April 21, 2021

Some Initial Lessons Identified for the West from Russia’s Action against Ukraine

AFP / Ukrainian Interior Ministry / Scanpix
The Ukrainian interior minister Arsen Avakov (C-L) visiting servicemen of the National Guard taking part in a military drill near the Ukrainian Azov Sea port of Mariupol on April 19, 2021. The US State Department on April 19, 2021, branded as an "unprovoked escalation" reported Russian plans to block parts of the Black Sea, which could ultimately impact access to Ukrainian ports.
The Ukrainian interior minister Arsen Avakov (C-L) visiting servicemen of the National Guard taking part in a military drill near the Ukrainian Azov Sea port of Mariupol on April 19, 2021. The US State Department on April 19, 2021, branded as an "unprovoked escalation" reported Russian plans to block parts of the Black Sea, which could ultimately impact access to Ukrainian ports.

The exact reasons for the build-up of Russian forces in and around Ukraine are known only to President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle, but it would be unwise to believe that there is no link between this show of force and the signals Moscow receives from Kyiv and Western capitals. Western nations should not be or appear to be deterred by Russian information operations and troop build-ups.

Regardless of how military and political decision-makers in Washington D.C., London, Paris and Berlin actually assess the situation, there are indications that at least some western capitals may inadvertently encourage rather than discourage Russian aggression.

Unfortunate Messaging

On 3 April 2021, spokespersons of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France and the German Federal Foreign Office issued a joint statement on the situation in Ukraine. They expressed traditional concern about “the growing number of ceasefire violations in eastern Ukraine”. The French and German authorities stated that they were “closely monitoring the situation and in particular Russian troop movements, and call on all sides to show restraint and to work towards the immediate de-escalation of tensions.”

In other words: Paris and Berlin were worried about ceasefire violations but not the Russian troop build-up per se which they just promised to monitor closely. Without linking the concentration of Russian forces with the ceasefire violations, they fell back into the convenient hobbyhorse to blame both the perpetrator and the victim for the unfortunate situation.

Such shameful messaging does little to support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and harms also public confidence that EU member states and NATO allies bordering Russia have in Germany and France.

Berlin’s stubborn position in defending the construction of Nord Stream 2 discredits Germany and many remember well the unfavourable ceasefire agreement between Russia and Georgia that then French President Nicolas Sarkozy brokered in 2008. Anyone who feels attracted by the idea of strategic autonomy or a European army should read this joint statement to understand how submissive Europe’s leading countries appear without US leadership.

Closing the Black Sea

Unfortunately, also US messaging has been somewhat mixed. On 9 April, Turkey’s foreign ministry issued news that two US warships would enter the Black Sea, in line with the 1937 Montreux Convention from 14-15 April. On the same day, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko voiced concerns over increasing Black Sea naval activity by powers that did not have a coastline in the region. On the 13th, Grushko’s colleague Sergey Ryabkov (who designated the United States Russia’s ‘adversary’ [protivnik]), warned that the warships should stay away ‘for their own good’. The following day, Turkish diplomatic sources said that US authorities had cancelled the deployment. According to US officials the destroyers are being kept out of the Black Sea for now, as the move is seen as too escalatory.

What is more, on 16 April, Russia announced that it would close two sectors of the Black Sea to foreign warships and ‘other state ships’ from 24 April to 31 October: one to the west and south of Crimea, the second off the Kerch Peninsula. The former is inconsistent with the Montreux Convention; the latter, which effectively imposes a blockade on the Sea of Azov and Ukraine’s ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk, is in plain violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. These actions are a reminder that earlier Russian restrictions (notably the closure of one-quarter of the Black Sea between 1-24 July 2019) produced no strong international response.

NATO’s heads of state and government stated in the 2018 Brussels Summit Declaration that “we will not accept to be constrained by any potential adversary as regards the freedom of movement of Allied forces by land, air, or sea to and within any part of Alliance territory.” The Black Sea states include three NATO allies which is why no ally should not be or seem to be deterred from deploying its naval vessels into the Black Sea as long as the deployments comply with the Montreux Convention.

Fortunately, British authorities seem to plan for a deployment of a destroyer and a frigate in May, as part of the global deployment of the Royal Navy’s carrier task group. Presumably, London and Washington coordinate their activities vis-à-vis Russia but there appears to be room for improvement.

Again, the behaviour of major Western powers is followed carefully not only by Moscow but also by other allies. During the Cold War it was the policy of most Baltic Sea states to welcome NATO military presence to avoid its domination by the Soviet Union. During the exercise BALTOPS’85 in October 1985 the US battleship Iowa conducted live-firing exercises in the Baltic Sea to demonstrate American commitment to the defence of Northern Europe.

It should come as no surprise that Baltic Sea nations expect NATO allies to be present in the region in peace and in crisis to demonstrate their right to freedom of navigation despite Russian intimidation and open threats, as well as in conflict to defend regional allies and to lend their support to close partners. The appearance of hesitancy in the Black Sea will not strengthen confidence in the Baltic that allies will make their presence felt when needed. Russia might draw similar conclusions.

Calling a Spade a Spade

If Russia is looking for an excuse to launch a major military offensive against Ukraine, it will find one, with or without Western involvement. Authoritarian regimes have in the past not shied away from sparking incidents that have seen the blood of their own citizens being spilled, as demonstrated with the Gleiwitz incident staged by Nazi Germany on 31 August 1939 and less than three months later with the Red Army shelling the Soviet village of Mainila. These events served as excuses to launch the attacks against Poland and Finland.

Understandably, Washington is now worried about unfavourable developments unravelling in parallel in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific with both Ukraine and Taiwan facing increasing pressure from Russia and China. Europe should in this situation take more responsibility for its own security. This calls for a change in public communication aimed at explaining the seriousness of the situation we are in to ordinary Europeans, calling a spade a spade.

For the first time since the end of the Cold War, NATO’s heads of state and government at the 2019 London Summit publicly stated the “Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security”. Notably, on 15 April 2021, President Biden declared a ‘national emergency’ in response to ‘specified harmful foreign activities of the Government of the Russian Federation’.1 Nevertheless, drawing “clear red lines” with Russia and considering possible sanctions when they are crossed is not going to be sufficient, as President Emmanuel Macron rightly pointed out in a recent interview.

A number of lessons should be learned from the recent years’ unsuccessful approach towards Russia:

  1. Western decision-makers must refrain from believing that Russia will be provoked by decisive action. Instead, weakness and inaction fuel and encourage Russian aggression since they confirm that Moscow will not be punished. Mixed messages are not read as a sign of ‘sophistication’ in Moscow but inhibition and hesitancy.
  2. The European public must learn that Russia of 2021 constitutes a significant threat to our democracies not only because of cyber-attacks and assassinations, but also because of the substantial military threat it poses against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of individual EU and NATO members bordering Russia.
  3. While remaining transparent, predictable and committed to existing arms-control regimes, European nations must join their US allies in exercising troop deployments to NATO members bordering Russia to ensure that the alliance is able to deter and, if necessary, defend its allies. Western troop deployments to the Baltic States, Poland and Romania must become part of the “new normal”. If exercised too seldom, such extraordinary deployments might be read as provocation or bluff by Russia in a future crisis.


Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

1 The White House,  ’A Letter on Blocking Property with Respect to Specified Harmful Foreign Activities of the Government of the Russian Federation’