As long as engagement and presenting a united European front is still possible on the Ukraine crisis, there remains an opportunity to give peace a chance, writes Charles Tannock.
Dr Charles Tannock is a former UK Conservative MEP, and vice-president of the EU-Ukraine PCC delegation 2004–09.
‘Will they invade this morning?’ Talk at the breakfast table is not without trepidation in Ukraine these days. While hope remains that negotiations may prevent war, Russian forces are massing on the border, and the risk for Ukraine is that it may be a case of too little, too late.
The Russian military build-up has brought hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces to the border. Even short-range ballistic missiles are now within striking range. According to US intelligence, Russia could launch an offensive comprising an estimated up to 175,000 troops imminently.
The newly elected Germany Chancellor Olaf Scholz has urged engagement with Russia, based on ‘constructive dialogue’. The route to easing tensions with Russia, he argues, leads through a united Europe, not Germany acting alone.
For Western democracies, Olaf Scholz’s reiteration that he would not allow ‘Europeans to be divided’ on the issue is reassuring. Ukraine must be provided with the military and diplomatic support it needs to ensure it retains its sovereignty.
Such rhetoric from Berlin may come as cold comfort to Kyiv, however. As the new defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, complained recently, Ukrainians have been unsettled by the news that Germany blocked their supply of key NATO weaponry.
The procurement of lethal defensive equipment from Germany had been largely blocked under Angela Merkel’s former government – prompting Ukraine to seek arms bilaterally, through deals with other NATO members.
But the revelation that the German Economy Ministry had effectively even vetoed the export of anti-sniper systems and anti-drone rifles across NATO’s Support and Procurement Agency – the latter widely regarded instead as ‘non-lethal’ – prompted Reznikov to call the situation ‘very unfair’.
Meanwhile, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia are now sending US manufactured Javelin anti-tank weapons and Stinger MANPADS against low flying aircraft to beef up Ukraine’s defensive capacity with full US support.
Some argue that arms sales to Ukraine may provoke the Kremlin into accelerated action and swallow large swathes of the country. Vastly outgunned by Russia’s military, particularly in the air and sea, Ukraine must upgrade its defensive capabilities if it is to have any chance of altering Putin’s military calculus.
The risk of war in Europe puts the spotlight on Olaf Scholz as leader of its biggest economy.
Kyiv rightly regards the import of defensive kit as essential to protecting its territorial integrity as a sovereign UN member state, and the German Chancellor has helpfully stressed publicly that the ‘inviolability of borders’ is the ‘basis for peace’ in Europe.
However, regrettably, he still balks at providing Ukraine with the military means to defend itself.
It is not just military developments on the Russian border that are keeping policymakers awake at night. Several other issues are still looming. One is the ongoing debate over Nord Stream 2, the controversial gas pipeline which runs through the Baltic Sea to bypass existing Ukrainian supply lines – and another target of fierce criticism from Reznikov.
Germany has agreed it will merely discuss Nord Stream 2 penalties as part of a sanction package in the event of a major Russian military invasion but not more than that.
Another is a high-profile legal case. The UK Supreme Court will soon announce the judgement of a dispute over a $3 billion Eurobond loan from Russia to Ukraine in 2013 – a loan which, given Kyiv was pressured into accepting it under threat of invasion, and given the subsequent damaging economic effects of Moscow’s military aggression in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine since (estimated to exceed $120bn) the Ukrainian government rightfully argues it should not have to repay.
Beyond the neutrality of the courtroom, it appears the West overall is increasingly willing to take a harder line on Russian belligerence against Moscow’s demands that Ukraine, along with all countries of the former communist bloc, be barred from ever joining NATO, effectively denying its sovereign right to determine its own foreign policy.
It is also anticipated Putin would insist, in any future “Minsk 3” agreement imposed by force after invasion on the Kyiv government, on Ukraine’s perpetual pro-Russia alignment, and that it also be prevented from future EU accession.
The potential for applying stinging economic sanctions on Russia to deter any aggression has been high on the agenda, from Washington to Brussels, though barring Russia from SWIFT seems to have lost some traction with western governments because of fears of bounce back (particularly from Germany).
More than 14,000 Ukrainians have been killed since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, while Russian-backed proxy separatist forces remain active in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Indeed, a recent poll of Ukrainians has found that more than half think giving up on Euro-Atlantic aspirations will not stop Russian aggression which ultimately aims at establishing Putin’s revanchist and irredentist dream of a “Novorossiya” or greater Russia.
At no time, therefore, has Olaf Scholz’s plea for ‘constructive dialogue’ been more necessary. For as long as engagement and presenting a united European front is still possible, there remains an opportunity to give peace a chance.
However, Germany must also stand firm with its democratic allies in upholding international law and do all it can to prevent a war of aggression.