Russia Launches Full-Scale Attack against Ukraine: What Next
Editor's Note: This text was revised on February 25, 2022 to include additional content.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine dramatically underscores the importance of the alliance for transatlantic security. An obvious point, but one that has sometimes been lost in the political noise of the last years on both sides of the Atlantic. Some allies may retain an aspirational interest in European strategic autonomy. But this will now come up against tougher, practical measures of capability in the face of direct, high-intensity security challenges. Territorial defense is back at the top of the agenda. Expeditionary missions, already unpopular, will take a distant back seat. This is critical for the revised NATO strategic concept to be unveiled at the Madrid summit in June. Over the coming months, the alliance also needs to choose a new Secretary General. The choice now takes on far greater significance.
The alliance also must reckon with the greatly increased risk of military incidents with a potential for escalation. This is now a reality, not just in close proximity to Ukraine, but also further afield. From the Baltic to the Black Sea, from Syria and Libya to the Sahel, NATO member states are operating near to Russian forces and Russian proxies. The other side of this coin is that NATO also has “horizontal” opportunities to respond to Russian aggression.
Watch the video of the event we hosted the morning after Russia declared war with analysts from Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, Brussels, and Washington. Or read the short takes below from those analysts as well as GMF experts on Turkey and China.
The View from Poland of Europe’s Next Steps
President Vladimir Putin has presented us with the biggest challenge since the end of the Cold War. How can Europeans pass this test?
First of all, we need to acknowledge that with this war, the world has changed. The post-Cold War era of cooperation followed by competition with Russia is over.
Next, the Western democratic community needs to punish Russia. There is no question that it’s time to launch the most severe sanctions prepared for this contingency by the West. The authoritarian regime of Lukashenko in Belarus has joined Russia in this attack and needs to face the same sanctions.
Third, the West needs to do everything to help Ukraine withstand this assault. Ukraine will need economic help and humanitarian support, given the scale of attack. Ukraine’s government declared a general mobilization of forces. They understand that they will have to fight alone, but they need Western solidarity and weapons, and there is no moral or practical case not to provide them now.
Last, the West must very significantly strengthen the countries of NATO’s eastern flank. With over 30,000 Russian soldiers in Belarus, and the ongoing war in Ukraine, the security of the Baltic states and Poland has deteriorated sharply. Russia’s heavy military presence in Kaliningrad and Belarus means that these NATO allies face Russian pressure from two directions. Overnight, these countries became front-line states in a war.
The End of Illusions in Germany
I think what we are seeing here is the end of all pretense, the end of all illusions, and the beginning of a new age. There is a necessity to think through German foreign and security policy in a new way. And this country, I think more than any other, will need to change. There are some countries that can now say, “I told you so.” Germany is not among them.
The decision of the German government to cancel Nord Stream 2 is opening the door to that rethink. This is the moment of this coalition’s second start. It is the moment when this chancellor took his first controversial decision, and that decision was most difficult within his own party. By asserting himself he has opened the door to the future. He has opened the door to an adequate response to what Vladimir Putin forces upon all of us.
Three possible policy responses will be looked at:
- There will be an attempt to clean up Europe from dirty money and the corruption of oligarchy.
- We will have a spirited debate about energy policy. The idea that we will go fossil-free will need an update: We will need to go “Putin-free” before we go fossil-free. That will be a very tough question for the governing Greens. They will have to accept that there is a geopolitical component to energy transition.
- There is going to be a very robust discussion about German defense spending. The terms of the debate have changed fundamentally.
I see the NATO Russia founding act as dead. And three documents will need to be looked at anew: the US National Security Strategy (not yet published), the German National Security Strategy (not yet published), and the NATO Strategic Concept. All three will need a rethink.
For Macron, Europeans Already Need to Prepare for the Next Phase of Russian Aggression
In his speech today, President Emmanuel Macron declared that the recent developments constituted “a turning point in the history of Europe and of our country” and stressed the need for transatlantic and European unity in support for Ukraine.
More importantly, he also warned against the disinformation campaigns and the attempts at using “the ghosts from the past.” For Macron, Europeans are engaged in a fierce battle of narratives with Russia, and it is paramount that political leaders explain to their population what is happening and why we need to show solidarity toward Ukraine, despite the costs of the sanctions. The sustainability of European actions, and the credibility of the “massive consequences” that were promised in case of an invasion, depend on the understanding and support of the citizens. The diplomatic effort, in the past weeks, also served this battle of narratives: Macron’s personal visit to Moscow will be a counterargument to the Russian claim that the West refused to have a discussion.
These sanctions will also serve the next stage of the conflict. While there is no hope that sanctions alone will force President Putin to reconsider his decisions, these sanctions will serve an important purpose as transatlantic partners desperately need to gain a leverage on Russia. As limited as it may be, the decisions that will be made in the coming hours will define the power struggle of the next months and years with Moscow.
We Are Only at the Initial Stage of This War
US intelligence and military analysts in the region have been 100% right with their predictions. This means that we should also take seriously the reports that have emerged in the last weeks about what happens after the initial stage of the campaign. We are only at the initial stage, and this can become much more brutal and much uglier than we expect it to be. There are reports about lists already compiled by Moscow of pro-Ukrainian activists, anti-corruption activists, so we have to prepare for human rights violations, which is perhaps not strong enough of a word.
We have to think also past the immediate campaign. What do we do if the Ukrainian army is defeated? Do we have a common stance on arming insurgents and arming the Ukrainian resistance? This might become a contested point among NATO allies. … We will not see a Russia-NATO conflict, but we will see crises and we will see, after Russia succeeds in Ukraine, attempts to coerce and threaten Europe to achieve the aims that were laid out in Russian demands toward European security.
We also have to wonder what this means for regime stability in Russia? Does it strengthen regime stability? Does it weaken regime stability? What is certainly the case is that the Russian president is dragging along his population, who’s not convinced by this war, definitely much less convinced than it was in the case of Crimea.
The United States and Others Need to Double Down on Support for Allies
Putin’s threats to “denazify” Ukraine and brazen compiling of a list of Ukrainian citizens to be killed or sent to detention camps increases the possibility of Russia committing significant atrocities. It is essential right now to raise the level of concern about human rights threats in Ukraine, including illegally occupied Donbas and Crimea, now that the invasion has started. Those threats extend beyond Ukraine’s borders, as do humanitarian assistance needs, including in those countries that are already seeing Ukrainians arrive across the border, with thousands flooding into Moldova.
There is also great concern about the role of Lukashenka in Belarus in this ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Lukashenka has not only opened the door to Russian troops and handed over Belarus independence to Putin, but has also sent Belarusian troops into direct conflict with Ukraine. And what I think you’re likely see in response to Lukashenka’s actions is an increased level of new sanctions focused on his regime’s support for Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
Now that Russia’s invasion has started, the United States and other NATO allies must double down and reemphasize support for NATO partners and allies, especially those countries that are on the frontline, like Poland, like Slovakia, like Hungary, and the Baltic countries; this is particularly acute with the change of equation and Belarus.
The Biden administration will soon announce its National Security Strategy, and this current situation will dramatically alter what that will look like in terms of US and NATO military and force posture, and the investment in US military and defense as well. I think you are going to see a two-tiered approach, one will include an increased level of support and funding for the US military to fight the type of war that, for the last 20 years and the war on terror, the United States has shifted away from. But the other part of the US and transatlantic approach will be to double down on soft power and advance democracy and critical values in an era of strategic confrontation.
Turkey as Key NATO Actor; Should Be Strengthened as Competitor of Russia in the Balkan Region
The Russian invasion of Ukraine marks the end of the post-Cold War era and the dawn of a new one. Russia’s stated disregard of its neighboring states’ free will and repeated violations of international law have shaken the foundations of the European security order. The great power competition is evolving into a great power rivalry, raising the stakes for everyone. Every country will need to reconsider their foreign and security policy, and Turkey is no exception. In this new era, Turkey will find it much harder to maintain its balancing act between the West and Russia and will need to make real choices. Similarly, Turkey’s allies would be advised to revisit their approach to Turkey, as they would benefit from a stronger Turkey, not a weaker one, in the face of the new challenges that Russia is presenting.
Turkey is often characterized as a key actor in NATO’s southern flank, but it is more than that. Turkey is containing Russian efforts in Syria and Libya and competing with Russia in the Balkan region, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Turkey could be much more effective in these regions if it enjoyed more support from its allies and coordinated its efforts with them in return.
China Is Taking Advantage of the Crisis
China has leaned closer to Moscow in the aftermath of Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine. Beijing appears to be using the crisis to denigrate Western democracy, weaken US alliances, and shape the international system in a direction more favorable to Chinese and Russian interests. It has shamelessly tried to blame the United States for the crisis and refused to hold Moscow responsible. China’s position is based on its assessment that the United States and the West are in inexorable and irreversible decline, and China has the wind at its back.
The handling of this crisis is the biggest test of Xi Jinping’s leadership. If China opts to veto the UN resolution condemning Russia’s actions and helps Moscow to mitigate the impact of Western sanctions, it could signal a major geopolitical realignment that will demand a resolute response from the United States and Europe.