As the last four years have demonstrated, the US and NATO are not going to become directly involved in military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. Moscow understands this well. It correctly calculated that intimidating Ukraine in the Azov Sea would lead to loud condemnations of Russian behaviour with no serious consequences.
The problem facing Western countries is two-fold: Moscow prioritizes its objectives in Ukraine over relations with the West, and it retains vast capacity to inflict damage on Ukraine by stoking conflict and strangling its economy.
The Kremlin has become used to Western sanctions and other instruments of pressure, concluding that it can live with them despite their inconvenience.
In an interview with the Financial Times in October, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that Russia viewed the West ‘as an adversary that acts to undermine Russia’s positions and Russia’s perspective for normal development’. He went on to question why Russia should care about its standing among Western countries.
Many in North America and Europe struggle to understand why Moscow thinks this way because they have not yet come to terms with the failure of the European security model introduced at the end of the Cold War.
This model was based on the concept of cooperation and integration. When Russia showed in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014 that it was prepared to tear up this framework, NATO countries believed they were responding to specific crises rather than a broader attack on their vision of European security.
The tools of crisis management are not the same as those for addressing the long-term threat of the type posed by Russia. The Kremlin’s vision of European security is based on a right to control its neighbours and veto NATO decision-making.
Russia’s actions against Ukrainian naval forces last week were designed to underline its influence over Ukraine and show that the West is powerless to respond. Moscow knows NATO will not deploy naval forces close to the Kerch strait since such a move would increase tensions rather than reduce them.
This effectively gives Russia carte blanche to continue its intrusive checks on Ukrainian shipping entering and leaving the Azov Sea, with clear consequences for the future viability of Ukraine’s two ports at Mariupol and Berdyansk. In 2017, 25 per cent of Ukraine’s metal exports passed through the two ports.
Since there is no obvious way to prevent Russia from controlling this part of Ukraine’s maritime border, the most effective option for Western countries will be to assist Ukraine in upgrading railway links and expanding other port facilities to bypass the Azov Sea. Mariupol is home to Ukraine’s second-largest steel works and lacks rail capacity to reach Ukrainian Black Sea ports.
The Western response to Russian aggression against Ukraine since 2014 has been to pursue a policy with three elements: political and practical support to Ukraine to resist Russian pressure, sanctions targeted at Russian individuals and sectors of the Russian economy, and the re-building of NATO’s badly neglected collective defence capabilities.
These are the right tools for managing the challenge posed by Russia even if they are not yet part of a long-term concept for doing so.
While the Russian system conducts some foreign policy with considerable skill, its miscalculations can also be glaring. The timing of last week’s Azov Sea incidents could scarcely have been worse. They resulted in the cancellation of the planned meeting this weekend of President Putin with Donald Trump at the G20. Ahead of the EU’s review of sanctions this month, Moscow has given a further reason to keep them in place. Finally, in the run up to presidential elections in Ukraine in March, Russia has strengthened the position of President Petro Poroshenko and other political forces in Ukraine calling for integration with the West.
he German chancellor, Angela Merkel, warned in 2014 that a ‘long breath’ would be necessary to resolve the West’s confrontation with Russia over Ukraine.
It is still not clear whether the West has the resolve to play the long game with Russia and persuade it over time to revise its foreign and security policy. But last week’s events have shown again that Moscow is capable of making serious mistakes, and such resolve could pay dividends.
John Lough, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme.