The world is watching the aggressive return to a Cold War atmosphere as Russia invades Ukraine. The US and other western countries have been warning about Russia’s plans for weeks, yet there has been very little preparation to counter Russia’s moves.
The western bloc is acting more like a united alliance. In recent years, Russia relied on the fact that there are big gaps in the priorities of western countries and on the lack of US and some European countries’ interest to keep up with NATO. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was the trigger needed to focus everyone’s attention and realign priorities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has used this lack of unity and interest extremely well, leveraging incentives and mutual interests to weaken any joint anti-Russian position. While the apparent unity may surprise Putin a little bit, Germany is holding back, taking a hardline stance, particularly because of its reliance on the North Stream II gas pipeline for energy security. Italy is also, although less so, reliant on Russian gas, and together with Germany has been opposing using the global payments platform SWIFT as part of the sanctions against Russia.
While sanctions have been used against Russia for many years, the type and scope being used and considered now are quite different. Strong economic sanctions that isolate the Russian economy will have a negative impact on the Russian people, who are already faced with a struggling economy and show social frustration related to the COVID pandemic.
The new sanctions will play a significant role in repositioning Russia and Putin diplomatically, politically and economically. The fact that Europe might be ready to rid itself of dependency on Russian gas creates new challenges, but Putin’s actions are forcing the Europeans to face this new reality and plan a Europe without Russian gas. This may not be easy, but it is not impossible.
Russia may not have expected such a strong reaction. It is more likely that Putin’s tactical approach was based on escalation followed quickly by containment of the situation. This has been Putin’s approach in recent years: achieve his goals and then show readiness to come to the negotiation table.
If the western bloc continues to be firm, decisive and display a united strategy, there will be a radical change in this confrontation with Russia.
The deep economic crisis, draining of resources, sanctions and isolation of the Russian economy will have a socioeconomic impact in a country where political opposition is underground, but always prepared to come out. This pressure will have an even more marked impact in Russia because the situation is of Putin’s making in the first place.
Technically, this is not a battle between the west and Russia, it is much more like a Cold War confrontation in a new era. Putin’s actions are of little surprise, but he is unlikely to have forecast the firm and united response, particularly as similar response was not triggered when Russia meddled in Syria, Belarus, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, and probably also Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Adding this surprise response to the economic crisis Russia suffers gives Putin a heavy workload now. The venture in Ukraine is not a particularly easy mission and could end up a long and complicated foray.
Russia has, at best, shown indifference to international law or global security norms, but what is the real gain from its policies? It already held the warm water port of Sebastopol after the 2013 venture into Crimea. What has resulted is that the US is now in a strong position to relaunch its western narrative, and Putin has handed it a new enemy and a new Cold War.
Dr. Amer Al Sabaileh