Disquiet on the Eastern Front
Russia is on the offensive. An offensive that is hybrid, both military and through other means, as has been the case since 2014. The Kremlin is amassing tanks and troops at the border with Ukraine and placing paratroops in Crimea, while also maintaining its area denial weapon system in the Black Sea. Moscow is not only flexing its military muscle but is also quite credibly defending Putin’s often-referenced red line.
Military actions are accompanied by various other destabilizing maneuvers. Putin presumably has some role in the refugees being led to Belarus’s border to Poland, creating havoc at the border and within the EU. Certainly, the resulting portrait suits the Kremlin; Poland seems harsh toward the refugees and the EU looks incapable of managing the situation. It creates the destabilization that Putin seeks. But even better: it spreads an image of the West as lacking both empathy and power.
Add to this Russia’s permanent gas flow blackmail, as Putin lowers and hikes prices depending on support for North Stream 2, the Russo-German gas pipeline project. Every reaction (or action) in the Black Sea by Europeans, including the UK, from arming Ukraine to flying planes in the Crimean space, is met with a response from Putin, both in discourse and in action, and again shows the weakness of a West that cannot keep its promises. The West, meanwhile, struggles to respond. Poland is in the midst of conflict with the EC over democratic setbacks, as North Stream 2 divides Europe and the EU continues to debate options of security autonomy from the United States.
For its part, Washington maintains its firmness against Russia and interest in the Black Sea, with a strategy for the Black Sea in the making. However, the predominant narrative in the region, generously fueled by Russian propaganda, is that the United States is turning away from Europe’s East as it focuses on its competition turned rivalry turned sharp antagonism with China.
In its search for a response, the EU (as well as the United States) needs to look not only at the humanitarian crisis of the migrants at the border or the troops being amassed near Ukraine—although both require immediate action—but at all of Russia’s actions in the region and beyond. How can this be accomplished? How can the EU finally get to fixing immediate crises while maintaining a coherent strategy and tactics? And can this still be done together with the United States?
There are many points to address. On the question of Russian motivations: Russia is not hostile to the EU per se. In some ways, it does not take the EU very seriously, because the EU commands no military power and is so robustly transnational. But for the past 10 or so years, three areas of tension have emerged between Russia and the EU. The first was the Eastern Partnership Program, which Russia interpreted as an unwanted intrusion into its neighborhood, especially where Belarus and Ukraine are concerned, a development that culminated in the “Ukraine crisis” of 2014. The second is EU sanctions placed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas, which Putin sees as of a piece with the general Western will to weaken Russia. And third is the EU’s open support for the opposition to Lukashenko in Belarus, which confirms the Kremlin’s conviction that transatlantic policy is the encouragement of colored revolutions first on Russia’s periphery and eventually in Russia itself. Based on these three points of tension, as Russia construes them, Putin has pursued a range of policies intended to thwart the EU. These range from support for anti-EU politicians and movements to the incorporation of a sharp-elbowed energy policy into ongoing Russian discontent with EU policy.
What ties Putin and Lukashenko together is the following assumption: that the Belarusian opposition must fail and that the EU must pay a heavy price for even thinking that it can influence political outcomes in Belarus or in Russia.
On Belarus: the degree of Putin’s support for Lukashenko is an open question, for which there is precious little evidence one way or another. Putin knows that Lukashenko is weakening domestically and has always seen him as erratic and unpleasantly ambitious. Putin is surely exploring alternatives to Lukashenko as the leader of Belarus. It is not certain that Putin approves of the migrant crisis caused by Lukashenko or that he approves of every aspect of Lukashenko’s behavior. To be sure, though, Putin has up to now tolerated Lukashenko because they share a common enemy and a common project. That common enemy is a combination of the EU, NATO, and the United States. The common project is to retain the autonomy of Russia and Belarus vis-à-vis the West and, in particular, to shut down any political development that would threaten their rule. What ties Putin and Lukashenko together is the following assumption: that the Belarusian opposition must fail and that the EU must pay a heavy price for even thinking that it can influence political outcomes in Belarus or in Russia. The engineered crisis at the border is Lukashenko’s way of making this point. Its clumsiness and probable backfiring may or may not be apparent to the Kremlin. But its intentions of taming the EU are entirely congenial to Putin, who was surely pleased that the border crisis compelled Angela Merkel to call Lukashenko, thus confirming his status as the leader of Belarus and changing the narrative of an opposition movement on the verge of coming to power.
In the case of Ukraine: it is clear that the status quo does not work for Russia. It affords Russia too little influence and is enabling the ever-tighter linkage of Ukraine’s military with the US military and with NATO structures. Putin has repeatedly argued that this state of affairs crosses a crucial Russian red line; there is no doubt that Putin means what he says in this regard. What he has decided to do is hard to assess, and he may not yet have made a decision: he may watch and wait, hoping that instability within Ukraine, within the United States, or within the EU or NATO will do his work for him. He may threaten war for the sake of changing the general outlines of the situation, getting either Ukraine or the West to make concessions that would move Ukraine toward neutrality and away from partnership with the West. Or he may invade the country, as he has been giving himself the option of doing by amassing forces on the Ukrainian border, either to impose a settlement on Ukraine that would be amenable to Moscow or to divide the country in two, leaving the Western half to do what it wants regarding the EU and NATO and incorporating the Eastern half under Russian sovereignty or suzerainty. The only definite conclusion that can be drawn about Putin’s calculus is that he will not passively accept the status quo; in one way or another, he will seek to change it.
What this means for EU policy is that the EU has to get better at self-defense. Above and beyond the territories near Belarus, it should work on its migration policy so as to strengthen the EU, to provide greater coordination among member states, and to clarify the process whereby migrants/refugees are either accepted or not accepted into the EU.
In addition, the EU needs to be tougher on Belarus. It did not impose real costs on Minsk for the airliner hijacking that was meant to be an affront to the EU. It is slow and inconsistent in sanctioning Belarus for Lukashenko’s brutal instrumentalization of migrants to destabilize the EU. No doubt the US and NATO can be allies on these issues, but the EU itself needs to become more capable and quicker to respond to such provocations.
The EU seems united only in knowing what it does not want, which is a Russian sphere of influence.
Secondly, the EU needs to develop a real strategy for what had once been the Eastern Partnership Program, which is surely one of the great diplomatic failures of recent years. What are the EU’s strategic goals vis-à-vis Ukraine and Belarus? How does it intend to achieve them? What resources does it have at its disposal? The EU needs to dispense with airy rhetoric and get down to the hard job of addressing the countries between itself and Russia, over which there reigns an unfortunate asymmetry. Russia knows exactly what it wants, a sphere of influence, and the EU seems united only in knowing what it does not want, which is a Russian sphere of influence. In a contest between a power that knows what it wants and a power that does not know what it wants, uncertainty is a palpable disadvantage. The EU is rich and powerful, but it needs to orient its wealth and power toward coherent and reachable goals, nowhere more so than in Eastern or Central Europe. No less than the South China Sea is the space between the EU and Russia destined to be the battleground of the 21st century.
Let me just briefly address the moment of relative quiet that we are now seeing on the border and what NATO needs, in general terms, to address this multi-domain competition with Russia.
The situation on the Polish-Belarusian border has somewhat stabilized this week after frantic diplomacy last week led by Chancellor Merkel and President Macron. But it is not yet over. First of all, the pressure on the EU border in Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia continues. Over the past week, the number of illegal crossings has fallen to around 200 in Poland, but it has not ceased entirely. Belarusian security services continue to instrumentalize migrants, but thankfully we are no longer seeing the scenes of the past weeks, with thousands marching on the border. So far, very few migrants have been repatriated back to their countries of origin, which means that the Lukashenko regime can again push people toward the border, if he finds it politically expedient.
Yet the crisis on the border is part of a bigger picture, as Alina pointed out in the opening. Even if Putin is not directly controlling every move of Lukashenko’s regime, the two autocrats cooperate and coordinate, at the very least, in their larger conflict with the West that, for now, is happening below the threshold of war—but that has a clear goal of establishing the Kremlin’s sphere of influence in Eastern European countries. This would have both political and security consequences not only for these countries, but also directly for the EU and NATO.
The West is structurally stronger in these domains, but also timider—and therefore finds itself on the back foot in this conflict with Putin and Lukashenko.
NATO, in particular, is not yet well prepared to deal with a conflict that happens largely below the threshold of war. But that kind of conflict will be the favorite for NATO’s enemies. Russia and its puppets are now focused on conflict below the threshold largely because the alliance as a whole is so overwhelmingly superior when it comes to military capabilities. Resilience to these threats is important. NATO needs to learn how to fight in this new environment, where the adversary focuses primarily on other domains to pressure the West—energy, informational space, cyber space, migration pressure, the military dimension. NATO needs to be able to play not only defense, but also offense across these domains. The alliance needs to develop deterrence capabilities and strategies by having options to react to below-the-threshold conflict. The West is structurally stronger in these domains, but also timider—and therefore finds itself on the back foot in this conflict with Putin and Lukashenko. We need to have an open conversation within the alliance on how to actively respond to such multi-domain attacks. All is not quiet on the Eastern front.
Not only does NATO need to adapt and respond to these challenges but so, too, does the EU. As long as European states have one policy toward Russia under the NATO umbrella and a different one under the EU, Russia will be able to continue its non-military actions quite successfully. Beyond and beside military and societal resilience, the West needs to build political resilience against actions meant to destabilize and divide. This is a tall order for a Union constantly preoccupied with its internal cohesion and design, and internal power struggles.
The EU, to underscore what Michael said, needs to treat its Eastern neighborhood with more determination, of the kind Italy and France have toward the Union’s (and their) Southern neighborhood, as outlined in their recently inked Quirinale Treaty. The relevant provisions in this treaty could serve as a good source of inspiration for European policy designers toward Eastern Europe when they meet at the Eastern Partnership (EaP) Summit in a few days. Strengthening economic ties and building institutional and societal resilience should be the main goals of a renewed EaP, one that should starkly differentiate between societies and governments, supporting the first and conditioning behavior toward the latter on performance and good intentions.