Russia and Ukraine: looking beyond the crisis

In the 10 months since Russia began building up troop numbers on its Ukraine border, it still isn’t crystal clear what President Vladimir Putin will accept as a resolution to the crisis he has generated, short of the unacceptable—a moratorium on NATO expansion and the withdrawal of NATO from eastern Europe.

For the next two weeks at least, Russia has booked in diplomatic engagements with the US in Berlin as it continues its military build-up, including in Belarus, whose border with Ukraine is poorly defended.

According to Fiona Hill, who served as the Russia lead on the US National Security Council during Donald Trump’s presidency, this guessing game is one of the key problems facing US President Joe Biden, Ukraine and the EU as they attempt to find a pathway through the crisis.

‘Putin has said he wants the moon, the stars, the world, the universe, the sun—you name it. We need to find a floor to that. But maybe there isn’t one anymore, and that puts Biden and everyone else in an impossible situation.’

Putin has another big advantage, says Hill, in that he and the people around him are on the same page and have few checks and balances limiting their timing and choices.

It’s different for the US. There are variable levels of bipartisan support for strong action against Russia. In addition, says Hill, ‘we have to act with our allies and Ukraine is not ours to give away. And Biden has to worry about the midterms, the 2024 election, the press, pushback from everybody imaginable. We have an awful lot of disadvantages. It really does look like Putin’s got all the cards and is in the driver’s seat here.’

This is also partly about Putin’s long authoritarian incumbency. ‘We change leaders all the time. Putin’s been Putin. He’s been there for 21 years; at the same time, the US has had five different presidents. He stays and he stews and gets frustrated, so he’s decided to kind of just blow the place up and get everyone’s full attention.’

In the face of this uncertainty, Hill says that it is imperative that democratic allies in the West figure out what they want, not just how to respond to Russia’s provocations. This means thinking through the current crisis to the world that the West wants afterwards.

Much has been made of the variety of European responses over the past couple of weeks. Germany initially ruled out sanctions on the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and France briefly floated a Russia–EU security pact, which Russia rebuffed. Meanwhile, the Baltic states have been working with Washington to transfer their own Javelin missiles to Ukraine, and the UK has sent anti-tank munitions.

Some of these differences seem to be resolving. Germany’s new government looks like it has changed course on Nord Stream 2, and Biden has managed to get domestic and EU support for the ‘mother of all sanctions packages’ should Russia decide to invade Ukraine.

But Hill agrees with the view that one of Russia’s most successful power plays over the past 20 years has been the infiltration of political and economic elites in the EU and UK.

‘You have former cabinet members in the UK, prominent officials, including an ex-chancellor of Germany, working for major Russian companies. The Russians have been able to put money all over the place and use it as leverage,’ she says.

‘And I think we’ve really weakened our position. I’m not opposed to finding a different way of creating a non-confrontational relationship with Russia. But allowing Russia to exploit our own corruption is not the way to do that. We have to basically live up to our own principles and values and not be bought off.’

Part of thinking through to the other side of the crisis is that while Putin seems to be holding all the cards now—including high oil and gas prices that are contributing to politically damaging inflation in the US and EU—that could change.

In the next decade, Russia will almost certainly have to go through two very tricky transitions: the global energy transition, which is likely to dramatically affect Russia’s bottom line, and the transition of power from Putin.

‘Putin is the wildcard in the system. He doesn’t want to actually say who he’s thinking of as a successor, because then he becomes a lame duck. There’s all the speculation all the time about his health. He’ll be 70 this year. This makes Russia look like an unstable monarchy. At least in the Soviet period, there was a succession order.’

Hill argues that the energy transition is as serious and is possibly another reason why Putin is trying to change the game.

‘Right now, Russia dominates the German energy sector and other parts of Eastern Europe, and gas prices are high because of shortages in production and Covid ups and downs. But the climate change summit that we just had in Glasgow suggests a world that is really going to have to move away from hydrocarbons. Australia is grappling with that as well.

‘That doesn’t look like a world where Russia is going to dominate. Russia isn’t renowned for its green technologies. They look like they’re going to have some major problems with the melting of their permafrost. And they’ve had huge forest fires, just like you’ve had in Australia.’

Putin has a short time to maximise what is possibly peak leverage for geopolitical gain. ‘If you’re Putin,’ concludes Hill, ‘and you are kind of thinking along to the future, it doesn’t look quite so rosy. So it’s more about how do you strike while you can.’