Europe has faced such ugly moments too often before, in which matters of life and death – and war and peace – depended on the balance of power and a test of will between tyrants and the most benevolent forces.
The peaceful end of the Cold War 30 years ago was intended to change that bloody history and usher in a period that President George HW Bush in 1989 hoped would bring “a whole and free Europe,” where Russia would find its rightful and peaceful place.
President Bush said on May 31, 1989, in Mainz, Germany, six months before the fall of the Berlin Wall and more than two years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. “And decade after decade, time after time, the flourishing of the human spirit faded from the cold of conflict and oppression… The world has waited long enough. The time is right. Let Europe be whole and free.”
In this context, US President Joe Biden this week faces a moment of truth for the moribund embers of that ambition and the distinctive foreign policy initiative of his presidency. Biden rallies allies for the systematic competition between Chinese and Russian democracy and autocracy that he said will define 21St a century.
This contrasts with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambition to reverse the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO to its borders, which he has called “the world’s greatest geopolitical tragedy” (20).ycentury.” At the age of seventy, he seems more determined than ever to cement his legacy, as the Czars and Russian leaders before him had done, through territorial expansion or the control of neighbors.
This week begins with the bilateral meeting between the United States and Russia on Monday in Geneva, begins with an initial conversation on Sunday evening, moves to the Russia-NATO Council in Brussels on Wednesday and then ends on Thursday in Vienna at the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe.
All of these emergency meetings were prompted by Russian security demands that were delivered in mid-December in the form of two draft treaties. Its provisions would ban Ukraine from joining NATO at all, and demand the alliance withdraw forces stationed in member states in Central and Eastern Europe and halt all military exercises in those countries. This was followed a few days later by Putin’s stark brinkmanship in the form of an ultimatum – backed by some 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s border – that he would take “military-technical” action if he was not convinced.
So far, the United States and its allies have responded to his escalation with the carrot of mutual talks on some aspects of the treaties — including permitted missile systems and military maneuvers — and through the sanctions wand, and new financial, military and technological sanctions in the event of an invasion by Russia. Ukraine.
US officials told the New York Times that these plans include “cutting off Russia’s largest financial institutions from global transactions, imposing a ban on US-made or US-designed technology needed for defense and consumer industries, and arming rebels in Ukraine who want to conduct what would amount to a guerrilla war against Russian military occupation, if it comes to that.”
By the end of this week, the United States and its allies will likely know whether Putin is willing to negotiate or intent on escalation.
The fluidity of the situation was underlined by last week’s rapid Russian-led military intervention in Kazakhstan, at the request of Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, ostensibly to quell widespread popular protests against a fuel price increase on January 2.
It would be a mistake to separate Putin’s actions in Kazakhstan from his ambitions in Ukraine. According to his account, they are closely related.
When the dust settles, Kazakhstan will likely descend deeper into Moscow’s expanding sphere of influence than at any time since its separation from the Soviet Union in 1991 – complete with its energy and mineral wealth, which includes 40% of the world’s uranium reserves.
Although the situation continues to unfold and reliable information is difficult to obtain, what is indisputable is that the timing and rapid implementation of the Russian intervention underscores Putin’s determination to see and seize strategic opportunities in the former Soviet space. It is the fourth time in just two years that Moscow has interfered in neighboring countries that have been leaning towards the west – Armenia, Belarus and Ukraine like the other three.
Rumors are circulating in Kazakhstan about Russia’s role in the events of the past week, from the possibility that the coup orchestrated by Russia from the start to the certainty that the always opportunistic Putin has seized the opportunity.
What is clear is that his country is in turmoil and his leadership is in danger, Kazakh President Tokayev has turned to Putin to ensure his political survival. This is likely to bring lasting change in a country – and perhaps to other parts of Central Asia – that has benefited from balancing relations with Moscow, Beijing, and Washington.
With Moscow’s support, Tokayev issued firing orders to kill ousted protesters Nursultan Nazarbayev, 81, his former patron, and the country’s first president, as head of Kazakhstan’s powerful Security Council. He also dismissed and arrested Karim Masimov, his chief of intelligence, on charges of high treason.
Russian forces are now on the ground protecting the country’s most important airfields and military installations, along with other soldiers from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, the six-nation bloc of the former Soviet Union, in the first such military intervention since its 1992 incorporation.
As US Secretary of State Tony Blinken said this week, “One of the lessons from recent history is that once Russians get into your home, it’s sometimes hard to convince them to leave.”
If there is a message from Kazakhstan to the American officials negotiating this week with the Russians, this is it. Whatever you hope to negotiate, realize that Putin is playing to keep him, believes he has the initiative, is willing to take risks, is willing to send in troops, and sees the Biden administration — especially after the disaster in Afghanistan — and its partners are weak. Divided and indecisive.
The least likely scenario is that of Putin retracting his demands for NATO or carrying out a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Watch instead something more obscure and literal that would be designed to divide the Allies – additional sampling of Ukrainian lands, Luhansk’s annexation of Donbass provinces, where Russian separatists dominate, or stirring up internal Ukrainian drama with an invisible hand.
The question is whether the United States and its allies can avoid both appeasement and war. Europe’s future is in the balance once again.
–Frederic Kempe He is the president and CEO of the Atlantic Council.