Opinion | National Security

European lessons for American policymakers

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

The French, German, Russian and Ukrainian heads of government met in Paris on December 9 to attempt to negotiate a peace in Ukraine. The absence of the United States and the visible signs of divisions within the transatlantic alliance made this meeting not only a momentous one but one fraught with considerable peril for Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Zelensky was elected on a peace platform, and it is very clear that key elements in both Berlin and Paris want to restore connections with Russia, something that can be done only at Ukraine's expense. But concessions to Vladimir Putin that erode the foundations of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity will not bring peace to Ukraine or to Europe; quite the opposite. 

But the sides agreed to a cease-fire, the establishment of three more zones of disengagement at the front and an exchange of all known prisoners. More difficult questions - like organizing elections in the occupied Donbass, the Donbass' future status and Russian gas transit to Ukraine - will be dealt with at a subsequent meeting in April 2020. This apparently represents a genuine mutual step forward that might dispel earlier apprehensions. It also can be attributed in part to the staunchness of Ukraine's resistance to Russia's invasion and to equally steadfast Western support until now. 

While Moscow's 15-year or more war against the West continues by kinetic or non-kinetic means, depending on the theater involved, Ukraine remains the center of the military action. Moreover, the Donbass' population clearly rejects becoming part of Russia. Instead they wish to be members of an integrated and viable Ukraine.

We should learn from this that despite Moscow's claim of entitlement to a sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union, and that it can and should therefore be able to abridge the sovereignty of former Soviet states, its claims enjoy no popular support outside Moscow. Russia can achieve this "entitlement" only through the threat or use of force, fraud, subversion and war, not only with its neighbors but also with NATO and the U.S.

Other Russian neighbors are also proclaiming this lesson. Russia has long sought to undermine the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Belarus. Russian elites believe that Belarus and Ukraine are not genuine states and that if they are not part of the Russian world (Russkiy Mir) they will be lost to Moscow. 

Moreover, it increasingly appears that Putin must take over Belarus in order to create a new so-called "union state" and displace the dictator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, who nonetheless commands considerable domestic popularity.  

Only in this way can Putin continue to rule Russia after 2024, as ostensibly the head of a wholly new state rather than appearing as dictator for life. This "integration" or merger, or annexation to call it by its true name, is the only way Putin can continue to possess what he and his team believe is some shred of legitimacy. Of course, this merger represents, to use Lenin's phrase, the merger of a hungry man with a piece of bread. 

Consequently, large scale popular demonstrations broke out across Belarus. These demonstrations graphically showed that the population rejects Russia and will not actively support Russian imperialism. Moreover, a marathon negotiating session with Lukashenko at Putin's Sochi retreat on December 7 ended without even a communique, displaying Lukashenko's resistance and consciousness of popular support. 

So here too Moscow can prevail only by threats, force, subversion, corruption and other dark arts. Such annexations do not restore peace to Europe but instead set the stage for more and probably larger conflicts. 

The brute fact regarding European and Russian security is that any Russian empire is fundamentally incompatible with either Russian or European security, let alone a genuine European peace. Their wealth and power depend on being in a semi-permanent state of conflict with Europe and the U.S. 

But this quest for empire and its accoutrements like excessive military spending only impoverish Russia, where now a reported one in four families lacks indoor plumbing and where looming environmental disasters have appeared in the Arctic due to a refusal to spend money on the environment or reduce defense spending.

These are only some of the encroaching crises threatening Russia. And the more that Western powers allow Putin to continue his quest for empire and rule by what amounts ultimately to force, the more likely it is that neither Europe nor Russia will have peace or security.

Empire is the necessary and inevitable corollary of Putin's autocracy. But Ukraine's resistance and Belarus' demonstrations tell a different story and force us to learn another lesson. That lesson is that Russia's demand for empire is incompatible not only with European security, but also with the security of Russia and of her neighbors.

Russia's threat not only justifies supporting Ukraine's and Belarus' sovereignty, it also entails strengthening NATO so that last week's NATO communique becomes something more than paper. The graphic lessons taught by Minsk and Kyiv are ultimately simple because we have seen them before. But it will evidently take more wisdom than now appears to exist in Europe to teach that lesson to its governments.

Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a former professor of Russian national security studies and national security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Blank is an independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia.

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