A 28-year old British television comedy brings us salient lessons for the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. In it, a British Prime Minister is teasing out the implications of nuclear deterrence with his central European-accented scientific advisor. The adviser is pressing the newly installed Prime Minister to clarify the precise circumstances under which he will be willing to ‘press the button’ for a nuclear strike. The Prime Minister says, “I might, if I were given no choice.” But, the adviser replies, “…they will never put you in a situation where you have no choice. They’ll stick to their salami tactics.” This may indeed be what we are witnessing in Ukraine.
It is deeply depressing to revisit the language and mind set of the Cold War, but this is the path that Vladimir Putin appears to have gaily set himself upon. With respect to Ukraine and Russia’s invasion, occupation, annexation and destabilisation thereof, Putin is being careful always to offer alternatives to forestall the EU – at least – from pressing the button on serious and substantive sanctions.
Sources close to the European Council are adamant that the preparatory work on such sanctions is advanced. The scale and shape of same is being kept tightly under wraps to avoid their premature release destabilising efforts to get Russia to de-escalate or – perhaps more significantly – to avoid frightening those EU member states already skittish at the prospect of such additional sanctions.
Thus far the European Council has held it together. Tough rhetoric has been matched with an explicit and measured game plan; from stage 1 through to the promise of stage 3 sanctions and the offer of multiple ‘off-ramps’ for the speeding Russian juggernaut: off ramps thus far ignored. At the same time, the Russian Government has not formally turned its face against negotiations. It has instead set ludicrous terms for such talks; blithely insisting that its annexation of Crimea should be accepted as a fait accompli, demanding constitutional changes which would allow Ukrainian regions to secede as of right and insisting upon guarantees that Ukrainian foreign and security policy should mould itself to the geostrategic preferences of Russia. Some realpolitik commentators in Europe and the United States have partially endorsed this strategy, calling into mind some replay of the 1945 Yalta Conference in Crimea, at which the map of post war Europe was redrawn to serve the geopolitical requirements of the wartime Allies.
We have been told that the March EU European Council was not a normal summit; that it was a different kind of summit meeting than has previously been witnessed. In closed door session (absent all officials and note takers) EU Prime Ministers and Presidents evidenced real passion as to the fate of Europe and the post Cold War order. There was deeply felt emotion on show from the Baltic member states, among others. We understand that all those present acknowledged this as the first real strategic test of the European Union as a geopolitical actor and that this was a potential turning point in Europe’s own political development. The key driver – as always – however, was to maintain the unity of the Council. On that, the conclusion is ‘job done’. Notwithstanding well-informed speculation as to rifts, rows and strategic differences, the European Council managed to craft a final statement from the summit that was rhetorically strong and potentially substantive. In pursuit of de-escalation, Russia was again offered opportunities and yet also promised “additional and far reaching consequences” in the event of “any further steps by the Russian Federation to destabilise the situation in Ukraine”. The Union also consciously raised the stakes by accelerating closer ties with Georgia and Moldova, as if to underline its refusal to accede to Russia’s geo-strategic ambitions. And yet…
What are the ‘further steps’ against which the Union has set its face: ludicrous anti-Ukrainian propaganda from Russian media designed to foment political unrest? The bussing in of Russian civilian ‘activists’ across the border to assist in the organisation of political protests, building occupations and Russian flag waving? Diplomatic and political support offered to self-styled political councils in Eastern Ukraine demanding referenda for Anschluss with Russia? The undeclared movement of Russian special forces (without uniforms or identifying insignia, natürlich) into Ukraine? The undeclared and unattributed transfer of weapons in support of local citizen self-defence groups (remember those amazing army surplus stores in Crimea where you could purchase APCs and Russian-made automatic weapons)? The movement of Russian troops into majority-Russian-speaking areas in response to heartfelt local pleas for peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention at the outbreak of civil conflict? The mobilization of Russian armed forces and entry into Eastern Ukraine at the invitation of the ‘government’ of the Peoples’ Republic of Donetsk?
At each stage, at each remove, there will be Russian calls for negotiations, for de-escalation, for recognition of facts on the ground. At all points too, there will be the implicit (or even explicit) threat of carefully calibrated countermeasures to EU sanctions which will hurt key member states and/or political constituencies across the Union. And, of course, Russians know that their capacity to weather economic deprivation vastly exceeds the pain threshold that democratically accountable governments in Europe can weather.
There is no doubt that Vladimir Putin is working to a 19th century diplomatic and military playbook. As Robert Cooper, a former advisor to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, argued in his book on EU foreign policy; the Union needs to play different kinds of games with different kinds of international actors. There are signs that this realization is dawning, and yet what we don’t yet know is whether EU governments – and the electors thereof – are willing to countenance the costs and the fears that playing that game, by those rules, may entail. Neither do we know at what point the Union will make good on its promise of ‘further steps’ to prevent the destabilization of Ukraine. And of course, if we don’t know, neither does Vladimir Putin.