Ukraine, where support for Nato membership is rising. But it also presumes Putin is in this for a deal. “The problem is that Russia is contemptuous of Ukraine as an independent state, but also scared of Ukraine as a functioning democratic state that cleaves westward,” Miliband said. Quoting George Kennan, he said: “Russia sees its neighbours either as a threat or a vassal, never as a partner.”
Senior serving British intelligence officers also believe Putin is not interested in half measures. These officials say the key text lies less in Putin’s treaty demands – tabled in January and restated this week – but on his essay on the historical unity of the Russians and Ukrainians in July 2021. One British official points to analysis by historian Andreas Kappeler which, they said, not only shows Putin sees Ukraine as an artificial construct, but also gives a glimpse into his mind – one which “mixes Soviet patriotism, imperial and ethnic nationalism, and a blood-and-soil pathos”.
The British official said: “There is a visceral emotional, even semi-spiritual attachment around his view of Ukraine. I think if he’s going to do something, which is going to cause him some significant challenge in his relationship with western nations, I think the answer for him is to look at resolving the question on his terms in the first instance, and then dealing with the fallout from there. I don’t see how something smaller, limited to those separatist republics, is enough to resolve the Ukraine question on his terms.”
The argument about Putin’s true intentions is not just a parlour game but goes to the heart of the best response, not just now but in the event of an invasion. James Nixey, head of the Russia programme at Chatham House, said: “What is at stake here is a basic grasp of the nature of relations between states in the 21st century. What Russia is insisting on is its right to a land empire which is entirely at odds with the principles of statehood that now govern Europe, and indeed much of the rest of the world.
“By failing to address the real nature of Russia’s demands, Europe is avoiding critical decisions that will affect its future security for generations to come. The implications of that avoidance do not only affect Europe – they are global in importance.”
Miliband, too, sees something fundamental at stake not just for the west. “The reset seems to be happening now – and of which Putin is an acute form presents a system of disorganised lawlessness that is dangerous,” he said. “It is happening at a time at greater interdependence. The ramifications of system failure in one part of the system is greater than before because the world is hyper-connected.
“And we are only at the beginning of this phase of disorganised lawlessness, involving state and non-state actors. We don’t know where we are going to end up.”