West must take forceful measures to deter Putin

L-R: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin give a press conference after a summit on Ukraine at the Elysee Palace in Paris, December 9, 2019. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

The most recent buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine’s border has caused great alarm around the world. U.S. intelligence officials and senior figures in Ukraine’s military have suggested that as many as 92,000 Russian troops are massed to the north and east of Ukraine — many in the area around Yelnya, near Russia’s border with ally Belarus — and in Crimea. Some observers say this means the Russian Federation could launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine this winter – late January is the date most commonly forecast. Others view this as more sabre-rattling by Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. While it’s impossible to predict what Putin will actually do, one thing is certain — he will exploit any weaknesses he sees in the West. And right now, there are plenty.

First and foremost is the reluctance on the part of U.S. President Joe Biden to impose any effective sanctions on Nord Stream 2 – an extension of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline. It would cut Ukraine off from about $2 billion in gas transit fees that it collects from Russia and cut off EU countries like Poland and Slovakia from such fees as well. It will also allow Russia to double the amount of natural gas it exports to Germany. In 2017 that amounted to 53 cubic metres, comprising about 40% of Germany’s total gas consumption. Nord Stream 2 is designed to carry another 55 billion cubic metres to Germany amounting to 80% of that country’s total yearly consumption. This will make Germany almost completely dependent upon Russian gas and give Putin a huge club with which to threaten Europe. For this reason, the EU Commission refused to back the project in 2018.

The United States too had been opposed. Earlier this year President Joe Biden called Nord Stream 2 “a bad deal — for Germany, for Ukraine and for our Central and Eastern European allies and partners.” Yet on May 19, he decided to lift the sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG, which is majority owned by Russia’s energy giant Gazprom and its CEO, Putin crony Matthias Warnig. This was met with sharp criticism from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

On November 22 U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced new sanctions against several vessels and a “Russian-linked entity” called Transadria Ltd. This was dismissed outright by Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the leading Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee who stated: “Today’s designations will do absolutely nothing to stop Nord Stream 2.” Instead, he urged the Senate to adopt his bipartisan amendment defense funding bill with Representative Marcy Kaptur that expands Nord Stream 2 sanctions. But two days later, Foreign Affairs Magazine reported that the Biden administration has been quietly lobbying Democratic allies on Capitol Hill to block the sanctions. What kind of message is this sending Putin?

Ironically, the best hope of stopping Nord Stream 2 is now in German hands. November 16, Germany’s energy regulator, the Bundesnetzagentur, suspended the certification process for Nord Stream 2 and said the Swiss-based consortium needed to form a company under German law to secure an operating licence. That is a technicality that can be easily corrected.

More serious is the opposition to North Stream 2 that had been expressed earlier by two of the three coalition partners in Germany’s new government – the Greens and the Free Democrats. However, the Social Democrats, the largest party in the new coalition which replaced Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, is in favour. How this plays out remains to be seen.

So, how have other countries responded to Moscow’s threat? Both the United Kingdom and Canada have offered some tangible support. The UK has announced it may deploy 600 extra troops in Ukraine while the Globe and Mail reported on November 24 that Defence Minister Anita Anand is considering deploying hundreds of additional troops to support the Canadian soldiers already in Ukraine on a training mission. Other options being considered include moving a warship into the Black Sea or redeploying some of the CF-18 fighter jets based in Romania.

For its part, the United States is considering sending military advisers and new weapons to Ukraine. The proposed lethal aid package could include mortars, air defense systems such as stinger missiles and new Javelin anti-tank and anti-armor missiles.

Every little bit helps, but this is unlikely to have much of an impact should Russia decide to invade with full force. Putin must be made to understand that any further aggression will be met with very severe consequences – even removing Russia from the SWIFT network.

But when he sees Biden caving in on Nord Stream and other challenges, he sees weakness. He sees a United States that is all talk and no action. And that is a very frightening prospect. In an article written for the online journal Europe’s Edge, Stephen Blank, Senior Fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute compared the current situation in Ukraine to Czechoslovakia in 1938 when France and Britain acquiesced to Hitler’s demands and let him grab a chunk of that country under the Munich agreement. Six months later he took the rest of the country and six months after that invaded Poland staring World War II.

We cannot allow history to repeat itself. The West must put up a united front to challenge Putin and be prepared to take forceful and resolute measures to ensure that he does not embark on the road to Armageddon before it’s too late.