Steven Pifer, former US Ambassador to Ukraine, is a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.
BERLIN – Over the past week, Russia has stepped up its military presence in the Crimean Peninsula, moved military units near the Russian-Ukrainian border and announced military “readiness checks”. Most likely, this is just a ploy to piss off the Kiev government and test the West’s reaction.
But it could be worse. If the Kremlin assesses the costs and benefits of a military assault on Ukraine, Europe and the United States should be careful that Moscow does not miscalculate because it underestimates the costs.
The tensions arose despite a rare diplomatic achievement in the simmering conflict between Russia and Ukraine: a ceasefire in the eastern Donbass region that held – for a while at least. Until the situation began to deteriorate at the end of last year, the exchange of fire across the line of contact between Russian and Russian proxy forces and the Ukrainian military fell sharply.
Unfortunately, the most recent diplomatic news is grim. The negotiation effort led by the Germans and the French has not progressed lately. The Trilateral Contact Group made up of representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has little to show for its meetings.
Over the past week, reports have emerged, often accompanied by video, of Russian heavy artillery crossing the Kerch Strait Bridge into the Crimea and other Russian units, including armor and ground missiles. air, moving towards the Ukrainian border in front of the Donbass. On April 6, the Russian Defense Minister announced that the military was carrying out readiness checks. Readiness checks are exercises, but they look a lot like hostilities preparations.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov barely said that this set of actions “should absolutely not concern anyone. Russia is not a threat to any country in the world. His comments did not reassure anyone.
Russian military maneuvers are probably intended only to undermine Kiev. If the Kremlin had intended a real assault, it would have tried to hide its actions to preserve an element of surprise. No one can be sure, however, that the Russians will not attack. The Ukrainian army is on alert; he would almost certainly lose a fight with the Russian army, but he would spill blood.
A Russian strike would plunge Europe into a major crisis. The West must ensure that President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin understand the potential costs if Russian units move against Ukraine.
The messaging process has started. US President Joe Biden and other senior US officials spoke to their Ukrainian counterparts to convey US support, as did NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. weand British intelligence planes flew over Ukraine and the Black Sea near Crimea, both to gather information and to signal political support for Kiev. On April 3, the German and French foreign ministries issued a joint statement on the situation, although it would have sent a stronger message had he focused on the cause: the threat of Russian troop movements.
The West should do more to dissuade Moscow from thinking of a military adventure.
First, US and EU officials should consult immediately and agree on a list of additional sanctions to be applied if Russia launches an attack. The list is expected to contain significant measures such as sanctions on Russia’s sovereign debt. (Presumably, even countries like Italy would agree to this if Russia attacks.) US and EU officials should quickly and privately pass this list on to their Russian counterparts. Specifying the consequences in advance – rather than later as a punishment – could have a deterrent effect.
Second, as the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has spoken to the Russian Chief of Staff, other US officials, including the President, are expected to speak in Moscow and warn against the harmful side effects that would result if the Russian military strikes. At the same time, Washington should consider other measures to signal its seriousness, for example by providing Kiev with additional Javelin anti-armor missiles or other weapons to bolster its defensive capabilities.
Third, European leaders must call on Ukrainian leaders with similar messages of support. These will also serve as signals to Moscow.
Fourth, European leaders should also phone the Kremlin. This is especially true for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her relationship with Putin may be strained, but she remains the closest to any Western leader. Among other things, he needs to know that an attack on Ukraine would kill the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, either because of internal political pressure on it and its government or because of White House sanctions against German companies due to pressure from Congress.
Hopefully the Russian maneuvers are just a bluff and will end soon. However, the West cannot afford to hope. Moscow’s actions could portend something more glaring and dangerous. Europe and the United States should do more to prevent this.