Transatlantic Take: Washington, Paris, Berlin

Positioning on Russian Escalation at Ukraine’s Borders

December 09, 2021
Photo credit: E.Kryzhanivskyi /

A Unified Front in DC

By Steven Keil

The build-up of military forces along Ukraine’s borders has again placed Russia front and center on the U.S. policy agenda. And while there still seems to be some uncertainty about whether or not Putin’s escalatory moves are actually preparing an imminent invasion or are just a coercive bluff, there is clearly a need to take them seriously. U.S. assessments suggest Russia could be planning for a military offensive as soon as early 2022. Now, the United States and its allies and partners are rushing to deter Russia.

In just a few weeks’ time, fragmented interpretations across Europe and the United States have been replaced with a largely coherent perception of the current threat picture. Washington is driving a robust diplomatic effort to support Ukraine, alongside key allies and partners. Learning from the mistakes of the previous administration—and the difficulties experienced after the withdrawal from Afghanistan and AUKUS—the administration has prioritized contact and coordination with allies. Resulting consultations, alongside U.S. intelligence sharing, have helped to facilitate a unified front and reportedly laid the groundwork for a robust sanctions response should Russia invade. The specific details of what this might entail have not been articulated publicly. But whatever is on the table, it is meant to significantly raise the cost for Russia.

In his readout of the Biden-Putin call earlier this week, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan underscored that it would include “things we did not do in 2014.” This could include additional sanctioning of specific members of Putin’s inner circle to the more drastic measure of removing Russia from the SWIFT international payment system. Sullivan also linked the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, saying “if Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine.” While this will ultimately be the decision of the new German government, it signals the administration’s willingness to reignite a difficult issue in U.S.-German bilateral relations to confront Putin’s challenge. Beyond these joint economic and sectoral measures, adding to NATO capabilities in Eastern Europe and further increasing defensive military aid to Ukraine is on the table.

While ramping up the pressure, President Biden is simultaneously creating a diplomatic off-ramp for Russia to de-escalate current tensions.

While ramping up the pressure, President Biden is simultaneously creating a diplomatic off-ramp for Russia to de-escalate current tensions. The administration clarified it offered no concessions on Ukraine’s future NATO membership during the Biden-Putin call, but it has since offered a meeting among Russia, the United States, and select NATO members to hear Russia’s broader concerns. This could test the transatlantic unity of Biden’s approach thus far. Particularly in Eastern Europe, there is little appetite to engage Russia on its security concerns relative to NATO. Biden’s specific mention of “working out an accommodation” to bring down the temperature in such a meeting is of particular concern. And if NATO members from Central and Eastern Europe will not be at the table, these concerns will grow exponentially. Moreover, it could begin to create fissures in Washington’s approach. And at home in Congress, there is also likely to be broad resistance to any overtures of accommodation.

The current situation glaringly demonstrates the lasting problems of the Minsk Process. Unwilling to engage Kyiv directly at this point and seemingly less interested in engaging Europe, Putin has forced the United States into a key mediator role. In response, some in the Washington policy debate argue that the United States should pressure Ukraine to take significant unilateral action to de-escalate tensions by implementing certain provisions of the Minsk agreement (for example, passing constitutional reforms). Others are advocating for the United States to solely focus all energy and resources on pushing back on Putin, inflicting massive economic and financial costs, and not to pressure Ukraine to implement an agreement signed under duress.

Biden’s current approach seems to have settled on a modified combination of the two. Reports suggest the United States is encouraging Ukraine to make some progress in implementing Minsk. Meanwhile, Biden is maintaining pressure on Moscow. Standing by Marine One on Wednesday, Biden said that he is “absolutely confident that he [Putin] got the message.” Russia’s actions in the coming days and weeks will determine whether this is true. Regardless, Biden’s ability to maintain a unified front with allies and partners will be crucial. President Biden had a phone call scheduled with Ukrainian President Zelensky as this article went to press.

A Clear Line in Paris

By Martin Quencez, fellow and deputy director of GMF’s Paris office

The French government intends to play a role in a crisis that is taken very seriously in Paris. In a bilateral call with Vladimir Putin on November 15, Emmanuel Macron shared his “profound concerns, and France’s willingness to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity.” By using such words, the French president wanted to highlight the gravity of the situation, and the French perception of a possible rapid escalation. In parallel, the French minister of foreign affairs released a joint communiqué with his German counterpart calling on Russia to be more transparent about its military activities on the Ukrainian border.

Although the issue is not central in the French political debate, as France enters into a new phase in its presidential campaign, some political leaders have been asked their position on the crisis.

According to French diplomats, the situation has deteriorated for the past 18 months, and the ceasefire of December 2019 is not being implemented on the ground. Paris is also increasingly critical of Russia’s attitude within the Normandy format. The disagreements reached a new level when Russian minister of foreign affairs Lavrov published confidential diplomatic correspondence over a failed meeting in November. The French position, summarized bluntly by minister Le Drian, is that although Russia is “sometimes an insufferable neighbor,” there is still an absolute necessity to “keep channels of communication open.”

Although the issue is not central in the French political debate, as France enters into a new phase in its presidential campaign, some political leaders have been asked their position on the crisis. Marine Le Pen, presidential candidate for the National Rally party, declared during a visit to Warsaw in December that “Ukraine belongs to Russia’s sphere of influence,” and that the EU created “tensions and fears” in this crisis. Jean-Luc Melenchon, presidential candidate for the France Insoumise, criticized Macron’s “pointless aggressivity” over the past few weeks.

Grave Consequences

Regular consultation with partners has been a priority for Paris. The United States, the UK, Germany, Italy, and France discussed the situation at the highest level before the meeting between President Biden and President Putin. The readout of the call highlighted the agreement among the five countries to call on Russia to de-escalate and to reaffirm their commitment to the Normandy process and the Minsk agreement. Coordination with transatlantic partners was also visible as France warned Russia that there would be “grave consequences” to any form of invasion.

President Macron announced on December 7 that he would meet “in the coming days” with his Ukrainian and Russian counterparts Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin, respectively, in order to avoid a military escalation in Ukraine. It is also expected that France would be among the partners involved in the discussions with the United States and Russia.

First Challenge for Germany’s New Chancellor

By Ulrich Speck, visiting fellow

The threat of a new Russian aggression against Ukraine, perhaps on a much bigger scale than 2014, started at a moment when Chancellor Merkel was not yet gone but had become a pretty lame duck. Maybe that was by design: Even if Merkel had supported Nord Stream 2, it was she who organized in 2014, together with US President Obama, the joint transatlantic push-back against Russia’s double attack on Ukraine. The German chancellor was occasionally a formidable opponent, even if she did not ultimately find a way to deal with Putin’s determination to rebuild Russia as a traditional power with a sphere of influence or control. Her hope that goodwill gestures would be replicated and that talks could ultimately deliver solutions to conflicts were disappointed by Putin.

It seems, however, that the new chancellor went one significant step further than Merkel.

Olaf Scholz takes over where Merkel leaves things. During the last days, he has again and again told reporters that “borders cannot be violated” and that there must be “clear consequences” if that does not happen. It seems, however, that the new chancellor went one significant step further than Merkel. According to the FT, Berlin has agreed, pushed by Washington, to at least “consider” stopping Nord Stream 2, the controversial Russo-German pipeline, if Russia invades again. Also, Rolf Mützenich, leader of the Social Democratic Party faction in Bundestag, has declared that in the past his party did not shy away if “necessities arise” to take “appropriate steps.” Scholz himself has refused repeatedly to clearly state where he stands, but he has not denied the FT story.

The Nord Stream Option

It looks therefore as if Germany might be ready to use Nord Stream 2 as a geopolitical weapon—turning economic interdependence and influence into a potential instrument of strength. There is significant pressure to move in this direction: Scholz has apparently been pushed by the United States to agree to add Nord Stream 2 to the bucket of potential sanctions that Blinken has put together in order to deter Putin from starting a full-fledged war against Ukraine. They may have agreed to the ambiguous wording reported by the FT that Germany might “consider” stopping Nord Stream 2—allowing Biden to use this as a threat but at the same time allowing Scholz, who has been a supporter of the pipeline in the past, some room for maneuver. Yet, how far Scholz is ready to go remains unclear. Welt reports that, according to its sources, Berlin has not substantially changed its position; that there is no automatism between a Russian invasion and the stop of Nord Stream 2—only that in such a case, “all options are on the table.