Will Putin attack Ukraine – or is that the wrong question?

Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI | AFP | Getty Images

Part 3: What is to be done?

In the first two parts of this article, we have discussed at some length the question of whether Tzar Vladimir will order his troops to cross into Ukrainian territory. But arguably that isn’t the most important question. The real issue is this: what should the EU and NATO do to deny Vladimir Putin the chance to believe that he holds the winning cards?

So – as one of Mr Putin’s predecessors once put it – what is to be done?

That is a question with a lot of possible addressees and a lot of possible answers, on various time-scales, at various levels of abstraction, generality and political plausibility, and in various fields. The reader will perhaps forgive a humble analyst if he comes up with a somewhat mixed – and certainly very limited – checklist of “do’s and don’ts”. In any case, here it is:

1. Return to Reaganesque containment: This means playing hardball with a priority on limiting the reach and efficiency of Russia’s energy weapon and blackmail tactics. It means calling bluffs and a carrot-and-stick diplomacy that really does have an obvious “stick” element. It means countering Mr Putin’s brinkmanship by showing resolve and commitment both on the military side and on sanctions – demonstrating the costs of misbehaviour and making the maximum use, not of force, but of the credible threat that force will be used.

Some of what it means in more detail will emerge below. For now, two points might be made.

First, Mr Biden is, to say the least, no Reagan – and it’s even possible that he doesn’t read Alternatives and Analyses. But there’s just a chance that, given a combination of circumstances, shifting elite opinion and the right advisers, this tired and disappointed veteran may finally have thrust upon him, if not greatness, then at least a measure of common sense and determination that matches the hour. Stranger things have happened (though admittedly not many).

Second, this approach is certainly, in cost-benefit terms, the best way of dealing with the immediate crisis. But it may also be a way of weakening – and perhaps even saying goodbye to – Mr Putin.  I’ll argue this in more detail elsewhere, but in brief the truth is that popular acceptance and elite support of Mr Putin derives, in various way, from success and largesse that have largely been the outcome of Western weakness. A different approach could reduce his credibility.

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Look at it this way. Mr Putin is threatening that, unless Russia receives security guarantees, bilateral US-Russian relations will grind to a halt. Well, let’s call his bluff. One way or another they will grind to a halt anyhow if Russia invades Ukraine. So why not reverse the logic? Offer him a clear choice of peace or war. If he resorts to force, that will be met by force: proportionate though robust force; in direct terms mostly Ukrainian, though massively supported, force; but force nevertheless. Make that crystal clear and leave him to ponder the choices. And to ponder the consequences of the revanchist rut he’s got himself into. As long as he doesn’t think we’re serious, he won’t be forced to confront those possible consequences. So let’s help the man ponder.

2. Go after Mr Putin’s oligarchs: The Putin regime has made some people – not least Mr Putin himself – fantastically rich. That is one reason why he enjoys such influential support. The West has been rather sparing in its use of financial sanctions against both individuals and the institutions that really matter to them. We need to move against the Putin proxies residing in Western Europe and to go after his oligarchs’ assets there, in Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Cyprus, and Malta. The necessary legislation exists (e.g. the “Magnitsky Act” in the US). But nothing like its full potential is used. Using it quickly and effectively would create elite pressure on Mr Putin to negotiate and compromise. And prolonged use would undermine his reputation as someone who can deliver benefits.

Of course, there’s at least one reason why this hasn’t happened in the past. If Russia’s biggest export is gas, the second-biggest is corruption. Western elites are riddled with Friends-of-Putin (and Friends-of-Friends…), some no doubt sincere and disinterested, but others comfortably in receipt of Russian money. Germany’s the obvious case, but no state in Western Europe is anything close to immune. To say nothing about Central and Eastern Europe. Well-publicised exposure should be used to limit Friends’ credibility, influence and room for manoeuvre. And this should be done, not by shrill, McCarthy-style accusations, but by patient investigative journalism whose conclusions are then well and widely explained. There’s a lot of good investigative journalism about nowadays, after all – and even some explanation.

3. Be forthright about military aid: Generally, our ideas about what’s appropriate should be guided by realistic assessments of what’s needed, not by constant worrying about what might be “provocative”. What Mr Putin says is provocative is an especially bad guide to action (or inaction): he will tend to apply the label to whatever he doesn’t want us to do. So, what is needed?

  • Not “boots on the ground” in Ukraine, for a start. Politically speaking, commitment of combat troops just isn’t going to happen. But it isn’t needed anyway. Ukraine has the human potential to fight back – and the spirit.
  • Military advisers are another matter: more are needed in Ukraine and they should be sent. Arms, munitions and ammunition should be sold or provided as military aid to Ukraine, too, and without hesitation or red tape – whatever is needed for an effective defence needs to be on hand when an attack occurs, not six months afterwards. Discouraging a Ukrainian offensive against Donbass isn’t a consideration now, if it ever was: Kyiv will not be in offensive mode for a good while.
  • Though it should not commit troops to Ukraine, NATO should increase the numbers of troops and military hardware it has in the NATO countries bordering Ukraine.
  • It should also step up the sharing of intelligence and the monitoring of Russian movements at sea, on land and in the air, leaving Moscow in no doubt that aggressive or even suspicious moves will trigger NATO’s alarm systems (Romanian and Bulgarian vigilance in the Black Sea is an example).
  • Finally – a connected but not identical point – the types of aid needed to deny Russia superiority in the air and at sea should be given too.

4. Realise that a “coalition of the willing” is going to be necessary: As argued above, Germany has its own interests, proclivities and hang-ups, and will try to drag its feet, impose vetoes and the like. It’s simplest to accept this from the start and proceed accordingly. A “coalition of the willing” is no bad thing. In this case “the willing” are quite numerous.

5. Do something about gas! Gas is the West’s Achilles heel, its major strategic weakness. That needs to be remedied – in the short, the medium and the long term. A slightly more sensible energy and climate-change policy from Brussels would be nice, of course. But let’s be slightly less ambitious:

  • In the very short term, as much as possible needs to be done to enable liquefied natural gas (LNG) to function as a cushion when the UGS crunch comes in February. Since it’s partly a matter of infrastructure, that’s nowhere near sufficient, of course, but what can be done should be done. Especially by Mr Biden: blithely licensing American LNG cargoes to be shipped to China isn’t the most obvious way to go. Democracy summits are all very well, but if the US president is serious about democracy he needs to think about “Gas for Democracy” first.
  • After the immediate crisis, LNG shouldn’t be neglected in the medium term. The necessary infrastructure should be developed, as a matter of EU policy, so that the option is available. Who knows? It may have price as well as strategic benefits eventually. But for the moment – or at any rate, in another three or four months – the important thing will be not to forget the problem just because winter is over.
  • Each state should be proactive about finding its own alternatives to Russian gas. Speaking as a Bulgarian, I find the failure of national gas company Bulgargaz to take full advantage of the cheap gas on offer from Azerbaidzhan nothing less than scandalous. There’s now a new government in place in Sofia: doing something about that should be one of its first acts. The strategic and diversification impact of Azeri or other non-Russian gas reaching CEE and Ukraine is immeasurable to its bypassing the region and ending up in Italy.
  • At EU level, the best action to take about NS-2 at present would simply be to apply the letter of the EC legal and regulatory framework. That would cause delay and, to maintain sales, Gazprom would have to increase transit via Ukraine – effectively imposing strategic restraints upon itself. Given that German courts and regulators have been showing remarkable independence recently – and that the NS-sceptical Greens are participating in the new coalition – this might not be such a hard thing to achieve.
  • The EU should get serious about asserting the applicability of its third-party access (TPA) rules to Russian pipelines and Russian gas delivery points, allowing for gas offers at the Russian-Ukrainian border and applying reciprocity to the whole value chain of gas supply, from well to client, including safe and non-discriminatory passage of third party gas (notably gas from Central Asia) via Russia’s gas transport system.

Finally, it would be good idea to have a clear long-term policy of, commitment to and target for reducing the percentage of Russian gas in total EU gas imports. It’s above 40% now. A policy of reducing that to 20% within, say, ten years would give Eurocrats and energy companies (and maybe even Germans) something to think about and work towards.  Percentages are secondary, the resolve to deny Russian gas a dominant position is what matters. Accepting natural gas as a ‘green’ transition fuel should imply encouragement of investments in oil and gas exploration and production in the EU.

It would certainly send a firm and useful signal to Moscow, perhaps reminding Russians that Mr Putin may not be able to deliver the goods forever.

Ilian Vassilev

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