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“To give security to these countless homes, they must be shielded from the two giant marauders, war and tyranny.” This excerpt from Winston Churchill’s famous ‘Iron Curtain Speech’ from 1946 provides a comprehensive insight into the possible return of armed conflict and destabilizing effects to the post-Cold War European geo-security order. With Russian President Vladimir Putin amassing an invading force of 130,000 on the borders of Ukraine, the West is yet again on the edge of possible military escalation and a wider Pan-European war. Coupled with Putin’s unambiguous demands for NATO, it is clear that Europe’s geo-security order is under threat.
To showcase its resolve to Putin’s hard power politics and avoid similar results that occurred from his annexation of Crimea in 2014, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany have all participated in one-on-one meetings with the Russian president to deescalate the Ukrainian Crisis while pledging support for Ukraine’s territorial and political sovereignty – a strategic conundrum for NATO and the European geo-security order. To avoid war and maintain its vital assurances for regional peace and prosperity, the West needs to become more assertive in protecting, promoting, and procuring the post-Cold War European geo-security order to the continent. Moreover, the West needs to collectively disclose to Putin that his belligerent and draconian fearmongering will not be tolerated and that it has no place in the geo-security architecture of Europe.
THE UKRAINIAN CRISIS
The ongoing crisis along the Ukrainian border is nothing new in Putin’s foreign policy, and the recent military build-ups should be seen as the second stage in Putin’s desire for exerting greater power and authority over Russia’s “sphere of influence.” Dating back to 2013, Putin has persistently bullied Ukraine and its political leaders to align more with Moscow and reverse any political and economic integration with the European Union. However, the idea of a “common Soviet past” or a shared ‘Rus’ history and culture has little importance for the Ukrainian people.
With the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, Putin feared a more pro-West and pro-European Ukraine. Perceiving an opportunity to intervene in the domestic affairs of Ukraine, due to the 2014 “overthrow” of then-President Victor Yanukovych, Putin launched a military invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Citing his presidential duty to protect all ethnic Russians in Crimea, a group representing 60 percent of the peninsula’s population, Putin justified the annexation with a referendum that showcased the Crimean population, supporting his decision to incorporate the peninsula into the Russian state.
The political results of Russia forcefully annexing Crimea in defence of ethnic Russians – citizens and native speakers – had important consequences for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine. With both regions housing pro-Russian separatists, violence soon broke out between the Ukrainian military and the Russian-backed separatist. Although denying its involvement, the conflict has provided Putin with another opportunity to interfere in the domestic affairs of Ukraine by stationing Russian military troops and equipment near the Donetsk region, along with the alleged cross-border shelling by Russian military forces.
To avoid a regional war, France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine concluded hostilities through the Minsk II Peace Plan, 13 key points that ranged from an immediate and full ceasefire in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to a constitutional reform in Ukraine that would take account of the special status of certain parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The Minsk Peace Plan, however, was short-lived. Between late March and April 2021, Putin instructed the Russian military to mobilize significant quantities of its military towards the Ukrainian border. Moreover, in an almost prelude to his strategic actions, Putin wrote an essay in the summer of 2021, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” that laid out his intentions for absorbing Ukraine by claiming that the two countries are “one people” and reinforcing that Ukraine’s “true sovereignty” can only be achieved in partnership with Russia.
PUTIN’S GEO-SECURITY DEMANDS
After amassing a force of 130,000 on Ukraine’s borders, Putin claimed that he had information of Ukraine deploying 125,000 troops to the Donbas region – a claim denounced as disinformation by the Ukrainian foreign minister. A more plausible reason for Putin’s military advance may have to do with the slow response from Ukraine in following through with the Minsk II Peace Plan. As such, Putin may be using the threat of military force as a way to oblige Ukraine’s government to fully implement his interpretation of the agreement, along with solidifying Russian de facto authority over Ukraine’s foreign policy.
As Putin continues to escalate his military posture towards Ukraine, the West has sought an audience with the Russian president to avoid further armed conflict and political destabilization. Seeing that his recent power projection has granted an audience with the US, NATO, and other key European powers, Putin proposed a draft treaty of demands in December 2021 for renewed regional peace and a solution to the Ukrainian Crisis. Citing Russia’s historical grievances of NATO expansionism in the 1990s and 2000s and the belief that the West has fomented crisis after crisis in the post-Soviet bloc by instilling anti-Russian sentiment and supplying weapons, Putin demands that the West recognize and affirm Russia’s geo-security concerns with the existing European geo-security order – placing Russia as a prominent regional geo-security architect.
To accomplish this task, Putin demanded that NATO withdraw its military infrastructure placed in Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet bloc, along with a written guarantee from NATO never to expand farther east – essentially ending Article X of the North Atlantic Treaty. What is more, Putin demanded that NATO formally revoke the promise of membership to Ukraine and Georgia made at the 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit. Putin furthered his demands to include a mutual restriction on the deployment of short- and medium-range missiles and a ban on military exercises exceeding the strength of a brigade alongside NATO’s eastern flank and greater information sharing on military exercises.
THE REALITIES OF PUTIN’S DEMANDS
Although Putin’s demands concerning NATO, its members, and its military footprint were dismissed, some analysts fear that talks between Russia and the West on geo-security guarantees are set up for diplomatic failure, thereby permitting Putin legitimate grounds for war in Ukraine. What is more, some fear that Putin desires the return of Russia to the glory days of the Soviet Union in territorial, military and political terms. At first glance, his demands for NATO to stop its eastern expansion and the revocation of its military footprint to all former Soviet Republics may reinforce this notion.
However, these fears are misplaced. Today, Russia remains a top military and nuclear power globally, the largest territorial country in the world, and can project its hard and soft power on regional and global geopolitical settings. If President Putin desires a return to the glory days of the Soviet Union, he need not look any further.
It is important to remember that President Putin has extensive memories of the Soviet Union as the second superpower in a regional and global bipolar order. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the newly reconstituted Russia fell in global ranking and lost control of Eastern Europe. More importantly, these events, coupled with the failure of the early Russian leadership to prevent NATO’s absorption of the Warsaw Pact and post-Soviet space, solidified Russia’s defeat in overseeing parts of the European geo-security order. Today, Putin’s Russia only has sweeping de facto dominance and influence over the Caucasus and a small periphery of Eastern Europe, as demonstrated by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia’s moderating role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (you can read our article on the topic here) and propping up the legitimacy of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
The realities of Putin’s demands to NATO and his military belligerence to Ukraine have a lot to do with his obsession with regaining the titular recognition of being a great European power, along with equal global status to the US and China. What is more, it is clear from Putin’s strategic impulse that he seeks to install Russia’s geo-security concerns onto the European geo-security order, thus legitimizing his territorial, ideological, and structural notions of state-centric interests and power.
Analysts also suggest that Putin desires the return of a Cold War geo-security structure of power that can counter the advancement of the West’s institutional, economic and military integration, in effect reviving a Soviet bloc equipped with pro-Russian elites. Although this is possible, it does not fit the Russian leader’s near-term goals for regaining great power status and repealing the architecture that governs the European geo-security order.
More likely, Putin seeks to halt NATO expansion in hopes of sketching out a ‘sphere of influence’ that will position Russia as a great power and regional mediator and security guarantor to non-NATO countries and who happen to harbour undemocratic and authoritarian regimes. This development would safeguard Russia’s western borders with existing NATO members, thereby allowing Putin to achieve greater concessions from an isolated Ukraine while deepening diplomatic, political, and even military interoperability with the Balkans.
With such influence in the “soft underbelly” of Europe, Putin could place strategic military assets near major US and NATO bases, have access to the Adriatic Sea and generate a more pro-Slavic and pro-Orthodox fraternity that would be easier to manage, reinforce, control, and align with Moscow’s national interests. In essence, Putin could initiate a geopolitical game of quid pro quo with NATO, the major European powers, and the US with these newly established geo-security bases.
To paint President Putin as a warmonger or an authoritarian dictator bent on reviving the Soviet Union at all costs does not give the Russian leader significant credit for his longevity as a political figurehead. For instance, Putin has remained president of Russia while all of the West’s political leaders have been replaced, a challenging feature for diplomatic agreements and treaties to remain potent over time. Moreover, Putin acknowledges that Russia’s population and its level of skills are decreasing, thereby forcing him and the regime to shift Russia’s long-term goals to the near-term. In a stroke of luck, Putin’s near-term goals fall when the US is pivoting its strategic outlook towards the Indo-Pacific and China, European liberal-democracies are eroding and growing intra-alliance friction among NATO members.
SHORTFALLS OF THE WEST’S RESOLVE
Putin’s calculated demands have come at a particular time in the West’s history. Revamping from the previous Trump presidency, US President Joe Biden has underpinned NATO and Europe’s geo-security order as the heart of the Western alliance, in particular, reiterating NATO’s Article V as a “sacred obligation.” However, with his administration’s over lurking presence in the Indo-Pacific to counter Chinese regional hegemony, many NATO allies and Putin observe that Europe is in America’s rearview.
Putin also recalls the last Ukrainian conflict in 2014 and the low ball reactions to his annexation of Crimea by the US and NATO allies. Observing Putin’s belligerent actions against Ukraine, former US President Barack Obama positioned Russia as a lone regional power that was threatening its neighbours, and as a result, not a national security threat. After recognizing the reality that Putin violated Ukrainian territorial and political sovereignty, along with international law, Obama placed economic sanctions on Russian officials. Coupled with US sanctions and Europe’s haste to sign the Minsk Peace Plan, with the first Minsk treaty collapsing within days of its signing, it is unequivocal to see why Putin was not reluctant to amass a large force on the Ukrainian border.
The West has also stalled to collectively deal with the Ukrainian Crisis by having its major powers – the US, France, UK, and Germany – establish one-on-one interviews, meetings, and summits with Putin. Rather than resolving the situation, these unilateral deals have emboldened Putin’s demands and military action. What is more, these dealings accolade more optics of Russia being a great power and on par with the US is managing and influencing the European geo-security order. It also reinforces Putin’s belief that the West, particularly the US, is a waning power bloc incapable of facing hard power intimidations from Russia, making the West seemingly afraid to confront Putin when he pushes or threatens with force. As a result, these inactions have precipitated Putin to heighten his offensive antics and rhetoric.
Intra-alliance friction is also at play when dealing with Putin. Instead of uniting as a single collective organization of like-minded allies, NATO – under the leadership of the US – has marginalized its Eastern European members by having certain groups within the Alliance as primary and secondary affiliates. For instance, US President Biden has on multiple occasions contacted the Bucharest Nine to signal the US resolute commitment to NATO’s eastern flank and reassurance of deterring Russia while, at the same time, using the NATO Quint – primarily France, UK, and Germany – to negotiate with Putin directly. It is incomprehensible to see why the West would negotiate with Putin without directly involving the Eastern European states that have the most to lose if Russia invades Ukraine. Lastly, these diplomatic maneuvers posture NATO’s eastern flank and the countries that make it up in an almost compromised position, feeling as though they are expandable if Russia intimidates Europe in the future.
Friction among the West also extends to all levels of powers, ranging from the Nord Stream 2 debate among the major NATO powers; Germany’s reigning governmental coalition having domestic divisions on a response; the polarization and gridlock of the US Senate to ratify any treaty conditions; and more recently, Germany blocking Estonia from providing German-made weapons to Ukraine.
A MORE ASSERTIVE WEST
For the West to thrive against Putin’s growing belligerence, it must collectively come together. Luckily for the West, there is NATO. It is undeniable that NATO is the most successful military and political alliance in history. To capitalize on its success, the West needs to make NATO its primary institutional tool to deter and defend the transatlantic region by becoming more assertive in its relationship and conduct to Putin.
The first move NATO needs to make is to upgrade and contribute significant military troops, equipment, and infrastructure to its eastern flank. Due to the US pivot towards the Indo-Pacific and other NATO members not fully investing in their militaries, Putin now commands a significant number of tanks, cruise missiles, and troops that outmatches the existing NATO military contingent that forms the Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) on its eastern flank.
To overcome this setback, NATO needs to reopen allied air and ground bases that can station the Alliance’s vast array of troops and fighter jets, along with reinforcing and creating new air force combat squadrons that can deploy at a moments notice to defend the territorial sovereignty and airspace of the Alliance’s members. What is more, NATO needs to bolster allied ground forces, armour divisions, and missile defence batteries.
NATO should also seek funding from the US and other NATO members to amplify its military posture to its eastern and southern flank by formalizing a functional readiness program that reflects the ‘Four Thirties” initiative. The US should reinforce this program by encouraging the EU to invest in major military acquisitions to fill early readiness gaps that will reduce NATO’s European members’ full dependency on the US. In turn, the US would have ample time to amass a significant military force that could enhance the European contingent. For this to work, however, the US must maintain a sizable conventional force that can support NATO’s European members in military logistics and operational command.
NATO also needs to update its conventional arsenal of defensive weapons, ranging from traditional ground forces to drones and tanks, tactically placed Integrated Air and Missile Defence installations, and military infrastructure. The latter of these updates is crucial as it will permit NATO forces to improve military mobility and transportation capabilities that can swiftly and efficiently send vast detachments of troops and tanks to the eastern flank, effectively cutting off any attempts for Putin to gain a strategic and territorial advantage.
The West should also halt all public communique and one-on-one meetings with Putin. It is apparent that the Russian leader seeks equal footing with the West through public discourse. By threatening Ukraine or Europe, Putin knows that the West will quickly respond to any threats. As a result, these immediate efforts undermine the West’s strategic posture to Putin and prevent the West from effectively planning for force deployment and military support, potentially being used instead as a provocation for Putin to carry out armed attacks.
Instead, under NATO, the West should snub Putin of an easy victory by not publicly reacting to his antagonistic demands. NATO should only interact with Putin through back and close door diplomacy. Through such diplomatic maneuvers, NATO could be more assertive to Putin, detailing that any attack or further aggression would result in more hard power responses – extensive military buildups to the Alliance’s eastern flank, banning Russian ships from Western ports, and suspending any geo-security talks. These assertive proclamations would demonstrate to Putin the collective readiness and staunch assurance of NATO in upholding its treaty obligations and preserving its territorial sovereignty against any possible Russian military advances. At the same time, closed-door talks would also avoid putting Putin into a corner, thereby allowing him not to lose face amongst the Russian people and influential officials in his regime.
Lastly, with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg likely stepping down as the Alliance’s leader, the West should unanimously elect a new Secretary-General from the post-Soviet sphere, particularly the Baltics. Although the Baltic states have been called fearmongers, their apprehension of Putin is well-founded in their country’s history with their eastern neighbour. Let us not forget that the Baltic states were occupied by the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. Like many former Warsaw states, the Baltics have distinct memories of Soviet crackdowns on domestic protest and arbitrary arrests.
Fueled with memories like the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring in 1968, and the Vilnius protest of 1991, a NATO Secretary-General from the post-Soviet sphere will bluntly declare to Putin that the West is fully dedicated to deter and defend Europe from the Russian leader. There are also logistical benefits to such a move as many people in the Baltics are fluent or native Russian speakers. A NATO leader with this credential would promptly convey to Putin that the West is “listening to what Russia says and believes it.”
“The safety of the world requires a new unity in Europe, from which no nation should be permanently outcast.”
For continued and uncompromised peace to flourish in Europe, the West can no longer ably sit by as a reactor to threats of military aggression. Following this excerpt of Winston Churchill’s Sinews of Peace speech, NATO and its members must be clear amongst each other and to the rest of the world that the West is ready and willing to confront an aggressive Putin that seeks to undermine the European geo-security order for his own near-term goals.
Although such political, diplomatic, and military actions are challenging, even being seen as overtly hawkish, Putin is a byproduct of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, and as a result, understands and appreciates the power and might of the Alliance. After all, NATO endured Soviet advances and remains prevalent in the geo-security architecture of Europe. If the West can grasp the full potential of NATO and collectively interact with Putin, the strategic landscape that has plagued Eastern Europe would indeed be unlike anything that is now in play.