Russia’s Military Buildup at Ukraine’s Borders: A Challenge for the New German Government
Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he does not accept Ukraine as a state and wants the United States in particular to recognize his self-claimed “spheres of influence." While all-out war remains unlikely, Berlin needs to find answers.
The massive Russian military buildup at the border with Ukraine has already turned out to be a success story for the Kremlin. It has captured the full attention of the US government and led to panicky discussions in Europe about a new war in Ukraine. This way, President Vladimir Putin is testing Europe and the United States in terms of the extent of their support for Kyiv. In other words: What price are they willing to pay for Ukraine?
The Kremlin is increasing its pressure to stop any NATO Eastern enlargement, including a creeping integration of Ukraine via armament shipments and military support. Moscow is very unhappy with the US supply of weapons to Ukraine’s army and the use of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones at the border of the de-facto occupied territories in Donbas. The reason for this is an attempt by NATO to deter the Russian military buildup in the Black Sea and to make any further attack on Ukraine less attractive. From the Kremlin’s perspective, Ukraine is being increasingly transformed into a Western trained and armed fortress against Russia.
To be clear, even if a Russian military intervention in Ukraine is possible early next year, it is not very likely. The cost would be too high. Ukraine is a huge country, impossible to invade in a matter of days, and its army is much better prepared and equipped than in 2014 when Moscow illegally annexed Crimea and fomented war in the Donbas. The loss of life would be significant, and Western sanctions hard-hitting. All this would not be very popular in Russian society and would not bring more support for the Russian president.
Therefore, Putin’s immediate aim is to get a meeting with US President Joe Biden (scheduled online for Tuesday and in person at the beginning of next year), an assurance that there will be no NATO enlargement, and a halt to Western activities in what the Kremlin considers its “sphere of influence” in Europe. This includes also weapons supply to Ukraine. Putin made this clear in a long article published in July, in which he reinterpreted the history of Ukraine. In his view, it is a country without an identity, with limited sovereignty, and standing at the core of Russia’s interests. At the same time, he gave up negotiations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who, in response to his declining popularity at home, has turned into Moscow’s harshest critic and is moving against Ukraine’s powerful oligarchs who are willing to cooperate with Moscow. This includes Viktor Medvedchuk, Putin’s man in Kyiv.
Recently, the Russian foreign ministry published parts of the correspondence between Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his German and French counterparts, Heiko Maas and Jean-Yves Le Drian, a move that sabotages any implementation of the Minsk agreements. The three countries and Ukraine make up the Normandy format in which the Minsk peace accords were negotiated. It was a clear message that diplomatic formats are not attractive to Moscow anymore and that there is no willingness to maintain the trust of the two leading European powers in order to solve the conflict in Donbas. Instead, Russia is using its military capabilities to increase its bargaining position on Ukraine vis-à-vis the Europeans and also the US, which it sees as its real interlocutor and the main supporter of the current Ukrainian government.
All this takes place while the new German government is being formed. The new Social Democratic (SPD) Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock will have to deal with a more assertive and less predictable Russia. Putin is using the departure of Angela Merkel to put maximum pressure on Europe and the US to get concessions on Ukraine. What’s more, he does not expect to solve the Donbas issue with the Europeans anymore.
Scholz will have to deal with a question that Merkel’s governments also had to face: Would Berlin be in favor of supplying Ukraine with weapons to defend itself? So far, there is a broad consensus not to go down that path, even if Vice Chancellor and Green party co-chair Robert Habeck supported weapons supply to Ukraine in May. At the same time, the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline will weaken Ukraine’s bargaining position vis-à-vis Russia, which in turn increases the threat of an actual Russian attack. That means that the Scholz government needs to recognize that the pipeline project is not purely economic, but has geopolitical and security consequences for the EU and its neighborhood.
As the key supporter of Nord Stream 2, Germany has a responsibility to support Ukraine in safeguarding its security and territorial integrity. Since the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, neutrality is no longer an option for Kyiv. It was Moscow that saw fit to break the 1994 Budapest Memorandum (in which Ukraine traded its nuclear weapons for an undertaking to guarantee its territorial integrity) and changed the post-Cold War European security order by military force. Now Putin wants a binding confirmation of this new reality, including the recognition of spheres of influence, signed by the US president. That will never happen, because Ukraine is a sovereign state, but Moscow has the impression that it is in a strong position at the moment.
Fuzzy on Russia
While the coalition agreement that forms the basis of the Scholz government is very clear with regard to the support of the territorial integrity of Ukraine, it is rather fuzzy on how to deal with Russia. Here disagreements between the Greens and the SPD in particular have become more visible.
How Scholz and his new cabinet will deal with the situation will become apparent in the next few days. As the Ukraine situation shows, Russia policy is less about conflict and cooperation, and more about risk management. The Russian leadership needs to understand the price for any military adventure in Ukraine. At the same time, the risk of hybrid actions in the shadow of a huge military buildup are more likely. There are several options to destabilize Ukraine beyond a full-flung military intervention. The Scholz government will need to find a way to strengthen Ukraine’s defense capability and to decrease the Kremlin’s blackmailing potential with regard to Ukraine’s and Europe’s energy dependency. At the same time, he needs to find ways to talk with Putin. Both, Scholz and his foreign minister Baerbock will have to earn respect in Moscow. Those will be major tasks for the new government.
Stefan Meister is head of the International Order and Democracy program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).