There is growing evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin has succeeded in driving a wedge between the United States and the European Union, which will give him the upper hand in negotiations to end the Ukraine crisis. This is unfortunate, because Mr. Putin has created this global predicament with his large-scale military build-up along the Ukrainian border and now the movement of Russian troops into neighboring Belarus.
Mr Putin demanded that NATO break its rules and bar Ukraine from membership, among other conditions that the West has rightly rejected. President Joe Biden assured him that the United States would not send its troops to defend Ukraine – a statement in itself that weakens the West’s negotiating position. In practice, given the size of the Russian threat, American boots on the ground are unlikely to make a decisive military difference.
It is likely that Mr. Putin wants to dismember Ukraine further and bring it back into the Russian sphere of interest. In 2014, he seized Russian-speaking Crimea from Ukraine and continues to support with arms an eight-year dissident rebellion led by Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the Donbass border region. His successful campaign to exploit the differences between the EU and the US will make it difficult for any Ukrainian government to resist his demands.
At a press conference on Wednesday, President Biden said Russia had overwhelming military superiority against Ukraine, but could only have a “minor incursion” in mind likely to save itself. seize the already disputed Donbass. (After quick criticism, Mr. Biden clarified his “incursion” comment on Thursday.) He also suggested that NATO members disagree on how to handle this incursion, pointing to a troubling flaw in the alliance that Mr. Putin continues to exploit.
Mr. Putin does not have to invade Ukraine or take the risks that would entail to achieve his immediate goals. All it needs is an agreement favorable to Moscow, putting it in a position to impose new demands on all the neighboring countries of Central Europe. The latest evidence of a split between Washington and Europe was German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock’s statement on Monday that her country will continue to refuse defensive arms sales requested by the Ukrainian government. The United States, Britain, France and Lithuania have said they will supply defensive arms to Ukraine, but Germany has invoked its restrictive arms export policy in refusing such military aid. .
German leaders have also been internally divided over calls to target sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, further weakening the West’s negotiating position. The United States was right to warn earlier that the pipeline, which was completed last year but not yet opened, could make Germany more passive in the face of Russian aggression.
Ms. Baerbock said she was ready to relaunch a negotiation forum for the settlement of the crisis comprising only Germany, France, Ukraine and Moscow. It comes after Moscow described negotiations last week between Russia and a team of diplomats representing the United States, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as a “stalemate”.
Those negotiations followed the publication by The New York Times of a list of sanctions and other measures that the Biden administration warned Russia would face in the event of an invasion. Sanctions include denying Russian banks access to the main international clearinghouse for banking transactions, known as the “nuclear weapon” of sanctions. Such a move would require European cooperation, which is also lacking here and which further emboldens Mr. Putin.
The Russian response suggests that Mr Putin is not worried that Mr Biden will follow through on his threats. One of the main reasons is Russia’s control over Europe’s main source of natural gas. Russia has demonstrated its influence over the past five months by cutting gas supplies to Europe, helping to drive up gas and other energy prices in Europe and the United States.
Even if a Russian invasion of Ukraine is averted, the West should not jokingly claim victory: Russia will emerge stronger in Central Europe and continue to be a destabilizing force there.
As Andrew Hamilton suggests in his column on the comments page, new thinking about how to achieve lasting European security is urgently needed.