Russia has sold the West the dummy over Ukraine
Russian forces are still poised on the borders of Ukraine. But before any new land invasion starts, Russia is already winning the propaganda war.
Western media, and an alarming number of western politicians, seem to have swallowed the idea that what Russia wants is limited to halting NATO enlargement – in particular for Ukraine. But Russia’s real demands, as laid out in the “draft treaties” presented to NATO and the US, extend far further.
Russia is demanding not an end to the westward expansion of NATO as a military bloc, but instead its rolling back, and a reassertion of Russia’s claims to droit de seigneur over its former territories.
The treaties in effect call for the demilitarisation of eastern Europe, as well as an end to protective arrangements like the deployment of British troops in Estonia and Poland. Even the sections of the treaties discussing arms control are laid out in terms that favour only Russia. For instance, the ban on land-based missiles “based outside national territory” means that the only missiles threatening European capitals should be Russian ones based in Russia. Similarly, the demand for the de-nuclearisation of Europe would mean that only Russia has tactical nuclear weapons there.
Russia has many options for punishing Ukraine that are far less messy, expensive, and unpredictable, than rolling tanks across the border
What Russia wants is a free hand. The leader of Russia’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Petr Tolstoy, has stated openly that Russia aspires to a return to its frontiers of 1917.
This is a direct challenge to the sovereignty of countries like Poland and Finland, which were then part of the Russian Empire. Their current status as not only sovereign and independent nations, but full-fledged members of Western institutions like the EU and NATO is intolerable to Russia, which sees them as part of its dominion and its inheritance.
In the most recent statements from the US, firm responses to Russia are promised – but if, and only if, Russia mounts a land invasion of Ukraine. It’s been clear from the early stages of the crisis that despite Russia’s military posturing, that is one of the least likely scenarios.
Russia has many other options for emphasising its demands and punishing Ukraine that are far less messy, expensive, and above all unpredictable, than rolling tanks across the border.
What is more, the US has bought into Russia’s view that this is a matter to be settled between the two “great powers”, without consulting the countries directly affected. We’ve heard promises from the US that there would be no discussion “about Europe without Europe” – but that’s exactly what has been happening.
It’s a chilling sight for the countries of eastern Europe, with their grim history of deals about their future made over their heads by the leading powers of the day. But in the absence of US leadership, it has been the UK that has stepped up with firm and positive policy moves.
That’s not just rhetorical, although Ben Wallace’s essay rebutting President Putin’s claims has won widespread admiration in eastern Europe. It’s also meaningful assistance to Ukraine, in the form of (at least) large shipments of anti-tank missiles. That kind of action will directly raise the cost of any possible Russian invasion, and therefore make it less likely – and as such, it’s a major British contribution to peace in Europe, and a policy line that needs to continue and be reinforced.
The contrast with the EU’s irrelevance in the current crisis couldn’t be more obvious. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell says, “the ambition of the Russian authorities is to challenge the political and security order” of Europe. Borrell misses the point that that order was challenged by Moscow long ago - at the very latest, with the seizure of Crimea.
But what we have witnessed over the last month is a normalisation and acceptance of this challenge, to the point where we now know exactly when demands to violate sovereign rights were accepted as agenda points in Euro-Atlantic diplomacy. That in itself is a victory for Russia. It is vital to ensure that Russia gains no further ground – and with the EU absent and the US asleep at the wheel, the UK has a major role to play.
Keir Giles is a Senior Consulting Fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House.
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