Europe’s Russian nightmare

The invasion of Ukraine and the suffering of its people is far from over. Russia, its powerful opponent, appears to be showing now signs of backing off until its demands are met – making the ongoing conflict the longest nightmare for Europe and perhaps even the largest military conflict the continent has faced since World War II. All in all, the ongoing Russian offensive in Ukraine has simply cranked east-west tensions to heights that many observers termed ‘unimaginable’ after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Those writing history in the West would say the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the dawn of a new era of peace, prosperity, and unity in Europe – without acknowledging that it also gave birth to a new animosity with what is now known as Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Over the past week, Putin has given sleepless nights not just to Ukrainians but leaders in almost every Western capital, including Washington. What started as a threat that most thought would never eventuate, has now emerged as the stark reality for Europe and the Western order. On February 24, 2022, after weeks and months of sabre-rattling, Putin, Russia’s longest serving president, ordered the invasion of Ukraine. And the unimaginable started to unfold for both Ukrainians and the West.

Since the invasion a lot has happened. The West has used every tool at its disposal to force Putin to stop the conflict. In a historic vote at the United Nations, 141 of the 193 members of the global body reprimanded Russia over its military invasion of Ukraine, demanding the immediate withdrawal of Moscow’s troops.

Prior to the condemnation at the UN, Washington and its allies in Europe, slapped Russia with the ‘toughest sanctions’. The aim is fairly simple. The West wants to exclude Moscow from the global financial system, it dominates, and weaken its military edge, just enough to force Putin to stop the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Six days into the conflict, on March 1 2022, Russians and Ukrainians held the first round of direct talks. But the first step toward the possibility of ending the conflict was overshadowed by heavy bombardment of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, by Russian forces.

Now in its 10th day, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to shock the world. Putin’s move has triggered backlash and in many ways an international debate about how to prevent further escalation. Simultaneously, Ukraine’s courage in the face of a massive assault from a powerful opponent has brought many of its Western allies on the same page. But as Putin’s military intensifies its offensive, Ukraine’s future remains unknown. During this time, experts believe, Russia’s president is relying heavily on the ‘escalate-to-de-escalate’ strategy – that is now in play after several military disappointments and the financial pinch caused by the bevy of western sanctions.

As the west maximized its efforts to penalize Moscow for starting Europe’s largest military offensive since 1945, the Russian President shocked the world by putting the country’s nuclear forces on high alert – that too, just four days into the bloody conflict in Ukraine.

Experts believe the ongoing invasion exposes how Ukraine and the West may have underestimated the threats from Moscow.

“ If we look at the past few decades, yes, the West may have underestimated the Russian threat. To be fair, US intelligence has been correctly raising the red flag for some time. Europe, on the other hand, was not sure about it. Perhaps it was difficult for Europe to accept the possibility of an attack from Russia,” said Ashok Swain, a professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University.

Putin too, Dr Swain said, appears to have underestimated the Ukrainian resistance. “President Putin was perhaps expecting the collapse of Ukraine at the first sight of Russian troops. So far, that has not happened.”

Comparing the current invasion with the last Russian assault in 2014 that enabled the annexation of Crimea, a peninsula along the northern coast of the Black Sea in Eastern Europe, Dr Swain said: “Putin had been threatening military action since last year. “It did not happen overnight or without prior notice.”

Hammered politically, at home and abroad, for the humiliating exit from Afghanistan, US President Biden has been leading the global reaction against Russia. The US leader claims the bevy of sanctions imposed on Russia, including the most significant penalties on its central bank will cripple the Russian economy to the point where President Putin will have no option but to stop the war.

Commenting on the sanctions and their efficacy, Dr. Swain said, Russia has survived the previous round of sanctions that were imposed shortly after the annexation of Crimea. “Sanctions have been there for sometime and that has led Russia to create stronger ties with several countries, including China. Both Beijing and Moscow have been working very closely to avoid such restrictions.”

While it is too early to predict the outcome of the sanctions imposed on Russia, Dr Swain cautioned that the new restrictions have already started showing signs across much of Europe. “Europe too, will have to face the consequences of the sanctions on Russia. Energy prices are already soaring,” the Sweden-based expert said.

According to Dr Swain, the financial penalties on Russia will take a global toll in some time. The West appears to have created this policy believing that Ukrainian resistance coupled with financial sanctions on Russia will have a devastating impact on the country’s economy. That equation, some experts believe can change very quickly and may even favor Putin.

“If the Ukrainians fail to hold up against Russia, the sanctions will have minimal impact on Putin’s offensive. The West clearly got that wrong. In the long run the Russian forces have the upper hand in capturing or seizing Ukrainian cities,” said an expert from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. “For the west’s financial sanctions to work, Ukraine should hold up longer,” explained the Moscow-based expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Initially, the West, particularly European nations, appeared to be at odds over the number and intensity of financial penalties on Russia. Even after Washington imposed a raft of economic restrictions on Russian financial institutions and oligarchs, hoping Putin would pay ‘dearly’ for invading Ukraine, Western leaders were split on whether Moscow should be removed from SWIFT, a global financial messaging service. The move was expected to deliver a severe blow to Moscow’s financial transactions and its ability to trade beyond its borders. After days of back and forth, some, not all, Russian banks were cut off from the main international payment system, Swift.

“The West appeared divided on how to handle the issue during the initial days of the conflict. After the Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, we witnessed a more cohesive response from the West,” said Uppsala University’s Dr Swain.

The expert cautioned that the western unity had to be observed closely. “It might not last long if this conflict is dragged – primarily because of the economic interests that each state has.”

Interestingly, even as western leaders were issuing warnings against Putin and his government, including the sweeping sanctions that followed, the energy sector, the lifeblood of European and Russian economies, has been spared. But as the war in Ukraine intensifies, Europe may finally be forced to consider the idea of sanctions targeting Russian oil and gas exports – even if they have a crippling impact on the continent’s own economy.

Throughout the conflict, Ukraine too, has been disappointed. Uppsala University’s Dr. Swain described the support to Ukraine as disappointing. “Kyiv did not receive the support it was expecting from the West, Europe, in particular, and NATO.”

Last month, Ukraine’s president openly expressed disappointment over the response his country received. “Today, I asked 27 leaders of Europe whether Ukraine will be in NATO, I asked directly. Everyone was afraid, and did not answer. But we are not afraid, we are not afraid of anything,” said a visibly perturbed Volodymyr Zelenskyy. His audience was the West and his people at home. “There is support but not as much or as Ukraine had expected,” explained Dr Swain. “If the West hasn't been able to confront threats from North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, to expect they can fight Putin, is rather naive,” he added.

When asked how the West can prevent Putin from advancing further, Dr Swain said, it is yet to be seen. “Europe has provided support to anti-Putin movements within Russia, but there is a limit to how much they can achieve with such moves. The Russian leader has built a power structure around him and he has also developed an alliance with China, which leaves the West with limited options to unseat Putin.”

“If the West hasn't been able to remove other tinpot dictators, it is difficult to unseat the Russian leader – not at least immediately,” quipped the Sweden-based expert. Any movement to remove Putin from power, he added, would have to come from within Russia.

Will Putin succeed?

While the outcome of Russia’s invasion remains unclear – Putin’s victory in Ukraine remains the unthinkable nightmare for the West. Last month, in a televised address, the Russian leader announced the invasion of Ukraine, calling it a ‘special military operation’ aimed at ‘demilitarization of the country – that appeared to be operating under western influence.

In his address, the Russian leader said he did not plan to occupy Ukraine but wanted to protect its citizens. Simultaneously, Putin also issued a chilling warning to the world. “Any country that tried to interfere with Russia’s actions would face consequences they have never seen,” said the Russian president.

After months of posturing and threatening statements the world finally witnessed the invasion of Ukraine. The big question for the world remains: What does Putin’s victory mean for Ukraine and the West?

For now, experts believe the West is doing everything it can possibly do, without getting into a direct conflict with Moscow. That strategy, they warned, may not last forever. “At some stage, the West will have no option, but to engage militarily with Russia,” said an expert from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. “And that is exactly what will become Putin’s ultimate victory because not many countries would like to join such a conflict against Russia.”

“Putin has limited objectives in this conflict. The biggest fear for the West is that if he succeeds in this mission, he will move to other nations in the region. For now, the resistance from Ukraine and the way the West has come together, shows Putin might not achieve the success he is hoping for,” said Dr Swain.

In many ways, he said, Putin has exposed the fallacy that countries can expect western support, if and when they are attacked. “I think Putin has successfully conveyed this message to every nation in the region.”

Responding to a question about Putin’s options to counter the West, Dr Swain said the Russian leader can, in some ways, hold the Iran Nuclear deal hostage over Ukraine. “Russia has a strong influence over Iran. But Iran’s deal may be influenced more by Beijing than by Moscow,” he added. “Putin will definitely need President Xi’s support to make such a move.”

Meanwhile, experts from the conflict zone warned, if Kyiv falls, Putin won’t stop at Ukraine “It’s not going to end with Ukraine if Ukraine falls,” Ukraine’s former minister of economic development Tymofiy Mylovanov cautioned in response to a question.

To the audience attending the webinar arranged by the Roberta Buffett Institute of Global affairs, Mylovanov bluntly said that Washington’s attempts to understand Russia’s leader using rational means had failed. “Every time we thought he wouldn’t do that, then he would. And it’s a pattern. It’s a bigger picture than Kyiv,” he added.

Nuclear war

Like a bolt from the blue, the Russian President’s orders placing his country’s nuclear forces on high alert, shocked the entire world.

Last month, Putin summoned his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and military chief of staff, Valery Gerasimov, and directly ordered the two men to place Russia’s nuclear deterrence forces on high alert.

Experts monitoring the conflict measure it as a clear signal from the Russian leader that he is ready to push the already dangerous situation to the last limits of safety to achieve victory.

The Express Tribune contacted Pavel Podvig, a Senior Researcher in the Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) Programme at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) for his views on the latest threat from Russia’s leader.

In response to a question about Putin’s ability to use the nuclear option, Podvig said: “It is possible given that Putin is willing to do anything to get his way in this conflict. However, reports shared by the US government show that even after the orders the Russians have not moved any weapons to show that a nuclear attack was imminent.”

“We really hope that sanity prevails and that he doesn't go for the nuclear option,” Podvig said from Geneva where he is based.

According to the senior UNIDIR expert, the latest threat by the Russian leader was rather ambiguous. “It is hard to say what “special mode of combat duty” might entail. But definitely there is no reason not to take the threat seriously. It has gone up a notch,” he cautioned.

When asked what would Putin’s victory mean for the West, the Geneva-based analyst, who also runs a research project called the Russian Nuclear Forces said: “It's not clear how that "victory" might look like. There are many options. If the Kremlin achieves its maximum goals – regime change and demilitarization, it's likely to create a very confrontational situation in Europe, probably of the kind that existed during the cold war.”

View from Washington

With Russia showing no signs of giving up, Washington like most western capitals remains on the edge. The Express Tribune contacted Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, for his views on Russia invasion of Ukraine and the Biden administration’s response.

“Washington is understandably concerned about Putin's decision to put his strategic nuclear forces on higher alert, but the main worry remains the destruction that Russian conventional military forces are causing across increasingly wider expanses of Ukraine,” said Kugelman.

“The US is clearly trying to do everything short of deploying military force to try to deter Putin: It has imposed heavy sanctions, it has sought to work with its NATO allies to convey security assistance to Ukraine, and it is trying to isolate Russia by building a large global consensus around condemning its aggression. And yet, I'm not sure how successful this will all be in convincing Putin to de-escalate,” the Washington-based expert explained.

According to Kugelman, Washington faces a determined dictator who doesn't appear amenable to being deterred. “And at the end of the day, the US isn't prepared to give in to Putin's unyielding demand that Ukraine never become a part of NATO,” he added.

Responding to a question about a possible Russian victory in Ukraine, Kugelman said: “A Putin victory can be defined via a variety of outcomes, largely those revolving around the installation of a pro-Russia regime in Ukraine, or the takeover of the entire country.” Any Putin victory, he explained, would deliver a major blow to the current world order.

“And of course it would be a huge blow to Russia as well. This begs the question of whether this would all be worth it for Putin.”

The Russian leader, Kugelman cautioned, is inching closer to being a global pariah. “His country would lurch toward economic collapse, and he could well face internal revolts at home. But to be honest, I doubt any of this fazes him right now,”

Commenting on the recent UN vote against Russia, which several countries including, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan abstained from, the Wilson Center expert said: “I think it's important to see the forest for the three. Many more countries voted to condemn Russia's war than those that abstained or voted not to condemn it. To be sure, it's not insignificant that several dozen abstained.”

When asked if the US was losing its influence in South Asia, Kugelman said: “The voting pattern is just an indication that countries will always act on their interests. These abstaining countries concluded it wasn't in their interest to condemn Russia, because of the longstanding ties they have with Moscow, in the case of Delhi and Dhaka, or because of the ties they hope to deepen with Moscow, in the case of Islamabad.”

Russia's invasion, Kugelman said, has alienated it in a big way. “It'll have trouble keeping old friends and making new ones. My sense, especially if the war continues, is that the Russia-China bloc will have many fewer countries on its side than a US-led bloc will,” he explained.

According to the Wilson Center expert, Moscow's main remaining lifeline to the world will be its energy sector, which the West will hesitate to sanction because many European countries depend so heavily on Russian energy exports.

“With so many countries agreeing to lock Russia out of the international banking system, we shouldn't overstate its ability to stay connected to the global economy, even if the energy keeps flowing,” said Kugelman.

Looking ahead

While Russia has agreed to a partial ceasefire and even allowed women and children to leave certain areas, Dr. Swain said, the permanent end to this crisis can be achieved through aggressive diplomacy. “We need a ceasefire and the success of talks to get out of this conflict that has the potential of transforming into a protracted war in the region.”

“Both Europe and the US may not be able to absorb the refugees coming out of the conflict zone,” he added. The Russian leader, Dr Swain said, is counting on that pressure on Europe.

“The influx of refugees will strain the western unity that we currently see. And if the conflict continues, we will also witness closer ties between Beijing and Moscow – which will eventually become another challenge for the West.” the conflict and peace professor said. According to Dr. Swain, the Russian leader would like to expose the fissures in the western alliance. “He can do so by dragging out this conflict. Eventually, to prevent this, the West must employ all possible tools to prevent further escalation and to resolve the matter before it spins completely out of control.

On the other hand, if the conflict drags longer than the timeline created by the Russian leader, experts believe, he will face opposition at home.

Olga Kamenchuk, a professor at Northwestern University’s School of Communication, said public opinion in Moscow was changing and was clearly against the idea of protracted conflict. “Fewer Russians are standing behind this war than those who supported the annexation of Crimea in 2014,” Kamenchuk told the audience of the webinar on the invasion of Ukraine arranged by the Roberta Buffett Institute of Global affairs. “Eight years ago, 95% of Russians were in favor of Crimean annexation. Right now, we see 57% to 65% depending on the pollster,” the expert said from Moscow.














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