27th Jan 2022

West struggling to show strength on Ukraine

  • Washington: Congressmen 'aghast' at German gas lobbying, but White House doing it too (Photo: Eric B. Walker)
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Internal divisions are bedevilling Western efforts to show strength over Russia's military stalking of Ukraine.

US diplomats and intelligence officers briefed EU diplomats on the latest security scare on recent trips to Brussels.

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  • Berlin: SPD party has a history of Russia-friendly views (Photo: Amire Appel)

"Information sharing and cooperation between the US and EU is really active," an EU source said on Wednesday (24 November).

"The US has been raising the alarm and it's a good thing because even the highest levels of the EU institutions are now aware there's something going on in Ukraine," another EU source noted.

They spoke after Russia surged troops on Ukraine's borders for the third time this year and amped up aggressive rhetoric.

"US citizens are advised of concerning reports of unusual Russian military activity," the US embassy in Kyiv warned in a travel advisory also on Wednesday.

"I think that [an attack] would be a grave mistake from Russia," British foreign secretary Lizz Truss told Reuters the same day.

And the West should threaten robust sanctions to deter Russia, according to three former US ambassadors - Daniel Fried (Warsaw), John E. Herbst (Kyiv), and Alexander Vershbow (Moscow).

"The costs [of an invasion] should include a major ramping-up of Western sanctions, termination of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that connects Russia and Germany and freezing the offshore financial holdings of [Russian president Vladimir] Putin and his cronies," they wrote for the Atlantic Council, a US think-tank, this week.

For its part, the EU foreign service drafted a sanctions-options paper in April, when Russia first looked like it was going to attack, sources said.

The paper was never circulated to EU capitals because Putin suddenly marched his men back again.

But previous EU options when Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014 included creative ones, such as recommending "suspension of Russian participation in high-profile international or cultural, economic, or sports events (Formula 1 races, UEFA football competitions ... ".

They also spoke of an "import ban on gas" if Russia waged "high-intensity" warfare.

For some observers, the West should not even wait until Russia strikes again before imposing new measures.

Russia had already conspired to create a migrant crisis on the Belarus-Polish border and a gas-supply emergency in Europe on top of its Ukraine military gambit, Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, a former Ukrainian EU ambassador, told EUobserver.

"There's no need to wait until the worst happens ... Don't be afraid to surprise Putin," Yelisieiev, who now runs New Solutions centre, a think-tank in Kyiv, said.

But for one EU diplomat, Putin who was one step ahead in psychological terms for now.

"By massing its troops on the Ukrainian border already once in April, then a second time in the Zapad 21 military drill in September, Russia has dulled our sense of vigilance," the diplomat said.

And some "high-level" people in EU circles were "blindly repeating Russia's narrative - that it has nothing to do with the gas crisis and that the gas crisis has nothing to do with Ukraine," he added.

France and Germany have also urged Putin to stand down his invasion force.

Gas lobby

But at the same time, Germany has continued to lobby on behalf of Russian gas.

"The Germans were in town [Washington] last week still arguing that Russia 'isn't weaponising energy'," a US former Congressional official said, referring to a recent visit by Germany's ambassador for energy transition, Michael Klor-Berchtold, and its director general for energy policy, Thorsten Herdan.

"Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are aghast Germans are focusing on protecting Nord Stream 2 at a time when Russia is on the verge of invading Ukraine and weaponising migrants [in Belarus] to destabilise the continent," the US former official added.

A new German government unveiled on Wednesday was led by the centre-left SPD party, which has a history of Russia-friendly views.

And many gas-dependent EU states would be unlikely to back energy sanctions in winter, an EU diplomat noted.

Meanwhile, if Germany was showing a divided EU face, then US institutions were also at odds on Russia.

Senior White House officials were also "on Capitol Hill trying to protect Nord Stream 2" from being stopped by US measures, the US former Congressional official said.

"Congress is Ukraine's only chance in terms of tough energy sanctions," a current US Congressional official added.

"The White House is bending over backwards to repair relations with Berlin after [former US president Donald] Trump almost destroyed them. We're living with the legacy of the Trump era," an EU diplomat said.

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