Kremlin saber-rattling in Ukraine — How the West should react

Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, is a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy.

BERLIN — Over the past week, Russia has reinforced its military presence on the Crimean peninsula, moved military units close to the Russia-Ukraine border and announced military “readiness checks.” Most likely, this is just a ploy to unnerve the government in Kyiv and test the West’s reaction. 

But it could be something worse. If the Kremlin is weighing the costs and benefits of a military assault on Ukraine, Europe and the United States should ensure that Moscow does not miscalculate because it underestimates the costs. 

The tensions have arisen despite a rare diplomatic achievement in the simmering conflict between Russia and Ukraine: a ceasefire in the eastern Donbas region that held — for a while anyway. Until the situation began to deteriorate at the end of last year, exchanges of fire across the line of contact between Russian and Russian proxy forces and the Ukrainian military fell sharply. 

Unfortunately, the more recent diplomatic news is grim. The negotiating effort led by the Germans and French has made no progress of late. The Trilateral Contact Group composed of representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also has little to show for its meetings. 

Over the past week, reports have emerged, often accompanied by video, of Russian heavy artillery moving across the Kerch Strait bridge into Crimea and of other Russian units, including armor and surface-to-air missiles, moving toward the Ukrainian border opposite Donbas. On April 6, the Russian defense minister announced the military was conducting readiness checks. Readiness checks are drills, but they appear very much like preparations for hostilities. 

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has lamely asserted that this set of actions “should absolutely not concern anyone. Russia does not constitute a threat to any country in the world.” His comments assured no one. 

The Russian military maneuvers most likely aim just to rattle Kyiv. If the Kremlin intended an actual assault, it would have tried to hide its actions to preserve an element of surprise. No one can be sure, however, that the Russians will not attack. The Ukrainian military has gone on alert; it would almost certainly lose a fight with the Russian army, but it would draw blood. 

A Russian strike would plunge Europe into a major crisis. The West should ensure that President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin understand the potential costs if Russian units move against Ukraine. 

The messaging process has begun. U.S. President Joe Biden and other senior U.S. officials have spoken to their Ukrainian counterparts to convey U.S. support, as did NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. U.S.and British intelligence aircraft have overflown Ukraine and the Black Sea near Crimea, both to gather information and to signal political support for Kyiv. On April 3, the German and French foreign ministries issued a joint statement on the situation, though it would have sent a stronger message had it focused on the cause: threatening Russian troop movements. 

The West should do more to dissuade Moscow from thoughts of a military adventure. 

First, U.S. and EU officials should consult immediately and agree on a list of additional sanctions to apply should Russia launch an attack. The list should contain meaningful measures such as sanctions on Russia’s sovereign debt. (Presumably, even countries such as Italy would go along with that if Russia attacks.) U.S. and EU officials should quickly and privately convey that list to their Russian counterparts. Specifying the consequences in advance — as opposed to later as punishment — could have a deterrent effect. 

Second, while the U.S. chairman of the joint chiefs of staff has spoken to the head of the Russian general staff, other U.S. officials, including the president, should talk to Moscow and warn of the damaging side-effects that would result if the Russian military strikes. In parallel, Washington should consider other steps to signal its seriousness, for example by supplying Kyiv with additional Javelin anti-armor missiles or other arms to bolster its defensive capabilities. 

Third, European leaders need to call the Ukrainian leadership with similar messages of support. Those also will serve as signals to Moscow. 

Fourth, Europe’s leaders also should get on the phone to the Kremlin. This is particularly true for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her relationship with Putin may be strained, but it remains the closest of any Western leader. Among other things, he should know that an attack on Ukraine would kill the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, either due to domestic political pressure on her and her government, or due to White House sanctions on German companies as a result of Congressional pressure. 

Hopefully, the Russian maneuvers are just bluff and will soon wind down. However, the West cannot afford just to hope. Moscow’s actions could portend something more egregious and dangerous. Europe and the United States should do more to avert that. 



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