As the United States and Russia appear close to military conflict in Europe, experts are urging cooperation and trust building before the situation spirals out of control.
“The risk of an accidental war breaking out between Russia and the West is greater than at any time during the Cold War,” the U.K. military chief said in an interview with the Sunday Times. His sentiment is echoed in Moscow. Dmitry Suslov, a prominent Russian political scientist who serves as the deputy director at Moscow’s Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies, told Responsible Statecraft that Russia “does not want war,” but the risk of war between Russia and NATO is high, “simply because of a continuous escalation that has been happening over the recent years.”
Current tensions in Eastern Europe that could potentially result in a disastrous conflict are concentrated on the Russo-Ukrainian and Poland-Belarusian borders. Reports of Russian troop movements near the Ukrainian border are causing a stir in the press and security establishments of Western capitals. Additionally, the continued refugee crisis on the border of Belarus and Poland is also getting considerable media coverage in the West. Many hawks on both sides of the Atlantic are saying that the crises are all a part of a “hybrid war,” masterminded by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But experts are sceptical. Sam Ramani, a geopolítical commentator and a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told Responsible Statecraft that Moscow’s role in the Belarusian crisis should not be overestimated. “Russia is shielding Belarus from blame but is also trying to constrain Lukashenko’s most high-risk conduct, such as trying to disrupt Russian gas exports to Europe,” he said.
Suslov argued that Lukashenko wants “dialogue and recognition from European leaders, and so far he has been getting it.” Indeed, after a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Lukashenko moved most of the refugees away from Polish borders and into Minsk — although Poland remains concerned.
So the main potential explosive point between NATO and Russia is not Belarus but Ukraine. After the Ukrainian military used Bayraktar drones to destroy an artillery unit of pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass in late October, Russia began massing its troops 150 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. Hawks are claiming that Russia is preparing for an invasion. Some even argue that Putin sees a full conquest of Ukraine as a way of cementing his legacy.
But Suslov believes a full-scale invasion is unlikely, saying it would be “undesirable and very costly for Russia.” Historically post-Soviet Russia shied away from such large-scale military endeavors, resorting instead to far less costly grey zone tactics, such as use of proxies, mercenaries, information warfare, and other unconventional techniques.
Recent history supports Suslov’s point. Following an official defense strategy document released by Ukraine in March, which included specific mentions of regaining Crimea by force and crushing the rebels in Donbass, Russian forces began movements likely as a show of their resolve in the face of a potential Ukrainian offensive. No full scale invasion happened, instead the United States and Russia settled the matter diplomatically.
Julie Newton is the Principal Investigator of the University Consortium, a training program uniting top Russian and Western universities such as Harvard, Oxford, and MGIMO. Newton told Responsible Statecraft that there is a vicious cycle between Russia and the United States with both sides “believing the other can be contained only through a show of force.” Recent remarks by Putin back up Newton’s logic. Speaking to foreign policy officials on Thursday, Putin said “Our recent warnings have been noticed and are having an effect. There’s a certain tension there. We need that condition to remain for as long as possible, so they don’t get it in their heads to start some conflict we don’t need on our western borders.”
Suslov said that future escalations could be prevented by rethinking and establishing “deconflicting mechanisms between Russia and NATO.” There is currently no agreed-upon deconfliction mechanism — like the nuclear hotline established after the Cuban Missile Crisis — which is driving the “accidental war” concerns.
But Ramani notes that “Russia-NATO dialogue is complicated by a near-complete lack of trust between the two sides,” adding that “securitization of NATO within Russia’s borders, NATO expansion, the color revolutions, the crises in Ukraine, Libya and Syria, and poor bilateral relations between Russia and most Western countries” as some of the drivers of mistrust.
On the whole, the Biden administration has shown itself to be prudent and diplomatic in its engagements with Russia, even if its rhetoric hasn’t matched the policy. The recent escalations, however, might make Russians believe that the United States is back in its adversarial position.
Suslov said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin saying recently that there’s an “open door for Ukraine into NATO” is perceived by Russia as Americans “wanting to integrate Ukraine into NATO one way or the other.” The reality of these promises remains unclear as the French have said they would most likely veto Ukrainian membership, as it could result in a large-scale military conflict.
As Ben Friedman, Policy Director at Defense Priorities, told Responsible Statecraft, the United States “needs to get back into the habit of thinking more clearly about alliances” and regain its ability to “differentiate between the countries [America supports] diplomatically and those it would fight a war for.”
However, many in Washington oppose engaging Russia diplomatically, and instead would rather maintain a confrontational posture. Newton noted that proponents of diplomacy with Russia are often called “Putin apologists” and that the Russians are “assumed to be always motivated solely by aggression, rather than thinking that we might be dealing with an action-reaction spiral.” She added that Russia-NATO relations are a “classic security dilemma,” where sides react to the other’s behavior, endlessly escalating. “Both sides are to blame,” Newton said, and that while “America needs a boogeyman for domestic reasons, Russians are making this [vilification] easy” through their aggressive actions.
The Biden administration can use political or economic leverage to ease tensions and find a peaceful resolution to the almost eight-year-long conflict in eastern Ukraine. But moves like more funds for Ukraine’s military will complicate any diplomatic outreach.
Anatol Lieven, a senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and an award-winning journalist, said that peaceful engagement between the United States and Russia would also be beneficial for Ukraine. “Right now Ukraine is going towards the worst possible scenario. If a war happens it will be bad for Russia and bad for the West. But it would be worse for Ukraine because it will lose and the West will not help.”