From the Baltics, to Poland, to Ukraine, and even outer space, Russia has recently been testing Western resolve on numerous fronts. Perhaps most pressing of the myriad issues in recent news are the recent Russian military buildup around Ukraine and Belarus’ exploitation (with at least tacit Russian support) of migrants from the Middle East to wage hybrid war on Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. Moving forward, how the West responds to these issues will play a major role in Russia’s course of action. As it tests the waters with various provocations, Russia will get a clearer picture of what it can and cannot get away with. With more understanding of the field of opportunity, Russia will then make decisions on which objectives to go after. If the West wishes to limit Russia’s adventurism, it will need to stand firm with a credible show of strength across multiple issues. Weakness and disunity will only encourage the Kremlin to keep pushing the envelope at the expense of its neighbors.
The Belarusian migrant crisis began in late spring/early summer and has recently flared up again this November with a greater influx of migrants being brought not just to Lithuania, but to Poland and Latvia as well. This has been Minsk’s idiosyncratic means of conducting hybrid warfare against its neighbors, which have spoken out most strongly against President Lukashenka and his regime. This effort likewise benefits Moscow, which seeks to destabilize Eastern Europe and sow divisions within Western institutions such as the EU and NATO. As Lukashenka’s Belarus becomes more isolated and outcast from the rest of the world, it is forced to rely more and more on Russia. Being under Russia’s thumb, Belarus would not likely be able to continue its weaponized human trafficking operation without the Kremlin’s approval. But, in this area, Russia stands only to gain. Those who would condemn Russia’s support for Belarus are already against Russia anyway; meanwhile, Russia can afford to let Lukashenka wreak havoc on their mutual enemies by manufacturing a humanitarian crisis. In turn, this then adds to negative press against countries like Poland and Lithuania in addition to new opportunities to plant disinformation about the treatment of migrants in these countries.
This situation creates headaches beyond Poland and the Baltics as well. Within the EU, Poland is not a popular member. It regularly goes against EU consensus in domestic policy, and the EU has frequently sought to punish Poland for it. Meanwhile, Latvia and Lithuania are not particularly influential in the EU, and are also unpopular with the likes of more powerful member countries such as France and Germany because of their relentless opposition to Russia. By fomenting a migrant crisis in Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, Belarus is forcing Brussels to either help EU members to defend their national sovereignty or to leave them in the lurch, testing the boundaries of what the EU will accept seeing done to members that the most powerful members view with disdain. For Russia, this disunity is a key weak point to exploit, so it is content to let Belarus enact its vengeance on its neighbors. By testing the EU’s willingness to stand in solidarity with members that are not high on the pecking order, Russia can see what sort of response it can expect to its actions. The same principle applies in NATO: is the collective defense agreement credible? How far can Russia push the boundaries of what the alliance will tolerate? Will NATO stand firm or appease?
Ukraine constitutes another key battleground in Russia’s ongoing war against the West. Ukrainian and Western intelligence reports alike have concluded that Russia is making preparations to attack Ukraine, possibly around the beginning of next year. As Russia builds up its military presence along Ukraine’s borders, it is issuing ultimatums to the West, which are more or less impossible to meet without complete surrender to the reversal of the post-Cold War order and the principles of self-determination and liberty. As the list of demands grows, Kremlin gaslighting and propaganda portray the West as the serial aggressor and seek to pin blame on Ukraine, NATO, the United States, and Western countries writ large. As Russian activities and rhetoric become more and more brazen, the West faces a key test. Will it stand up to Russian aggression and help Ukraine, or will it back down and let Russia have what it wants?
Recent events do not bode well for Ukraine either, nor for Western leadership. Capitulation by the United States on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany earlier this year was a gift to the Kremlin. Likewise, the most recent sanctions on the project are largely toothless, designed more to save face than anything, and inclusion of a sanctions package on Nord Stream 2 in the Defense Appropriations Bill faces an uphill battle in the Senate. This project, when it does eventually become operational, will allow Russia to completely bypass Ukraine for gas transport to Europe, allowing for greater energy blackmail against Kyiv and still deepening Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. In turn, this dependence in Europe will provide significant leverage for Russia to get favorable political outcomes in European capitals.
Another key indicator of bad things yet to come is the U.S. position on the Minsk Accords. In his recent meeting with the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken affirmed the Biden administration’s position that the full implementation of the Minsk Accords was the best path forward, though such a path would be a complete betrayal of Ukraine in favor of Russia. Implementing the Minsk Accords would force Ukraine to grant special status to territories held by Russian puppets. In exchange for these concessions, Russia has promised peace. Therefore, advocating implementation of the Minsk accords puts the seal of approval on the legitimacy of Russia’s actions in the Donbass, where it was, in fact, the aggressor. This is peace at the end of a gun – peace by surrender. Neither side has implemented the peace process, nor should Ukraine expect Russia to uphold its end of the bargain anyway – especially not if it gives in. Unsurprisingly, Kyiv’s complete acquiescence to the Minsk Accords, with no such binding agreement on Moscow, is one of Russia’s key demands. To make matters worse, the U.S. position on the Minsk Accords follows the recommendation of a much lambasted article by Samuel Charap which argued in favor of appeasing Russia. Many have speculated that the article was done in coordination with members of the Biden administration to preemptively justify a policy of appeasement, reaching a deal with Russia at the expense of Ukraine. If this is, in fact, true, then Kyiv’s position is only getting worse.
Indeed, Joe Biden already has a poor track record on Ukraine. When Joe Biden was Vice President under Barack Obama, he was instrumental in that administration’s decision to deny lethal aid to Ukraine. He likewise allegedly threatened to cut off funding to Kyiv if the Ukrainian government did not fire the prosecutor investigating corruption in the dealings of a natural gas company at which his son was a member of the board. Since beginning his own administration, Biden has used diplomatic means to coerce Ukraine into staying quiet about Nord Stream 2.
On a more positive note, and to its credit, the Biden administration has rebuffed Russia’s demands that NATO cease enlargement and give up any plans to allow Ukraine or Georgia to join the alliance, holding that only NATO members can decide who gets to join NATO. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has announced that the alliance’s policy is the same. But, though that particular part of the ultimatum is impossible to accept on principle, it may very well be put into practice regardless given opposition to Ukraine’s accession from within the alliance anyway. Given this situation, Ukraine cannot rely on any security guarantees from NATO. Since it is merely a partner to NATO and not a member, it is not a party to Article 5’s mutual defense agreement. Furthermore, it is unlikely to receive any real help fighting. It can certainly expect a deluge of aid, but most of that aid will prove to be too little, too late, absolutely useless, or any combination of the three. Likewise, there is no indication yet of any Western response besides more sanctions and political restrictions, which are unlikely to deter Russia.
As Russia seeks to reverse the post-Cold War order, it is looking for windows of opportunity to play the aggressor with impunity. The West needs a strong, unified, and credible deterrent to prevent further adventurism by Moscow. That strength, unity, and credibility need to be demonstrated in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Ukraine. In all these places, Russia’s actions are unacceptable and must be countered. Disunity on the migrant crisis and appeasement on Ukraine will only embolden Russia to go after more that does not rightly belong to it.
Cover Photo: Russian and Belarusian forces take part in Zapad-2021, a large-scale annual military exercise, at the Mulino training ground in Russia - September 2021. Credit (Vadim Savitskiy/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)