Russia is poised to renew its offensive in Ukraine; what is NATO going to do about it? Unfortunately, if recent indications hold true, very little.
History has returned with a vengeance. Europe is once again on the precipice of a large-scale land war instigated by an expansionist Russia looking to exert suzerainty over its independent neighbors. The last major Russian offensive in Ukraine back in 2014 led to the illegal annexation of Crimea, as well as a burgeoning separatist insurgency in the eastern part of the country, backed militarily and financially by Moscow. Russia did not fight this conflict in the open, instead using proxies, special forces, mercenaries, and non-uniformed soldiers colloquially known as Little Green Men. The NATO response was relatively minor, consisting of some economic sanctions and tough talk on the part of the Obama administration; ironically enough, the lead diplomatic envoy dealing with the crisis on behalf of the United States was one Joe Biden. Since then, the war in Ukraine has continued, causing tens of thousands of casualties, while Russian control over Crimea has been cemented. Malign Russian influence in Europe and its confidence and aggression abroad have also increased over the past 8 years, assisted by weak and inconsistent Western policy. The constant state of intermittent conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine has brought the region back to a state of trench warfare reminiscent of the First World War. In recent months, however, Russia has begun a conventional military buildup on Ukraine’s borders and looks ready to launch a full-scale assault using tanks, artillery, and air power. This is an even bigger threat to European peace and American global hegemony than Russia’s initial assault on Ukraine was nearly a decade ago, yet it seems like our response will be even more lackluster than last time – if not downright conciliatory. This is a recipe for disaster.
There are two key actors that are driving this terrible policy towards an imminent threat and helping to clear Putin’s path to Kyiv: Germany and the United States. German policy towards Russia over the past decade has left a lot to be desired if you are a Russia hawk. From its response to the invasion of Crimea and the Donbas, to its deliberate choice to cut out Eastern Europe and further yoke itself to Russian gas supplies, to its consistently weak position on aggressive Russian interference in other nations, German policy seems rooted in appeasement, if not outright subordination. The example of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is telling, as it showcases how deep the rot goes in German politics with respect to Moscow; former chancellor Gerhard Schröder greenlit the project when he was in government and took a job on the board of the Russian gas conglomerate Rosneft right after he left. The pipeline gives Moscow serious leverage over Berlin – and therefore the Eastern European countries sitting between the two – and the Germans have been working assiduously to grant them even more. By shuttering its remaining nuclear plants in a quixotic quest for “sustainability,” Germany has presented Putin and his cronies with the proverbial Sword of Damocles with which Moscow can cow Berlin. After the recent departure of long-time chancellor Angela Merkel, there seemed to be potential for a new phase in German’s Russia policy with the appointment of the relatively hawkish Annalena Baerbock as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Unfortunately, she seems to have been sidelined by Chancellor Olaf Scholz in order to temper the German response to Russia’s current buildup in Ukraine. And tempered that response is; Germany has refused to allow the export of defensive weapons like anti-tank missiles to the Ukrainians, citing “historic reasons.” Despite the lofty rhetoric, that has not stopped Germany from being a top 5 global weapons exporter, including to countries involved in the wars in Yemen and Libya. Principled this is not. But Germany has gone even farther than that, apparently refusing to allow the British military – another NATO ally – to use overflight of its airspace to deliver defensive weapon supplies to Ukraine. Fortunately, the British have impressively soldiered on with the assistance of other NATO members in good standing, including Denmark and Poland. Recently, under pressure from some NATO countries, the German government has stated that it is “ready to discuss halting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline” if Russia attacks Ukraine. This supposedly benevolent gesture is not even a guarantee of action and should be seen as an offering of tribute to Russia, not as a boon to NATO. The sordid history of German liaison with Russia at the expense of Eastern Europe and continental peace is too long to explore, but suffice it to say that the 21st century version seems to fits the pattern all too well.
Over the course of the Russian buildup, American rhetoric and policy have been a mixture of good and bad; the Biden administration has said that it would not countenance Russian aggression and seems to support Ukrainian sovereignty, but has not unequivocally stated how it would punish Russia for its military adventurism or that Ukrainian territorial integrity should be guaranteed. It has not accelerated weapons deliveries to Ukraine, put heavier sanctions on Russian commerce abroad, or moved NATO assets into the vulnerable regions of Eastern Europe. Still, this approach was not actively bad. At least it was, until President Biden’s press conference Wednesday afternoon. Not only did Biden look tentative and old, he practically greenlit a Russian military invasion of Ukraine. First off, the President said that if Putin invades Ukraine it would be the first time such an invasion had happened in Europe since World War II; as stated earlier, Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and seized large swathes of that country’s sovereign territory, some of which was directly annexed into the Russian Federation. Not only does Biden’s message amount to an egregious oversight and a tacit approval of Russian control of Crimea, it is even more absurd given the fact that Ukraine was Biden’s major foreign policy portfolio when he was Barack Obama’s Vice President. This either speaks to the President’s facility with lying or to his underlying senility. Neither is a pleasant thought. The next major blunder that Biden made regarding Ukraine in his press conference was far more serious. He claimed that he would not allow NATO to be split in its approach to a Russian invasion, but a few minutes later said that not all NATO allies agreed on the proper tack to take in the various invasion scenarios. This message both telegraphs internal NATO dissent and allows the most dovish nations in the Atlantic alliance to dictate the policy of the whole – as we saw with Germany, that means appeasement at Ukraine’s expense. This is playing directly into Putin’s hands, as he seeks instability within NATO and hopes to bribe various European states into inaction. Finally, the worst moment of the cringeworthy and catastrophic presser was Biden’s statement that a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine would not trigger the most severe repercussions on the part of the United States. This statement is problematic for many reasons, starting with the fact that even the most serious punitive measures on the table are sanctions which the administration and allies like Germany seem extremely reticent to apply. More significantly, the idea that there can be a “minor” incursion is itself setting up a permission structure for Russia to obtain its objective of asserting dominance over the free nations of its near abroad while avoiding serious consequences. At best, that statement was an idiotic attempt at nuance; at worst, it was a gift-wrapped invitation for a full-fledged Russian military operation. Biden’s handlers in the press office are already trying to walk the answer back, but in a world where the President’s remarks are simultaneously broadcast around the world, this is too little, too late.
So if the soft approach favored by the Biden administration and the German government is a ticket to failure, what should NATO policy be? There are several concrete actions that the West can take to deter or punish a further Russian invasion of Ukraine. First, NATO should significantly increase its deployed offensive and defensive forces in Poland, the Baltics, and the Black Sea littoral. That includes sending American warships into the Black Sea, pushing active troops to the countries next in line for Russian interference, and deploying offensive and defensive missile technology to Eastern Europe. Next, the administration and our allies should clearly state the price of further Russian aggression – no matter the scale. That must include severe economic sanctions like cutting off Russia from international banking, confiscating ill-gotten property held by Russian oligarchs in other countries, shutting down the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and boycotting Russian exports. Some of these economic responses will be challenging, especially given the shortsighted German reliance on Russian gas, but they must be attempted at the very least. Military action through covert operations and cyber warfare, as well as actions taken against Russian proxies abroad need to be in the playbook. Furthermore, NATO should serve as Ukraine’s armory, selling them defensive and offensive weapons on good terms and supplying them with the technical expertise to operate those weapons systems effectively. We must also provide Ukraine with intelligence resources and do whatever we can in terms of supporting their military readiness and capacity. Finally, we must be strong and determined in our rhetorical approach to the issue, calling out the irredentist threat posed by Russia to all of Eastern Europe and refusing to conciliate the Russians or appease Putin diplomatically. Am I confident that the Biden administration and our NATO allies will follow this strategy? Absolutely not. I feel for the Ukrainians in this situation, as we’re effectively leaving them in the lurch to deal with a fate that we’ve made worse for them with our policy (or lack thereof). In their case the old adage applies: “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”