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International pressure builds on Russia over Ukraine

Teri Schultz Brussels
December 8, 2021

US President Joe Biden has warned the Kremlin to keep out of Ukraine. Against the backdrop of developments there, the United States and Europe have choreographed their pressure tactics.

A caricature of a bear pulling at the NATO logo
Has Vladimir Putin bitten off more than he can chew?Image: Sergey Elkin

White House Spokesperson Jen Psaki minced no words ahead of the virtual meeting where President Joe Biden conveyed to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, the harsh financial penalties that would accompany any new invasion of Ukraine. "[W]e have a path forward that would impose significant and severe harm on the Russian economy," Psaki said. "You can call that a threat, you can call that a fact, you can call that preparation — whatever you want to call it."

Many observers are keen to call it a threat and suggest Moscow should take it that way too, in no small part because of an unprecedented degree of unity between the US and its European allies.

Biden spoke with his counterparts in the UK, France, Germany and Italy just before the Putin call and again just afterwards.

In the hours before the meeting, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that the EU would scale up its response to "any further aggression, including breaches of international law or any other malicious actions taken against us or our neighbors, including Ukraine."

A toolbox of threats

And in a change of position that's come gradually, but unmistakably from Berlin, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was able to announce that the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline is on the table too. "[I]f Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline," Sullivan intoned, "he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine." 

David Stulik, a former European Union diplomat in Ukraine, describes the explicit inclusion of Nord Steam 2 in the transatlantic threat toolbox as a "game changer." The project, which would deliver gas from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea and bypass Ukraine, is physically complete but had its certification held up last month by the German energy regulator until the company moves assets from Switzerland to Germany. And now its geopolitical problems are again front, center and potentially paralyzing.

"This is a defeat for Russians because they really counted that they will be able to deliver gas through Nord Stream 2 already this winter, said Stulik, who is now with the Prague-based European Values Center for Security Policy. 

"And [instead] they will be forced to kind of use the Ukrainian gas transport system," he added. 

Heather Hurlburt, a former White House and State Department official who now works at the New America think tank in Washington, says the transatlantic coordination has been impressive.

A video conference call in the White House
Agreeing to disagree: The US and its allies are ramping up the pressure on the KremlinImage: Adam Schultz/White House/Planet Pix via ZUMA Press Wire/dpa/picture alliance

"Moscow has profited handily from Europe being uncomfortable with Washington's hostility toward Moscow," she said. "But with the extent and duration of this [troop buildup in Ukraine] coming on the heels of what we're seeing in Belarus, Europe has clearly decided to pull up its socks and taken away some of the space for maneuver that Putin was really enjoying."

Ukraine and the NATO question

Former Estonian President Toomas Ilves says Russia likely didn't anticipate "this degree of common purpose among the allies" but he says what's been announced is hardly enough.

Ilves, now a fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), has long been arguing for a more robust reaction against Russia's troop buildup, even if the moves thus far are not at the level of the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.

"It's clear that the US is not going to commit troops or boots on the ground to Ukraine," he told DW. "There's no consensus for that, but there's nothing that prevents the United States or NATO allies from all kinds of military assistance."

In addition, Ilves insists further financial sanctions should be stepped up, particularly more curbs on Russia's debt-trading and keeping alive the threat of cutting Moscow from of the SWIFT system which serves as the international messaging platform between banks.

"What Russia is doing right now already has created major cracks in the post-World War II security architecture of Europe," he said. "What has been done since 2014 only encourages them and comes out of transatlantic wimpiness and a fear of standing up for the values we constantly hear from leaders who lack the courage to stand up for them."

A cautious conversation?

The open question of NATO membership for Ukraine remains a thorn in Putin's side. Any resolution of the crisis will hinge on his demand to bury the issue once and for all. But that's a non-starter for the alliance. Still, Olga Oliker of the International Crisis Group believes there may be an option here that all parties can accept. Putin now concludes, she says, that Kyiv's NATO membership is "highly unlikely" and is more concerned about the growth of military infrastructure and training missions in Ukraine.

"This is where we might start having a conversation," Oliker said. "If they're worried about permanent infrastructure: nobody's going to put permanent infrastructure in Ukraine. So you could say we're not going to do that provided you also remove everything from Ukraine — provided there's peace in Ukraine. None of this happens until and unless there's peace in Ukraine."

Oliker doesn't agree with those who would call that giving in to Kremlin bullying. "The current security order in Europe is not safe, it's not stable. Just because a crisis forces you to have a conversation about how to do it better doesn't mean this is a bankrupt way to go forward."

Edited by: Rob Mudge