(This article first appeared in the EuroNews at https://www.euronews.com/2021/12/28/the-west-must-stand-firm-to-combat-russia-s-threats-to-ukraine-view)
By Geoffrey Van Orden CBE, Distinguished Fellow
Distracted by Omicron and Christmas, only a few can now recall US President Joe Biden's video call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 7 December, when Biden voiced deep concerns of both the United States and its European allies about the threat of Russian troop movements to Ukraine.
Putin’s dismissive response has been to intensify cyberattacks on Ukrainian government agencies, including the national police and electricity infrastructure.
One expert has described this as 'preparation of the battlefield'.
For months now the Russian people have been subjected to a massive, perverse government propaganda campaign to strengthen their resolve in the face of the 'threat' from the West.
We can expect mobilisation of 'peace movements' in Western countries as Putin escalates his military posture.
Months of ground-laying by Moscow
After Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its proxy war in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, NATO sent symbolic reinforcements to member countries that are regarded as most vulnerable to Russia.
Twenty-two years after the first of the former Warsaw pact countries joined NATO, Putin has now demanded a reset and wants all NATO forces withdrawn. In effect, he wants recognition that these nations are within Moscow’s sphere of influence.
At the same time, Putin is adept at gradually creating and promoting divisions between Western states: the EU’s constant vilification of the Polish and Hungarian governments, the threat by Republika Srpska to secede from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Russia’s wooing of Turkey, are all examples.
What is Putin really up to? He is testing Western resolve. He wants recognition of his gains in the Donbas region and Crimea, full control of the Sea of Azov coastline, domination of the Black Sea, and ultimately the return of Ukraine and other former Soviet bloc countries to Moscow’s sway.
Ukraine has warned that an attack could be as imminent as early January.
Putin will not listen to the West’s concerns unless he sees a united front against his designs and US moves to reinforce a strategic posture in Europe, and also faces serious financial pressure, including from a crash in crucial gas exports.
The need for targeted sanctions against Russia, alongside the provision of equipment and expert cyber assistance to Ukraine, cannot be understated.
Could Ukraine join NATO?
While American officials have had extensive discussions with European partners on coordinating the response to Russian military activities, NATO is revealing little of how it would react to Russian territorial aggression.
The EU, of course, has no credible military capability separate from those of its own members that are already in NATO, although it does have powerful economic tools at its disposal.
NATO has said it is monitoring the situation closely and will continue to offer “political and practical support” for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and its right to decide its own future, free from outside interference.
At the last summit in June, NATO also reiterated a pledge that Ukraine would become a member of the alliance in due course.
Like any democratic country, Ukraine is free to apply. For its part, NATO will balance political and strategic considerations before it extends its massively powerful umbrella over another country. Russia is determined to ensure that this threshold is not crossed.
Given Putin's ambition to reincorporate Ukraine into the Moscow bloc, he will go to enormous lengths to prevent Ukraine from exercising free will and joining the Western clubs.
The West must demonstrate resolve - and fast
Parallel to the aggressive military threats and cyber abrasions, Russia is applying pressure in other areas. Ukraine is currently battling a $3-billion (€2.65bn) Eurobond case in the UK Supreme Court: a loan Russia forced on it shortly before the 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea, and which Ukraine fairly argues it shouldn’t be required to pay back under the circumstances.
This is an example of a prolonged campaign of legal and economic Russian belligerence that threatens to undermine Ukraine at a critical moment. Ukraine needs tangible support.
Russia thinks, after the Afghanistan debacle, that the West is on the back foot and unwilling to get embroiled in another messy military situation. Deterrence will not work unless the West demonstrates its resolve. It must minimize its internal differences and act with unity and solidarity over Ukraine.
For the EU, that means downplaying any idea of separateness from the US or UK in pursuit of its ideas of 'strategic autonomy', and strengthening its economic and political support for Ukraine, including for enhanced military capabilities.
In parallel, the West should consider further economic and political sanctions against Russia as credible deterrents. Escalatory options could include full blocking of major Russian state banks and investment agencies.
Sectoral sanctions could be broadened to areas such as mining, metals, shipping, and insurance. And maybe a cyber-shot across Russia’s bows would serve as a warning.
Both NATO and the EU now need to demonstrate a concerted effort in addressing Russia’s dangerous military build-up on Ukraine’s border and its steadily escalating cyber-attacks.
The significance of Russia’s actions and the need for resolute action should be clearly explained to the Western public as well as Moscow. It would be a tragedy if conflict were to break out on Eastern frontiers because of any failure of deterrence. Garbled messages and misunderstandings are how wars start.
Geoffrey Van Orden is currently a Distinguished Fellow of the Gold Institute for International Strategy. He was formerly a senior British military officer and long-standing member of the European Parliament, where he was Conservative Leader and Defense and Security Spokesman