Putin and the Contest for Europe

By Robbin Laird

I spent my 1980s deeply involved in the West in the conflict with the Soviet leadership concerning what became known as the Euro-missile crisis. We came close to nuclear war in 1983, and the United States-Soviet contest for Europe shaped the decade but ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of a wild west period in Russia to be capped by the ascension of Putin to the presidency on December 31, 1999.

As we entered the 21st  century, the new Russia struggled for social and economic stability and to define its place in the world. The central role which the U.S-Soviet global competition played in shaping the post-War world was over.

While both Communist China and Russia have viewed the United States as a useful competitor which could recognize their specific roles as the new global powers, the contest for Europe which Putin is currently engaged in is not U.S-centered. It is about shaping Russia’s role in the new Europe by using the tools of power available to it, raw materials, hybrid-warfare tools, and direct military threats, in various combinations.

The United States is increasingly an offshore power from the standpoint of the expanded Europe, and the key nations within Europe and the European Union have significantly greater impact globally than they had at the end of the Cold War. The United States remains significant in defense and economically, but Putin is playing the European field to shape a greater role of Russia in the post-Soviet Europe directly with Europeans.

The current war in Ukraine will ultimately be determined by Europeans in terms of whether they will contain Russian power efforts, whether economic, political, military or by other means. But for Europe – both in terms of nations and the European Union – to shape the Ukraine after the war, we need off ramps to stop the conflict and shape a course towards the future.

Simply waiting for the Russian pounding of Ukraine to fail is not a strategy – it is an avoidance of recognition of the reality of the level of destruction being inflicted on Ukraine, making any viable future for Ukrainians further and further away.

Americans are important players but as part of the effort which George H. Bush referred to as building a Europe “whole and free.” It is not about adding another state which somehow the United States is supposed to protect and to stand toe to toe with Russia and defend.

This is not the 1980s – we are in a different situation in Europe whereby a number of European states are seriously focusing on how to deal with Russia and whatever the European institutions and states end up doing will determine the shape of Russian successes or failures with the Europe with whom they have to deal geographically and in terms of cultural competition.

We are reaching a point where very unpleasant choices will have to be faced.

As the Ukrainian forces are reduced by a much larger state with much larger manpower and a production system for armaments secure on their territory and added by their authoritarian supporters globally, we will reach the point where Western forces will need to be deployed in the war.

I doubt if this is a very desirable solution for those who keep saying we will be with Ukraine to the end. That might be true in a way where the end is not exactly what they have in mind.

We need to shape off ramps, including a cease fire and a negotiation to leave forces in place. But this only makes sense if Europe recognizes that Russia is at war with Western policies and values in Europe and what is going on is the Ukrainian campaign in that war.

A key off ramp is to negotiate a cease fire with forces in place. This can lead to a territorial agreement where Russia keeps some Ukrainian territory but only if Russia recognizes (once again) Ukrainian sovereignty and control over the rest of Ukraine. The West then builds up Ukrainian defenses.

But how to build the kind of defense structure needed by Ukraine?

This certainly must include protected air bases and modern Ukrainian airpower.

How to rebuild Ukraine?

How to build the kind of European relationships which will help Ukraine evolve from its current politics into a more modern system?

It certainly is not a democracy, but democracy in Europe is itself in evolution and Ukraine could be part of this evolution as well.

I frankly think adding Ukraine to the European Union or NATO is a bridge too far. Ukraine leadership will want this but their state and society is hardly ready for Western standards as already has been clear with the performance of some Central European members of the EU.

Working with NATO allies which creates a virtual partnership with NATO will be a key part of the way ahead but putting an Article V or even Article III arrangement which is in the NATO treaty would only enhance Putin’s rejection of agreement, but we cannot accept any veto from Russia on military aid or our (both European nations and the United States) right to reinforce Ukrainian defensive capabilities in the future.

Th objectives of the current Ukrainian leadership to restore the pre-2014 status quo in Ukraine is not what almost all Western states will support. After all, no Western state did much to dislodge Russia from Crimea in 2014.

But they certainly don’t support Russia crushing Ukrainian independence. This is where the devil’s bargain is worked, but again with a clear understanding on the Western side that a Finlandized Ukraine will have at least as much support as Finland had with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But association with the European Union in shaping trade with Ukraine and perhaps working in the future with Russian trade interests in Ukraine as well might shape a way ahead towards a Russia more amenable to Western interests.

It is time to consider off ramps and options.

Supporting the Ukrainians in this process by the United States and by European nations and the European Union is crucial but with some kind of transitional end point in sight.

Otherwise, Ukraine will simply lose support from many Europeans and Americans and will face a Putin who thinks he has won and will prepare for the next campaign.

Credit Featured Graphic: Photo 38520680 © Palinchak | Dreamstime.com

See also, the following:

The NATO-Russian Campaign in Ukraine: Next Steps in the European Conflict

Poland and Ukraine: The Impact of the Grain Dispute

When Did World War III Become so Boring?