RUSSIA has kicked out the last of the Ukrainian army from Crimea, their own troops are massed on the eastern borders of the country itself, and it has its sights set on Moldova and Georgia.
The message from Russia president Vladimir Putin is that “Russia can do what it likes” —and nobody can stop it.
EU leaders froze the assets of a dozen more Russians at their summit last week and promised sleeping bags and boots to Ukraine’s dishevelled army.
Nato held a conference in Brussels and debated the future of the organisation that, for the first time in two decades, will not have an external military operation as it pulls out of Afghanistan.
Nato has made it quite clear that it will only defend the territories of its members — and has been patrolling the Baltic states and Poland to illustrate this point.
But Ukraine and Georgia are not members — and so Nato is unsure how to enforce the belief expressed by secretary general Anders Fogh Rosmussen that: “We should not grant a de facto veto to third parties [on countries’ right to choose who they join].”
Russia’s aggression has created a watershed moment for Europe, according to the politicians, military, and diplomats. It can either see the EU — in the words of former Nato secretary general George Robertson — remain a “military pygmy” or learn to hold its own.
This watershed moment coincides with a number of other pivotal moments, all feeding into one another, and all part of any battle with Russia — trade, energy, and defence.
Military spending is down by as much as a third in some EU countries. It is hoped that “doing more for less” by streamlining manufacturing and co-operation between the member states — as agreed at their December summit — will make up some of the critical shortfalls with spending on drones, cyber defence and satellite communication.
But the weaknesses were apparent when demands for an arms embargo on Russia were muted and, for instance, France was about to deliver helicopter launch ships to Moscow.
Some argued that Russia had said it could have taken the whole of Georgia in 2008 — instead of two little areas — in 20 minutes if they had this kind of equipment at the time. Was the EU now going to arm it to ensure future successes?
As Human Rights Watch issued a paper saying the action in Crimea constituted an occupation and gave the international community the right to react, Russia’s ambassador to Nato, Alexander Grushko, said that Moscow would not accept Georgia’s right to join Nato and added: “Don’t forget Tajikistan — it is very important because of the Russian soldiers that we have peace and security there.”
He insisted that Russia’s actions in Crimea were legitimate and warned that there were 640,000 people in other countries who were non-citizens because they spoke Russian, even 23 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
An Estonian national from the European Council for Foreign Relations warned that the Ukrainian invasion is different from the Georgian one — this time “they don’t care whether their pretext for invasion was believable”, she said.
Perhaps Putin is working to a deadline of June, when Nato will consider the applications for membership from Georgia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bosnia. Once they join, it will no longer be the Russian bear against a fragile, poor, small state.
Former Nato secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that the West has been taught “a power politics lesson by Putin”, since countries have been trained to think in moral categories which Putin does not. This is why Nato and the EU must do everything it can to prevent the crisis from worsening.
No more disarming when another is rearming and rattling their arms on your borders.
Putin has certainly given a raison d’être to a weak Nato which hoped to convince its members at its summit in Wales in September that they deserved an increased budget and remit. But is that just drawing East and West into some kind of reworked Cold War, with each side mapping out its “sphere of influence”?
De Hoop Scherffer said: “Putin knows we were not going to wage war over Crimea or Georgia as they are not Nato members,” and insisted that Ukraine and its 45m citizens is too big for him, so, he says, we are back on the political track.
The political track includes sanctions and threats such as those of the US to take “all necessary steps” to prevent further aggression. There are many that hope that, as the sanctions press closer to those around Putin, Europe will also do “whatever it takes” to that end.
Trade is a legitimate part of “whatever it takes” but, as with the sanctions, this is not a simple thing for EU member states to agree. Currently, the EU is desperately trying to agree a huge trade agreement with the US, as the US moves its gaze ever more to Asia where it is also required to help maintain some kind of stability.
US president Barack Obama’s visit to Brussels tomorrow is expected to focus on the Ukraine as much as on trade now, but his real discussions will be held today in The Hague, which is hosting the third of a series of discussions on nuclear disarmament instigated by Obama.
It is certainly a suitable occasion to discuss Ukraine, as the events raise questions for Britain and the US that guaranteed Ukraine’s borders with Russia in exchange for the country — which had a nuclear arsenal bigger than that of Britain and France — relinquishing its nuclear capability to Russia under the Budapest Treaty.
Energy is another element in the EU’s non-violent arsenal and like the euro crisis galvanising action on securing the euro and the financial institutions, this crisis is doing the same for energy security. Suddenly, all kinds of alternatives are being explored but the time limit of next winter does not give nearly enough time.
Bringing Russia to its knees economically did little to influence Putin’s policies in the past — they lost two years of GDP growth after Georgia. It did little to reset Belarus, now firmly in the Eurasian Union, being pushed by Moscow as it falls into increasing poverty. But then, EU sanctions have had little effect either.
The question Janis Emmanouilidis of the European Policy Centre asks is: “Could the March 2014 European Council enter the history books as a turning point, not only in the EU’s relations with Russia but also in its role as foreign policy actor?”
Emmanouilidis concludes that only time will tell.