Sanctions, troops and ‘imminent threat’: this is how the allies disagree on the Ukrainian crisis

Until a conflict has not broken out can be avoided. And that’s where world diplomacy is these days: to prevent a war in Europe that would unforeseeable consequences. The tension is crowding the European borders. The transfer of military aid from the West to Ukraine does not stop and adds to the strengthening of NATO’s military presence in the countries of the East. And Russia, for its part, keeps the more than 100,000 soldiers deployed along the Ukrainian borders and is increasing its military exercises in neighboring Belarus.

Russia maintains the more than 100,000 deployed soldiers

Is a global chess match which has experienced a turning point this week: the written rejection by the United States and the Atlantic Alliance of a red line drawn by the Kremlin: the commitment that NATO will not extend to the eastern flank. In other words, the West makes it clear that its policy of open doors to Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova is still valid. However, the incorporation of the former Soviet republics into the Alliance is today a chimera.

The alarm messages, the mutual threats or the rearmament operations do not stop. But there is reason for hope in this tense calm. Russia has reacted with relative restraint to the slam of the door to their demands. He will study the documents in the coming days. And although they are not to their liking, the Kremlin emphasizes that the path of dialogue remains open. The fact that there are official written documents saves time and can be an opportunity to cool down a heated situation that evokes the times of the Cold War. What’s more, talks between Moscow, Kiev, Berlin and Paris this week have resulted in support for the ceasefire in Donbas.

And with any scenario in the background, the efforts of the EU and the United States are multiplying to convey an image of insurmountable unity. But is it such? what interests are at stake? what postures? What are the possible scenarios in the face of a situation that keeps Europe on edge?

Differences within Europe

Strength and unity within the EU. To Ukraine. And with the United States. That is the priority of the community block at the moment: avoid showing internal fissures that can play in favor of Vladimir Putin. But the seams are popping. There are many interests at stake: economic, commercial, energy or geostrategic. And although all the actors agree that the objective is to exhaust the diplomatic route and move towards de-escalation, they differ on how.

On sanctions, the countries of the East and the Baltics want the toughest. And if it depended on them, they would have already approved restrictive measures in a preventive manner. On the other side, Germany and France bet on carrots. Berlin has already shown skepticism about the option of isolating the Russian financial system from SWIFT. The United States is the one that goes further and threatens measures against Putin himself, something unlikely in the EU, which transfers sanctions to the highest level within the UN framework.

The United States is the one that goes further and threatens measures against Putin himself

Regarding the shipment of weapons and troops, some like The Netherlands and Spain have contributed fighters and warships to NATO missions. And Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have sent war material to Kiev. But Germany refuses and has made a symbolic donation of 5,000 helmets that has sparked outbursts from the Ukrainian government. Berlin also banned Estonia from sending weapons ‘Made in Germany’ to Ukraine.

Is realpolitik. The Croatian president has distanced himself from the line of consensus and has directly blamed the United States for promoting this “dangerous dynamic”; the businessmen of the main Italian firms have met with Putin these days; amid rising tension and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will visit Moscow on February 1 to talk about vaccines, gas and nuclear power plants. The discrepancies are extrapolated to the national governments themselvesyes In Spain and Germany, coalition partners clash over how to manage the crisis and relations with Russia.

A year of “Biden alliance” showing fissures

Twelve months after Joe Biden landed in the White House, the transatlantic honeymoon is not such. The Democrat arrived with the ambition of closing the distrust gap that Hurricane Trump unleashed. But the Aukus agreement on submarines, the crisis in Afghanistan and now Ukraine show the loose fissures between Brussels and Washington.

Both allies agree that a Russian intervention in Ukraine will be met with “massive” and “coordinated” sanctions. But the devil is in the details. To begin with, North Americans and Europeans differ in their reading of the threat. For the first, imminent. For seconds; although serious, it is not such. The White House has adopted a more alarmist language and has taken some steps such as the call to evacuate its embassies, something that in the community capital they consider to be “dramatic” and somewhat “hysterical”.

The allies agree that a Russian intervention in Ukraine will be answered with “massive” and “coordinated” sanctions

Josep Borrell himself, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs of the EU, has said in public that leaving Ukraine and making these decisions is an affront to the country’s investors and capital markets. Diplomatic sources stress that the important thing is to stay there: to reassure the country and the international stock markets, to manage the 1.2 billion euros in financial aid recently announced by the European Commission and to support the Ukrainians from within.

Furthermore, it has been Washington that has led the negotiations on Europe, but without Europe. Although communication and coordination have been constant, they hide on both sides of the Atlantic.

The United States has mobilized 8,500 soldiers who, in the event of increased tension, would be deployed in the countries on the eastern flank. Movements of this caliber are seen in a good part of the community capitals as steps that add tension to an already heated situation. “This is the time for dissuasion, diplomacy and dialogue,” says the head of European diplomacy.

One of the immediate consequences for Europe of a direct clash with Russia would be the closing of the gas tap. 40% of the gas imported by the EU comes from this country. And the United States is orchestrating contingency plans to avoid further inflation in electricity prices. Among the options are increasing its own shipments of liquefied natural gas to the Old Continent or sealing agreements with countries such as Qatar.

France takes the European reins

Macron says that “dialogue with Russia is always difficult.” France, along with Germany, is the EU country that most pushes for appeasement with the Kremlin. And Emmanuel Macron has learned from the lesson left over a century ago by Otto von Bismarck: “The secret of politics is friendship with Russia.”

The French president is the only European leader who has a direct line to the Kremlin. A few days ago he advocated in the European Parliament for the EU to have a voice and a vote in these conversations in which the architecture of its own security is decided. And with this objective it seeks to resurrect the Normandy formation. However, the majority option among the Twenty-seven continues to go through continuing hand in hand with the United States.

Possibles scenarios

The cards are already on the table. During the next few days, the Kremlin will study the responses that NATO and the US they have directed you in writing to their demands. He has already warned that he will take his time. The crisis is entering a new phase: and only Putin knows or will know what it will be. Europeans and Ukrainians rule out a total invasion of Ukraine, at least ipso facto. But if the diplomatic route finally ends up failing, the scenarios that would carry the most weight would be an increase in fighting in the Donbas area -and even an annexation like the one that occurred in Crimea in 2014- or a kind of camouflaged guerrilla war and wear along the border.

Catalyst for a more cohesive EU?

German reunification culminated in the adoption of the euro. The coronavirus pandemic gave way to the milestone of the common debt and the recovery plan. And the exit of the United Kingdom increased the European identity. Now an orphaned EU of real security and defense policy hopes that “the most dangerous moment since the end of the Cold War” can act as a catalyst towards strategic autonomy that allows it to operate as a strong and independent player in the global arena. “The gap between our ability to act and the magnitude of the challenges we face continues to grow and that it is unsustainable”, recognizes Borrell. During the last years, the European project has been engrossed in the polycrisis: financial, migratory, Brexit or the Rule of Law. And while Russia has done its homework protecting and preparing its economy against international sanctions, the EU has increased its dependence on energy and has allowed the crisis that began in Crimea to sleep and that is pounding again eight years later with force.


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