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Russian Attack on Ukraine: Turning-point in the history of Euro-Atlantic Security

360 degrees, 03.03.2022 Forschungsgebiete

The Russian attack on Ukraine will have serious consequences for Euro-Atlantic security beyond the military conflict. In a first multi-perspective analysis of the situation, the SWP takes a look at Russian domestic politics, the situation in Ukraine, Western sanctions and NATO's response, China's role, and international law.

Potential for escalation beyond Ukraine

The decision to openly and massively attack Ukraine culminates the longer-term trend toward militarization of Russian foreign policy. What is new is that this time the armed forces are not being deployed in a limited way, but much more extensively, and the Russian leadership is prepared to take military risks and accept costs (e.g. casualties).

This points to a fundamental change in the Kremlin's cost-benefit calculation. Economic losses (sanctions) hardly play a role anymore; concerns of national identity and foreign-policy power projection guide the Kremlin's actions. This is reflected in the pseudo-historical argumentation with which Putin denies Ukraine its right to exist as a sovereign state, as well as in the maximum demands he makes of Ukraine and NATO. Putin's call for the "demilitarization" of Ukraine shows that he no longer sees an alliance-free Ukraine as a sufficient goal; instead, he is concerned with creating a vassal that is no longer capable of self-defense. The demand for "denazification" of Ukraine proves that the militarily enforced replacement of the political leadership with a pro-Russian puppet government is an integral sub-goal of the military operation.

Regardless of what plans Russia's leadership is pursuing for the period after the invasion (vassal state, incorporation into a union state with Belarus, partition), control over Ukraine is seen as a prerequisite for establishing a zone of influence in the post-Soviet space and indirectly reshaping the Euro-Atlantic security order in its own favor. The draft treaties submitted to the U.S. and NATO in December 2021 show that Moscow is not interested in a security-motivated buffer zone in the post-Soviet space; the territories of NATO's eastern members are targeted as such, from which the alliance is to withdraw militarily.

With the invasion of Ukraine, talks with Russia on questions of the Euro-Atlantic security order are obsolete for the time being. NATO and the EU must prepare for further Russian provocations and the possibility of escalation beyond the territory of Ukraine. For example, Putin implicitly threatens nuclear escalation if Western states interfere in the conflict; clashes at sea and in the air also have escalation potential. Above all, EU and NATO states must realize that they have long been part of Russian warfare: In Russian military thinking, modern wars are no longer formally declared. Rather, they present themselves as reality and are also waged by non-military means. Disinformation is an integral part of a "mental war" in which interpretive sovereignty over the conflict is to be won. Parallel to cyberattacks, an expansion of subversion and intelligence activities is to be expected.

Demonstration of power in foreign and domestic politics

Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine is not motivated by domestic politics. It is not an attempt to repeat the mobilisation effect of the Crimean annexation. Rather, it is about achieving neo-imperialist and revisionist goals.

Russian society is unlikely to put up significant resistance in the short term. Increasing state repressions have achieved two goals: they have intimidated the growing minority in the country willing to protest. And they have crushed the opposition structures that still existed at the political level and in civil society. Large rallies like those against the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas in 2014 and 2015 are hard to imagine today. The assassination of Boris Nemtsov in February 2015, one of the leaders of the protests at the time, looks in retrospect like a grim omen for the current situation.

On the other hand, this war will not have a mobilising effect. In Russian society, the traumas from two Chechen wars, the Afghan war and the Second World War are still present. In particular, the memory of the latter has been systematically built into a “defensive” propaganda narrative, which is also being used now in a targeted manner. The goal of the Russian special operation, according to Putin, is the “denazification” of Ukraine. He claims that Russia is defending itself against a “fascist mob” controlled by the West. Without this narrative, it will be difficult to win over the Russian population to the campaign in the long run. Russian casualties are already being covered up inside the country – similar to the casualties during Russia’s involvement in the Donbas war in 2014 and 2015.

Repression will continue to increase. More than 5,000 people have already been detained (and some of them abused) since the beginning of the aggression. Strict censorship and persecution of independent media will also continue to increase. The nationally-televised meeting of the National Security Council on the recognition of the “people’s republics” on 21 February was a demonstration of Putin’s omnipotence vis-à-vis the top leadership of the government, parliament and security services. At the same time, the Russian president delegated part of the responsibility for the events to the members of the Security Council – some of whom seemed very unsettled – as well as the Belarusian ruler Lukashenko, who is once and for all only a willing instrument of Russian politics.

The war against Ukraine could well have a destabilising effect on the Russian autocracy. In the short term, however, this is hardly to be expected. Talks about the beginning of the end of Putin’s rule, which can now be heard on various occasions, may be justified. However, it will not save Ukraine, which is currently being overrun by Russian tanks.

What are the options for additional sanctions?

In response to the Russian war against Ukraine, the Western states imposed far-reaching sanctions. Financial sanctions in particular were the means of choice due to their immediate effect. Russian banks were cut off from the international financial system to varying degrees and the reserves of the Russian Central Bank were frozen, depriving it of the possibility to cushion the sanctions’ effects.

However, more powerful than the specific measures are the general uncertainty and the associated punishing reaction of the markets. It is impossible to predict which trade and financial transactions with Russia will still be possible even in the near future. In light of this, and due to reputation concerns, many large companies have announced that they will leave Russia as soon as possible or stop exports and imports.

To prevent a crash of the rouble and panic among the population, the Russian central bank introduced severe capital controls. Foreign (not only Western) investors were summarily prohibited from selling securities and investments. Thus, the decline of the rouble remained mild at first. However, the central bank’s prohibitions are massive encroachments on investors’ property rights, which will destroy confidence in the Russian capital market for many years to come. Even if the sanctions were lifted, Russia would still be burned as a place to invest.

The increasingly brutal war being waged by Russia, which is now also targeting the Ukrainian civilian population, poses the question of further possible measures against Moscow. The sanctions against banks could be extended: So far, only a handful of them are affected by the toughest so-called US “blocking sanctions”. In addition, the pressure on Russia could also be increased with an oil embargo. The oil trade pours about US$700 million per day into Russian coffers (in addition to about US$150 million for gas exports).

An oil embargo against Russia is only partially possible, because China would not participate in it, and it would have to be internationally coordinated. Otherwise, price increases on the already tense energy markets could nullify the financial effect on Russia. An embargo would have to be implemented quickly in order to influence the outcome of the war. An immediate but initially temporary measure – an embargo for one month – is therefore conceivable, accompanied in parallel by the concerted sale of oil from international strategic reserves. At the same time, political pressure would have to be exerted on OPEC producing countries to utilize free production capacities. The commercial interest of these states in taking market share from Russia, in a moment when Moscow faces international condemnation, could help to ensure their cooperation.

The full-scale invasion as a worst-case for Ukraine

Until the day of the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian leadership tried everything to avoid alarmism inside the country, to give Russia no reason for a new intervention and to start new diplomatic initiatives. In addition, President Selensky has made great efforts to alleviate the economic consequences of the crisis through tax cuts and the proclamation of “economic patriotism”. The President has become an optimistic and empathic voice for all Ukrainians and a solidarity-generating icon in the West.

A new unity can be observed in Ukraine’s political spectrum, which is necessary in view of the Russian threat and the attack that has ensued. All parliamentary factions, which announced a “coalition of defence”, but also Selensky and his predecessor Poroshenko, joined forces. It will be interesting to see whether Ukraine’s most important oligarchs, for example Rinat Akhmetov and Igor Kolomoisky, want to and are able to play an important role in the country’s defence, as they did in 2014. Pro-Russian forces in Ukraine are now forced to adopt a clear position – moreover, it is apparent that they have become a marginal factor since 2014.

Until the attack, the army cherished hope that Russia would only attack in eastern Ukraine. This was a misjudgement. Now, as feared in worst-case scenarios, the armed forces must defend themselves against a full-scale invasion from various directions. Despite the upgrading of the Ukrainian army, better training and eight years of war experience, it is to be feared that Ukraine will not be able to withstand the pressure of the Russian army for long. This is especially true since 28 February when the Russian army changed tactics towards increased artillery shelling and air raids.

This leaves the Ukrainian leadership with essentially two realistic options: to delay defeat by pushing back the enemy by days and thus frustrate Russia’s calculation of a quick victory. This would cause great damage to the Russian leadership in terms of foreign and also domestic policy and counter the Russian narrative of a very short “special operation”. A sudden end of the war caused by subsequent regime instability in Moscow could be a possibility. But this option comes with the risk of high casualties and destruction in Ukraine. Another option would be to ask Moscow to enter into negotiations quickly, whereby sustained and above all successful military resistance would be the key to at least dissuading Russia from maximum demands such as a change of government or the deployment of Russian troops. This has failed so far with the negotiations at the Belarusian border on 27 and 28 February.

Stress test for NATO

NATO emphasises that it will not intervene militarily in Ukraine. Its task is to protect the allies, and its deterrence and defence measures are of a defensive nature (“preventive, proportionate and non-escalatory”). At the same time, the possibility of military action spilling over into allied territory due to unintended or planned Russian action cannot be ruled out.

The Alliance must prepare to defend its allies in conventional, hybrid and nuclear scenarios. The nuclear signalling became evident through exercises with nuclear capable missiles on 19 February 2022, Putin’s references to “consequences [...] that you have never experienced in your history”, in his 24 February 2022 speech and with Putin putting the deterrence forces on alert on 27 February 2022.

Over the last few weeks, NATO had already increased the readiness of its forces, intensified maritime surveillance and air patrolling, increased the presence of NATO troops in the eastern and south-eastern part of the Alliance and adapted its deterrence and defence posture, such as by establishing a NATO battlegroup in Romania. These measures were reinforced with the decisions of the extraordinary NAC meeting on 24 February 2022: NATO defence plans were activated, additional land, sea and air forces in high readiness to respond in forward positions along the whole eastern border of NATO, a higher readiness of the rest of the troops, and Command and Control were streamlined to give NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR) more authority.

Following the NATO summit on 25 February 2022, the NATO Response Force (NRF) was activated and the Alliance declared that Russia had walked away from the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. The latter emphasises basic principles such as territorial integrity, but also interdicts the permanent stationing of substantial combat forces in the new member states. Apart from the political message, this statement allows NATO to substantially increase its presence on the territories of the most exposed allies: in the northeast (Baltic States, Poland) and southeast (Romania, Bulgaria).

In addition to management of the acute crisis, the long-term thinking of how NATO will deal with Russia in a future confrontational security order in Europe and what adjustments will be necessary in the political, economic and also defence policy spheres has already started. Replacing a cooperative-integrative order by a confrontational one in which Russia uses military means to assert its interests requires a stronger focus on deterrence and defence. This includes, for example, an adjustment of defence planning to address a modified Russian posture, including through the soft annexation of Belarus. This in turn requires additional contributions from individual allies.

The EU on the verge of becoming a security actor

The EU is challenged in its very foundations by the Russian attack on Ukraine – as a peace project, as a champion of a multilateral world order, in its responsibility for the security of its members and in its economic order.

After a short moment of shock, the EU – in close coordination with the USA, but also with ex-member United Kingdom – has imposed unprecedented sanctions against Russia. The Union, with its single market and as Russia’s largest trading partner, is the central framework for enforcing these sanctions. But it is also a vehicle for maintaining the unity of the West. The sanctions include a financial cut off from the global markets, closing of EU airspace, prohibiting Russian state media in the EU, targeting Putin and oligarchs personally and more. Paradoxical as it may sound, the much-maligned unanimity rule has not prevented the EU from imposing these unprecedented sanctions in record speed. It has even forced states with close ties to Russia, such as Hungary, to join the common course. For the first time, the EU also does not only support the Ukraine economically, but uses its EU peace facility to finance weapons delivery to Ukraine.

A second immediate challenge for the EU is to deal with the secondary effects of the war. Many people from Ukraine are seeking protection in the EU. What is needed is rapid humanitarian aid, the building of reception capacities and, in the medium term, a regulation on how these people can be distributed within the EU. At the same time, the EU must prepare for the consequences that the war, but also the sanctions policy, will have for its own economy. The expected massive impact on gas and oil prices will further boost the already high inflation – at the risk of destabilising the Eurozone. If energy supplies are affected, EU states should work together to secure alternative supplies, if necessary with their combined purchasing power.

In the medium to long term, the aim is to massively reduce dependence on Russian energy sources and thus vulnerability. This strengthens the Green Deal agenda, but also the efforts to find alternative sources of imports. On the other hand, the EU must cushion the once again increased security dependence on the USA by significantly reinforcing European military capabilities. This requires the closest possible coordination with NATO, but also flexibility under the stability and growth pact for national budgets to make the necessary investments.

USA: Committed and closely aligned with Europe

The United States is once again at the centre of European security – despite the intended turn towards Asia. For Washington and its allies the key question is whether the current economic, political and security measures can stop Russian aggression. Beyond that, will the US be able to maintain domestic political support?

As announced, President Biden has tightened financial and economic sanctions following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He has done so in close coordination with the EU and the other G7 countries. US sanctions now target the ruling elite as well as President Putin himself, major publically owned banks and private financial institutions. In the long term, bans on technology exports will have particularly devastating consequences for the Russian economy. After holding back for a while, Biden and the Europeans have also agreed to cut-off several Russian lenders from the SWIFT-system, a severe measure just short of excluding energy companies. Another bold measure was to effectively block the Russian Central Bank from using its foreign reserves, dealing an immediate blow to the Russian banking system it will find hard to recover from, unless a major lender steps in. The sanctions will affect the broader Russian population.

Although Ukraine is not a NATO member, the US has invested considerable political and financial capital in the country since 2014, including economic aid and arms deliveries. Washington is continuing these deliveries – now joined by many other NATO countries and even the EU – in an attempt to enhance the military costs to Russia without directly intervening in Ukraine. It is questionable, however, if these costs, along with the impact of economic sanctions, will suffice to pressure Moscow into a ceasefire. Over the last couple of weeks, the US has significantly increased its military presence in Europe, and specifically along NATO’s eastern flank. From Washington’s perspective a major concern is whether China will exploit the US’ preoccupation with Eastern Europe to increase pressure on Taiwan.

Domestically, the Biden administration has some room for manoeuvre. Key players in both parties are pushing to increase the pressure on Russia even further, but during a crisis situation the initiative lies with the president. Among congressional Republicans, those arguing that the war in Ukraine does not affect American interests are in the minority, even as Donald Trump and some of his supporters praise Putin and criticise Biden’s handling of the crisis. So far, the majority of the American public rejects direct US military involvement. Most Americans generally support sanctions, but less than half do so if they lead to higher prices. Rising gasoline costs could affect the midterm elections in November, eroding the current unity. To tamper price hikes and maintain support his policies the Biden administration plans to release some of the strategic oil reserve.

Time for intensive exchange with China

How China assesses the Russian attack on Ukraine is not easy to gauge at the moment. So far, there has been no clear statement from the Chinese leadership to directly condemn or support the Russian attack in Ukraine; only well-known positions have been repeated: China takes the security concerns of all countries – including Russia – seriously; America is behaving like a warmonger; the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries – including Ukraine – must be preserved.

Officials explicitly emphasise that Ukraine is not to be compared to Taiwan. Unlike Ukraine, which is regarded as an independent state, Taiwan is a historical part of China. In this context, well-heard voices consider the Russian attack on Ukraine as an interesting “model case” for Chinese Taiwan aspirations. But these views are in the minority and do not represent Beijing’s official view. In order to avoid unnecessarily enhancing this Chinese minority position, German and European voices should therefore avoid constructing an intentional logical connection between Ukraine and Taiwan. Even before the Russian attack, Hua Chunying, spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, formulated China’s strict rejection of international sanctions against Russia. And on Monday, the Chinese government explicitly reiterated that it would not support sanctions against Moscow. But it remains to be seen as to which extent China will provide economic support to Russia beyond what has already been agreed on. In any case, additional support for Moscow, which would undermine the sanctions and take the economic pressure off Russia, would put a lasting strain on EU-China relations.

At present, Beijing seems to have settled on the course of accepting and not condemning Russia’s actions, while at the same time closely monitoring the situation in Ukraine and the reactions of the USA and Europe. According to Chinese media, Xi expressed understanding for Russian security interests in a personal conversation with Putin, but also emphasised the centrality of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Without direct exchange with Beijing, however, no one knows what opportunities the ambiguous Chinese position could offer Europe. The time has come to exchange information directly and in detail with Beijing. The phone call between Foreign Minister Baerbock and her Chinese colleague Wang Yi, thus, is only a first step. The German government needs to further convey its position on the Russian attack on Ukraine and also call on Beijing for support in its stance towards Russia. Even without participating in the international sanctions, Beijing could take effective action. China has a vested interest in the political and economic stabilisation of Europe and does not want to be seen as a complicit supporter of Russian aggression. Germany should not underestimate its political leverage vis-à-vis China, especially in light of the decision to halt the authorization process for Nord Stream 2 and its approval for blocking Russian banks in the SWIFT system. These decisions may have come as a surprise to Beijing.

Russia’s argumentation under international law

Russia’s armed attack on Ukraine constitutes a serious violation of the prohibition on the use of force according to Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. Russia had already violated international law by recognising the self-proclaimed “People’s Republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk. For the leadership in Moscow, international law obviously does not matter as a normative compass. Nevertheless, the Kremlin uses the language of international law trying to lend some legitimacy to its actions. The President’s addresses of 21 and 24 February reflect this effort. Four partly interlinked lines of argumentation can be discerned.

First, President Putin claims that it was necessary to stop the “atrocities” and “genocide” of millions of people in the Donbas. Apart from that, Russia generally asserts the right to protect its citizens and compatriots abroad, which is a key component of Russian military doctrine.

Secondly, Russia invokes the agreements of 21 February on friendship and mutual assistance concluded with the two “People’s Republics”. This justification amounts to the claim that Russian troops were deployed to eastern Ukraine at the request and with the consent of these entities.

Thirdly, the Kremlin constructs a case of collective self-defence, namely defence of the two “People’s Republics” against an armed attack by Ukraine. President Putin’s statement that Russia will “demilitarise and denazify” Ukraine also fits in with this context.

Fourth, President Putin speaks of a fundamental threat to Russia created by “irresponsible Western politicians”, especially in the form of NATO’s eastward expansion, and involving the “regime” in Kyiv. This is a particularly alarming element in President Putin’s speech. According to Mr. Putin, the USA and its Western partners, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, had immediately tried to “finish off and utterly destroy” Russia. In his understanding, it was now “a matter of life and death” for Russia. There was a real threat to the very existence of the Russian state, and the West had crossed the red line.

“In this context”, Russia had taken the decision to carry out a “special military operation” in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter to defend itself and its people. Irrespective of the fact that the justification is factually unfounded, it becomes clear that Russia is following an extremely broad understanding of preemptive self-defence that is in no way covered by international law.