The reason for President Putin’ aggressive attitude is a result of the vulnarabilities of the West, writes Roberta N. Haar. ‘How can we go back to normal hostilities?’
Roberta N. Haar is Professor of Foreign Policy Analysis and Transatlantic Relations at the University of Maastricht and the University College Maastricht.
Over the last weeks, several people have asked me what I thought about the intensifying standoff between Russia and NATO on the borders of Ukraine. The most asked questions relate to what Russian President Vladimir Putin expects to achieve through his provocative actions and do I think that war is likely?
Red, Green and Amber
An often-accompanying question is why is Putin taking these confrontational measures now? While there are internal reasons, for example, that Putin wants to “solve” the Ukrainian-Russian relationship before the 2024 elections in Russia. The more compelling reasons are shifting external factors that Putin is reacting to with renewed intensity. Because, of course, this is not the first time that he amassed soldiers to get a response from the West nor is it the first time that he has meddled in the affairs of his neighbors. In June 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden largely agreed to a one-on-one with Putin because of a build-up of thousands of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border.
The first external motivation behind Putin’s trying this tactic again, this time with 130,000 troops, is the transfer of power in Germany from Angela Merkel’s 16 years of leadership to a “traffic light” coalition led by the Social Democrat Party (SPD). It’s clear that the SPD’s Olaf Scholz feels the weight of his party’s heritage—the party of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and Gerhard Schröder’s chummy relations with Putin—in his muted reactions to Russian aggression. Members of the U.S. Congress voiced their frustration with this response (even calling Germany an “unreliable ally”) while fellow European Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks called the German position “immoral and hypocritical.”
The other two colors of the German coalition are the Greens and the Free Democrats (FDP), which add the amber element. Already during the elections, Putin actively moved to undermine a possible win by co-Green Party leader Annalena Baerbock, who clearly stated her opposition to the subsea Nordstream 2 liquid gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany. A growing German dependence on Russian gas, military threats and ultimatums, coupled with unexplained reductions in gas exports to Europe last December (triggering a surge in spot prices), add up to immense pressure on the new coalition in Berlin to be conciliatory to Russian aims, especially in issuing the final permit for gas to flow through Nordstream 2.
The fruits of Afghanistan
The second external reason has more to do with Biden’s administration, which after fiascos in Afghanistan and failures to pass through Congress its central domestic plans, looks weak. Biden’s legislative and military setbacks significantly undermine his electoral potency in the midterm elections in 2022 and the general elections of 2024.
Internationally, Biden’s reputation is also damaged goods. Leaders in alliance countries openly questioned the withdrawal from Afghanistan while concerns about America’s resolve were felt across the globe, especially in Taiwan and in Ukraine. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the poor planning and the lack of foresight in the U.S.’ exit from Afghanistan is that it clearly benefited China and Russia. An aspect that Putin is now capitalizing upon.
Add these vulnerabilities to Putin’s calculation that the U.S. is simply not that interested in sending its troops overseas, after 20 years of fighting a forever war, or more specifically, in the case of the Western alliance, not that much interested in Europe. After European allies were either barely or not at all consulted on the withdrawal plans for Afghanistan and then AUKUS (the trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the U.S. announced in September last year), Moscow did not need to use its prodigious clandestine services to hear European complaints that America is a capricious and selfish ally that is increasingly turning to Asia. Afterall, this is the third president in a row that the EU finds itself struggling to retain a place on his agenda list.
Russia’s 14 Neighbors
The third reason is that Russia really does have security worries that the West does not appreciate. Russia’s sense of vulnerability stems from its fourteen neighbors, which have varying degrees of stability, its leadership’s desire to ensure non-interference to safeguard its power base, and its perceived fall in the global pecking order. As far back as 1994, with Boris Yeltsin pointing out Bill Clinton’s contradictory goals of expanding NATO and partnering with Russia at the same time, Russia began warning that bringing NATO to its borders would be perceived as a strategic threat of the first order. In 2015, Professor Richard Sakwa argued in his book Frontline Ukraine that “NATO’s existence became justified by the need to manage the security threats provoked by its enlargement.”
Putin is further frustrated with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s avoiding the concessions to pro-Russian elements in Ukraine, as stipulated in the 2015 Minsk protocols. And Putin is angered about Ukraine’s growing military cooperation with the United States and Great Britain. As a Western-facing Ukraine grows in strength, Putin may think that his window to pressure Ukraine in ways that benefit him, is quickly closing. He and his clan of oligarchs also certainly do not want a prosperous, free Slavic country on the other side of poorer, more corrupt regions to the east.
The irony is that Putin’s aggressive maneuvers inside Belarus and on Ukraine’s border may finally unite European differences on how to view Russia. On Baerbock’s official visit to Washington, D.C. in January, she was at pains to present a united front with her counterpart Antony Blinken. Likewise, Chancellor Scholz’s visit to Washington in February was widely viewed as a “salvage mission” to repair Germany’s reputation. For its part, the Biden administration is at pains to show that Europe remains important to America, with the deployment of 3,000 more troops to Eastern Europe.
Who blinks first?
The current spiral of confrontation recalls a similar standoff between America and the Soviet Union in 1962. Here the escalating rhetoric and movement of forces to send strong messages resulted in a standoff that each player dare not back down, since doing so would be humiliating and consequential. The lessons learned for the U.S. was that John F. Kennedy’s steel-will in the “eyeball-to-eyeball” standoff made Nikita Khrushchev “blink first.”
Since Putin is no Khrushchev, I fear that he will not back down and if either side does not find ways of de-escalating the situation, the possibility that a war could break out accidently increases with each tense soldier looking over the border.
How do we get back to normal hostilities?
But just as it feels like 1962 all over again, current leaders could learn from Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although it was secret, Kennedy attempted to lesson the Soviet Union’s humiliation by saying that it had a point, that it was unfair that the U.S. had missiles stationed on European soil and that these missiles constituted a real threat to Soviet security. Thus, Kennedy removed Jupiter ballistic missiles from Turkey.
NATO leaders need to find their Jupiter missiles. They need to find some face-saving compromise that lets everyone escape humiliation. China provided the requisite window to find this necessary compromise since Putin will not want to start a war while the Winter Olympics are underway.
China may even unwittingly provide the solution. If we could have a replay of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice,” when the U.S. men’s ice hockey beat the four-time defending gold medalist and heavily favored Soviet team. But this time, the Russians win decisively. Putin, who is a big ice hockey fan, might feel a little more satisfied and start to ease his confrontational stance on the Ukrainian border because his men win on the ice in Beijing and not on the Ukrainian Steppe.