The motive for Russia’s military buildup on the border with Ukraine is unclear, but opacity is the point. Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy is meant to defy and confound international onlookers. Ordinary Russians have nothing to gain from the Kremlin’s sending tens of thousands of soldiers, plus tanks and artillery, to menace a neighbouring state, just as they saw no material benefit in the annexation of Crimea in 2014. On the contrary, they suffered from the ensuing international sanctions.
But Mr Putin’s military adventures allow him to pose as a strongman who defies the west. Seizing territory that was once in the Soviet Union was central to the campaign to restore national pride after the loss of superpower status. That agenda is vital to a president who has little else to offer his people. Endemic corruption and bullying authoritarianism have produced economic stagnation. For want of a plan to make Russia competitive in civil spheres, the Kremlin relies on military posturing, cyber-espionage and geopolitical mischief to prove that it cannot be ignored.
That dynamic poses an immediate threat to the sovereignty of Ukraine and a recurrent challenge to its allies. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, on Wednesday met his US, French and German counterparts to discuss the escalating situation. In theory, Nato stands behind Kiev. Support is “unwavering”, according to Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance’s secretary general. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, has described Russia’s behaviour as “very provocative”.
How Mr Blinken’s boss in the White House reacts is being watched closely by the Kremlin’s provocateur-in-chief. Getting the measure of Joe Biden is not the only reason to rattle a sabre at Ukraine, but it is a significant factor. If the US flinches, it will be taken by Mr Putin as licence to extend what he sees as his “sphere of influence” in Europe – possibly by force. The Ukrainian military is better trained and equipped than it was in 2014, thanks to Nato help (and US weaponry), but that enhanced capability might not deter Russia. Fear of a domestic backlash once casualties start mounting would be a bigger constraint.
Thankfully, events have not spiralled that far, but the fact that such a turn is conceivable should be cause for the incipient crisis to command more attention in European capitals. London is hawkish in relations with Russia (especially since the Skripal poisonings), but Paris and Berlin tend to be more cautious in confronting the Kremlin. There are commercial as well as strategic issues in play – not the least of which is a pipeline project for carrying Russian gas to Germany. The European Union is not well set up for foreign policy coordination. The continent is reliant on America for its security in ways that test Washington’s patience. Donald Trump was petulant and spiteful on that point, but his frustration was not exceptional.
The wider the divisions within Nato, the more room Mr Putin sees for his trouble-making manoeuvres. And that puts Ukraine and the stability of eastern Europe in peril. There is no easy way to handle Russia when its foreign policy is conditioned by paranoid nationalism and cynical playing to a domestic audience by means of stoking international conflict. But the starting point for democracies on both sides of the Atlantic must be unequivocal solidarity with a sovereign state that has already suffered from Kremlin territorial aggression, and is threatened by it once again.