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The crisis in Ukraine is threatening to become a new war at the gates of Europe. But the threat has yielded political dividends for the US as NATO's supremacy is reasserted and Nord Stream 2 is on the verge of collapse.
On Friday morning, China and Russia called in a joint declaration for a halt to NATO expansion, as both governments continue to freely offer every country in their respective orbits some of the most powerful arguments in decades to sign up to the alliance.
Case in point for their arguments is one of Russia's neighbors — no, not Ukraine — but Finland. Historically, the country has been a cautious player in a very sensitive geopolitical theater; public opposition among Finns to their country joining NATO had never dropped below 53%, not even in the wake of Russia's 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea.
But now the distant drums of war on the Russian-Ukrainian border have brought about one of the most dramatic changes in outlook since the annexation. While opposition to joining the alliance has dropped to a record low, a study just released by the think tank Toivo for the polling agency Kantar found that in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, 60% of Finns would support joining NATO.
The same trend has been recorded among the Swedish public‚ and given the closeness of military cooperation between the two Scandinavian countries, analysts believe that membership for one of the two would automatically mean the other also signing up. It would seem that Moscow's overt threat of political and military action against Sweden and Finland has had little effect on their nations' outlook on collective defense.
Wittingly or unwittingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin's adventures on his country's border with Ukraine have offered those committed to the expansion of NATO not only an excellent foil, but a powerful catalyst capable of aligning public opinion. Indeed, the Kremlin has furnished its traditional antagonists the opportunity to reassert the vital importance of establishing mechanisms of defense and deterrence against Russia.
The consensus among analysts seems to be that a full-scale war across the Russian-Ukrainian border is quite unlikely. This was the view of Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, who spoke this week to DW's Tim Sebastian on Conflict Zone. Lukyanov told Sebastian that Moscow's assertive position is first and foremost intended to force the US and its allies to renegotiate the security architecture of Europe, and in particular that of the former Soviet sphere of influence. In his view, the willingness of Washington to sit down and discuss some of these matters with Moscow is itself a success for the Kremlin.
But this does not mean that the kind of low-intensity confrontations that the Donbass has seen since 2014 could not be sparked along Ukraine's border with Russia or Belarus, where the Kremlin is set to deploy some 30,000 troops to take part in a joint military exercise with Belarusian forces.
Tough talk with no consequences has been a hallmark of the Western response to Russian attempts to reassert the former superpower's geopolitical prominence. To date, Moscow has paid only a negligible price for the invasion of Crimea, for the operation of Russian-backed forces in the Donbass, for the occupation and later installation of client states in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and for the deployment of Russian troops in eastern Moldova.
This loud talk and soft touch toward Moscow has taught the Kremlin how to treat the West — and encouraged its increasingly brazen stunts of geopolitical brinkmanship, including attempted murder in foreign European cities and the destabilization of Western democracies through digital intelligence operations. The latter have become a staple of Russia's manner of engagement with its perceived antagonists. But the winds may have changed — and an overreliance on a history of tame reactions to Moscow's various acts of aggression may have made Putin miscalculate his approach to the Ukrainian question.
Nothing shows this quite as clearly as the manner in which the US has reacted to the possibility of the first major war on European soil since the 1990s. Washington has approached the Russian threats at face value and responded accordingly. Friendly powers have followed suit and suddenly, Europe is again awash with military personnel and matériel on the move coming from every direction — not only toward the Ukrainian border with Russia. The West has also been reinforcing possible lines of conflict in Baltic states, deploying troops to strategically important spots such as Gotland across the water from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and beefing up military presence in Poland.
For the US, the policy windfall has been extraordinary. In a few short weeks, Washington has seen its position in the European political arena radically changed — and for the better.
The first reality that the crisis has revealed is that the dreams of European military self-assertion are no more than faint hopes. A very divided public opinion across the continent has resulted in a similarly divided position from Brussels in relation to Russia and Ukraine. When Germany refused to deliver weapons to Kyiv amid the massive Russian troop buildup — and then faced international ridicule for its comparatively meager promise of medical supplies and 5,000 helmets — the political class was simply following the wishes of the 60% of the German public who oppose arming Ukraine.
At a time when a unified and clear response was needed, the bloc simply could not muster one. The crisis has not only served to illustrate that the US is still the only reliable actor leading any viable defense mechanism in Europe, but perhaps more importantly and more painfully to European actors interested in a self-reliant EU, it has helped to reassert the preeminence of NATO above and beyond any dreams of European military union.
Just as remarkably, the geopolitical crisis and the magnitude of the threat has breathed new life into one of the dearest items on Washington's agenda in Europe, and one that unites parties across the political aisle: the dismantling of the already-completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that runs from Russia to Germany and is set to begin delivery soon.
The project, set up by Russia's Gazprom — whose board former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has recently joined — would pipe gas directly to Germany, bypassing Ukraine, which until now has been the main route for Russian gas into Europe. Americans across the political spectrum had opposed the project and had tried by several different means, including intimidation and threats, to stop the project even as it approached completion.
Now, the Kremlin itself — through its brinkmanship on Ukraine — has put the German government in the unhappy position of having to accept that the project has become a major security liability. In forcing Germany to reassess the viability of the already finished project, the Russian strongman has managed to do what no American politician had so far.