Back To Top

[Ivo Daalder] While the West dithers, Russia stays busy

August was busy for Russia this year. While dealing with growing popular protests in the east, Moscow has sought to distract attention by engaging in nefarious activities, both at home and abroad. It’s prepared to intervene in neighboring Belarus, confronted US military forces on land, at sea and in the air, stepped up its interference in the US presidential elections and poisoned yet another opposition figure.

None of these activities have gone unnoticed in Europe or the United States. But so far, the actions have been met with a few words of condemnation that together amount to little more than a collective shrug. When it comes to Russia, the West remains mostly divided -- and no one has stepped up to lead the way to collective action.

There are some signs that may be changing, however, with Germany seemingly poised to lead an effort toward a more effective response to Russia’s continuing efforts to undermine security and stability in Europe and beyond.

When Alexander Lukashenko, Europe’s last dictator, blatantly stole the Aug. 9 presidential election in Belarus, Putin at first waited to see how developments would unfold. But with hundreds of thousands of Belarusians taking to the streets to demand Lukashenko’s ouster and new elections, Putin made clear where he stood. He announced the creation of a special security force that could be deployed at the Belarusian leader’s request, sent advisers to help Lukashenko control the opposition, and promised $1 billion in financial support, tying Belarus ever closer to Russia.

So far, Europe and the United States have done little more than condemn the flawed elections, express concern about violence and warn Russia not to intervene. But they’ve not imposed any new sanctions or put forward other measures to put teeth in these demands, implicitly conceding that Putin calls the shots.

Last month also saw Russia flexing its military muscle. Russian fighters flew within 35 meters of B-52 bombers flying over the Black and Baltic seas and later penetrated deep into Danish airspace as they flanked the bombers. On the other side of the world, six Russian maritime patrol aircraft flew close to Alaskan airspace, scrambling US fighters to intercept the planes. And in Syria, a Russian patrol rammed a US armored vehicle, injuring seven US soldiers.

Not only are these actions dangerous, their aggressive nature emphasizes the Russian military’s increasing confidence in challenging US and allied militaries across the globe.

Even though Moscow was caught red-handed interfering in the 2016 US presidential election, the US intelligence community reported last month that it was stepping up its activities in this year’s election. Russia, it said, is using “a range of measures” to undermine former Vice President Joe Biden’s candidacy and support the reelection of President Donald Trump.

While Democrats have predictably condemned Moscow’s blatant interference, Trump has dismissed the reports as a “hoax,” and some of his top appointees have told intelligence analysts to stop looking for Russian interference and focus on China and Iran instead. Meanwhile, Moscow continues to attack our democratic process.

Russia’s latest outrage is the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most severe and popular critic. After a comatose Navalny was flown to Germany for medical treatment last month, scientists there determined “beyond all doubt” that he had been poisoned with the chemical nerve agent novichok -- the same chemical Russia used to poison its ex-intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in Britain two years ago.

It’s possible that the attack on Navalny will backfire on Putin. German Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted with fury to the poisoning, calling it an “attempted murder” and demanding the Russian government provide an explanation of this “crime intended to silence him.” Berlin has consulted with its EU and NATO allies, and is taking the matter to the organization charged with enforcing the global ban on chemical weapons.

Inside Germany, pressure is rising to take stronger action -- including suspending or even canceling Nord Stream 2, the controversial and nearly completed pipeline owned by Russia that will supply gas directly to Germany without having to transit Ukraine or Eastern Europe. Key government ministers have suggested that the project be halted absent a convincing explanation by Moscow of what happened to Navalny.

There is an opportunity to turn this newfound determination into effective action. Merkel should agree to at least suspend construction of the pipeline (though its cancellation would be better). With that decision in hand, she should propose to her European and American allies to impose biting sanctions on those responsible for the attempt on Navalny’s life. And she should urge President Trump to reverse the announced withdrawal of US troops from Germany -- a decision that weakens NATO and is widely seen as a strategic gift to Putin.

It’s long past time to stand up to Putin. Moscow’s latest escalations only underscore the urgency. Normally, the US president would galvanize the Europeans into action. Given Trump’s long-standing deference to Putin, that’s not going to happen. It’s now up to Merkel to take the lead.

Ivo Daalder
Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former US ambassador to NATO. -- Ed.

(Chicago Tribune / Tribune Content Agency)