The Russian president wants to return to the table with world leaders and a rhetoric of the Cold War. His potentially peaceful attitude is a great bluff before a new conflict in the middle of Europe.
For Ukrainians, this is no big change. No sign of panic in shops or large-scale migration. The new Russian military build-up on the border area for Kyiv or Dnipro residents is only a chapter in an eight-year-long war. But for the West, fresh Russo-Ukrainian tensions could bring something different from diplomatic calls and typical “deep concern”. In a strong message to Putin from the White House, US troops surge in CEE and macroeconomic plans for Ukraine. Even if the Kremlin doesn’t decide on a massive invasion in the next weeks and months, we will be watching the most important shift in European security in decades.
For many experts, it’s obvious, but I don’t have a problem with repeating this once again because in geopolitics, two things are the most important: trade routes and access to resources. Every single empire dies (sooner or later) without developing and Putin is using two weapons in his arsenal: army and gas – separately or together at the same time. When Oksana Syroyid, former Deputy Chairwoman of the Verkhovna Rada, talks to me about combining Nord Stream 2 launch with new military offensive, I was cautious. But after three months from this meeting, Russia started to move on with the army in front of its border with Ukraine. The Kremlin proposed an easy deal to Western Europe: stable gas transfer with low prices behind Eastern Europe states capture. According to the EU Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators, Germany depends on Russian gas for 49 percent of its supply so President Putin believed that Chancellor Scholz and other European leaders would turn a blind eye to a potential new invasion on Ukraine. Until now, when the Russian leader recalculated this plan.
For the last three decades, European security has been built on a myth around liberalism and capitalism winning over communism and eliminating war as a tool in foreign relations. The EU and NATO enlargement to new countries was a spectacular Kremlin failure and vision of the “Russkiy Mir” (a sort of Russian soft power) was a bad business even for many former soviet countries. Putin tried to counterattack, using Russian-speaking minorities in many states, like Moldova, Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine. For the Kremlin, the argument of “protecting” these people was an excuse for propaganda, sabotage and military actions in recent years. But, in most cases, US and other NATO states weren’t a part of these conflicts and the current Russo-Ukrainian tension is very different. A potential escalation could begin a new proxy war in the middle of Europe and while we can’t forget about the tragedy of the Yugoslavian wars in the 90’s, Russia wasn’t one of the main sides in the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo. In fact, at that time, the Russian army was closely aligned to NATO. Now however, current tensions around Ukraine involve much more attention from Western states and the reason is obvious – the Kremlin is undermining a post-Cold War security order in Europe and potential new invasion of Ukraine could bring a real threat to Europe and not just the Central and Eastern European Countries (CEE).
Vladimir Putin’s main goal is the restoration of the Soviet Union and pushing for a new security deal with the United States. European countries, like Germany and France, are important to the Kremlin only for economic reasons. The Russian President really wants to hark back to Cold War order, when the most important decisions are approved in bilateral meetings. This is impossible, because that bipolar World ended almost 30 years ago and now, we have many more main decision makers. China is looking for an occasion to redefine cross-strait relations and keep on path to becoming a first world economy. A proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia could get out of control in the near future and all of these flashpoints have influence on Europe – yesterday a leader of innovations and a political main actor, but tomorrow maybe only a shadow of its past power. Russia, China and other authoritarian regimes have the same aim – the end of current security order, based on liberal values and US/Western Europe domination. A potential new conflict in Ukraine is now the most important test for the NATO alliance in the last 30 years and the result of this confrontation could real influence in next decades.
To be honest, I don’t see any good solution in the Russo-Ukrainian crisis. And this is the most dangerous thing. For sure, Putin will keep more than 150,000 troops near the border with Ukraine, even without any big military steps. Crimea is still occupied by the Kremlin and the Russian administration system in the Black Sea peninsula is very strong. However, the region is addicted to water and energy supply from the Ukrainian area. Also, occupying areas in Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts (officially by pro-Russian separatists) in last 8 years are cut off from the Ukrainian side by a frontline. The implementation of the Minsk agreement, important for Germany and France, is not principal for the main sides, and they are not ready for concessions. Obviously, military conflict in the Ukrainian region was started by Russia and now Putin does not want to take responsibility for that. A full-scale invasion is the only answer for the Kremlin and they don’t seem to care about diplomacy. According to European leader’s statements, new sanctions on Russia are ready and EU/NATO solidarity is strong. Yet the West accepted status quo over Crimea and Donbass and chances for Ukrainian membership in EU/NATO structures are barely open.
We need to realise that the Kremlin offers nothing or very small benefits for residents of occupying areas in Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova. Russian passports don’t feed poor families or build new roads. Criminals corrupt local authorities and offer “security” bills for company owners, in return offering nothing more than claim from own threat. That’s why US and European leaders have a trump card for Eastern Europe – development funds, education and work opportunities. Many Poles feel safe, seeing US troops come for military drills and EU structure funds, which rebuild infrastructure and restore work opportunities in smaller cities and a lot of Ukrainians, who choose Poland and other EU states for job and study, seeing all of those things – like administration without spectacular corruption or a Schengen zone. The Kremlin is not able to offer development funds, because it needs help itself.
Under Putin, the Russian economy is still focusing on coal energy and cannot invest any more money in innovations. Tanks and artillery will not replace better education and administrative reforms, but they can give access to trade routes and to resources. And as we can see, for Putin, geopolitical calculation is much more necessary than a successful policy.
Featured image by TheKit_13 on Pixabay.