Europe faces a moment of great peril. Hopes earlier this week that Vladimir Putin was backing away from a potential invasion of Ukraine quickly faded. After Moscow announced some of the troops it had amassed around its neighbor would return to base, satellite images showed the opposite. Russia’s president repeated baseless claims of “genocide” against Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine. By Friday, an upsurge in violence around Russian-occupied Donbas, followed by separatist leaders’ announcement of a mass evacuation of civilians, appeared ominously like a choreographed attempt by Moscow to create a pretext for military action.
Western efforts to deter a Russian invasion through diplomatic engagement and warnings of severe economic sanctions may ultimately fail. Yet through their vigorous campaign to counter Russian disinformation, western allies have managed to strip away any surprise, save over the precise timing and form of any attack, and any possible subterfuge about its motives. If an assault occurs, few in the world’s advanced democracies, beyond the political fringes, will be in any doubt that this is aggression based on an artificial crisis stirred up by Moscow.
This is a big change from 2014. After protests toppled Ukraine’s Russian-leaning president Viktor Yanukovych, the appearance of Russian troops in Crimea and then eastern Ukraine caught the world off-guard. Some western intellectuals and politicians were taken in by Russia’s fake narrative of a western-backed “neo-Nazi coup” in Kyiv, used to justify its military intervention to protect Russian-speakers.
Today, the west is not playing catch-up with Russia, but is prepared for what may come. The US has shone a spotlight on Russia’s military build-up since at least November, sharing intelligence with allies. That has helped to cement solidarity among western allies, despite some wobbles, and forge consensus over punitive sanctions.
This unity may have surprised the Kremlin. Putin clearly assumed that the US, after its ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan, was weakened and careless with its allies. He calculated that a looming presidential election in France and a political transition in Germany would play to his advantage. But at the Munich Security Conference on Friday, Germany’s foreign minister Annalena Baerbock insisted her country – though it has seemed to waver in its readiness to confront Moscow – was ready to pay a “high economic price for unprecedented sanctions” on Russia, specifically naming the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as a potential target.
The west has been careful, too, to leave Putin an off-ramp, by offering to continue talks on European security. Though the west has made clear it cannot give the absolute guarantees Russia seeks that Ukraine would never join NATO, Moscow would, like its counterparts, have much to gain from revitalized agreements on conventional forces and nuclear arms.
If Moscow chooses instead the military path, it will trigger a conflict in Europe on a scale that has long seemed unimaginable. Its human and economic costs are hard to contemplate. It would take the continent into a new phase in its history, in which much of Europe would be in an indirect conflict with Russia.
Yet the west has in recent weeks significantly increased the price Russia would pay. It would be a pariah in the western community, facing sanctions that – despite its efforts to “sanction-proof” itself – would have an impact on its economy that could rebound on Putin politically. Russia’s president has in the past been seen as a shrewd tactician. Unleashing war in Europe might prove his biggest miscalculation.