In Other News – A View from Abroad – 5-25-2023

A View from Abroad

Once a month, In Other News features a short op-ed heavily informed by the European perspective. We hope that these special monthly pieces will offer our readers an enriched understanding of global events and allow for a more robust international risk calculus.

The upcoming NATO Summit provides an opportunity for NATO members to support Ukraine’s security, even without membership. Ukraine’s security depends on countering both immediate and long-term threats and NATO’s strategy should reflect this.

European leaders have updated their outlook since Russia first invaded Ukraine last year: where before the predominant view was that Russia must not win and Ukraine must not lose, this view has since shifted to the Russia must lose, and Ukraine must win. This shift, combined with the demonstrated strength of Ukraine’s military and Putin’s intolerable disregard for respecting international law and territorial sovereignty, make a political solution to the conflict untenable at present. But to promote future regional security, NATO needs to determine not only how to sustain Ukraine’s strong military defense, but how to best ensure the nation’s security moving forward.

The upcoming NATO Summit in Lithuania this July will offer a forum for European nations to recalibrate given the myriad geopolitical factors at play. Although the ultimate security guarantee for Ukraine would be NATO membership, Ukraine isn’t likely to be admitted to the organization while actively involved in a military conflict with Russia. This is partially due to the way NATO has historically viewed enlargement, recommending that aspiring members settle any active territorial disputes by peaceful means, but it’s also heavily political. Indeed, NATO enlargement is based on a set of loosely defined criteria, without a formalized set of rules, and politics trump doctrine. At present, some NATO members like the Baltic states currently advocate for Ukraine’s immediate NATO entry, but many other members are unlikely to accept it.

As membership isn’t likely imminent, the upcoming NATO Summit presents an opportunity for NATO members to develop a new definition of the NATO-Ukraine relationship. NATO members can strategize about what kind of security package, underwritten by a coalition of countries, might be a realistic alternative in the short-term. These security imperatives can be broken down into physical and non-physical categories.

In the physical threat realm, NATO members can help strategize on the issue of land defense and land borders- including how to continue to provide equipment and training to deter a new ground attack and remove all unexploded munitions. It can also work on better securing the waterways, including how to limit Putin’s control over the Black Sea. NATO members can also focus on the air domain, assessing if it would it be possible to have Ukrainian air space fall under some kind of joint air command.

In the non-physical attack sphere, NATO members can further collaborate on cyber defense, addressing how to best assist Ukraine in deterring and countering massive cyber-attacks. They can also refine strategies in the information domain, including how to continue sharing current intelligence on Russian troop movements and how to monitor upcoming threats. In the realm of economic security, NATO members can also be instructive on how to rebuild the Ukrainian economy and further integrate it with its EU neighbors. Indeed, at the upcoming NATO Summit, there are opportunities to develop strategies that not only support Ukraine in the present moment but lay the groundwork for its growth and durability.

Given the current state of the battlefield, NATO countries will be under extra pressure to maintain cohesion and continue to support Ukraine even without a clear endpoint- and they need to stay the course. NATO’s unified resolve will not only serve to increase Ukraine’s physical security, but to impact Russia’s future geopolitical calculations. Indeed, future Ukrainian security will in-part depend on how strongly Moscow is deterred this time, and maintaining cohesion of Ukrainian allies even throughout a grueling stalemate will send a critical long-term message.

In Other News – Ukraine and Allies Demonstrate a Committed Defense – 5-18-2023

May 18, 2023

Ukraine and allies demonstrate the impact of a committed defense. This week, Russia intensified its assault on Ukraine, launching over 30 cruise missiles into Ukrainian territory on Thursday morning alone. Thankfully, effective Western air defense systems and a concerted military training effort have allowed the resilient Ukrainian troops to largely defend against these attacks in Kyiv. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy recognizes how essential these defensive weapons are to his nation’s security, and this week he made in-person visits to some of his most critical European suppliers like Germany and the United Kingdom.

While Zelenskyy is requesting to reequip his troops with weapons like drones and tanks, he’s also asking for F-16 fighter jets. But Washington is still reluctant to send them. Over the past year, however, Ukraine’s allies have slowly but surely increased the sophistication of the weaponry that they’re willing to share. With every advance in sophisticated equipment, Ukraine and allies have watched for direct repercussions from Russia. And so far, the Russian response has not increased in way that should deter Ukraine’s allies from holding back on providing Zelenskyy with what he needs.

Many of Ukraine’s allies gathered on Thursday at the G7 meeting in Japan, where the discussion largely addressed both Russia and China. The G7 will focus on ways to counter China’s “economic coercion”, and it’s notable that China is simultaneously holding its own gathering with leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. These five strategic former Soviet republics won’t be easily swayed to view China as the dominant regional player, and there are historic and security reasons why they are so closely tied to Russia, but the gathering still can’t sit well with Putin.

Russia also probably has mixed feelings about China and its other traditional allies like South Africa increasingly raising the issue of a Russia-Ukraine peace deal. While any deal remains untenable given the current state of the battlefield, this week President Zelenskyy received a visit by Beijing’s newly appointed special envoy for Ukraine- the highest ranking Chinese official to travel to Ukraine since the Russian invasion. The two reportedly discussed China’s potential role as a peace broker, and the imperative for a “political settlement of the Ukraine crisis.”

Likewise, South Africa is also vying for a leading diplomatic role, and this week President Ramaphosa reportedly spoke separately to Putin and Zelenskyy regarding the idea of an “African leaders peace mission.” Both Putin and Zelenskyy agreed to participate, but the parameters of the talks have yet to be determined. Even though the discussions won’t likely lead to any viable peace deal, it’s notable that Russia’s allies from the Global South have been increasingly stating their interest in ending the battle, and over time the political pressure on Putin is likely to increase in kind.

It will also be interesting to watch how and if President Erdogan’s foreign policy will shift in the aftermath of such a close presidential election in Turkey. Erdogan, and other global leaders like India’s Modi, have been navigating a balance between maintaining ties with Russia and with many key Ukrainian allies. But as the battle continues, they are also likely to become exasperated by the economic ramifications of the conflict.

Thus far, India has benefited from cheap Russian oil prices and Modi knows that he can get away with it considering his nation’s critical role in countering China. But India has been circumventing EU sanctions by purchasing the Russian oil and selling refined products back to European nations, and this week EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called for a crackdown on the Russian-originated products. India won’t be happy to have its European customer base threatened, and if the loopholes that have benefitted global players like Modi continue to be tightened, it’s likely that Putin will increasingly feel the squeeze.

In Other News – Ukraine’s Patience vs. Russia’s Bluster – 5-12-2023

May 12, 2023

As the war grinds on, Ukraine’s patience and preparation stands in stark contrast to the bluster of Russian leadership. In an interview with European broadcasters aired on Thursday, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy remarked that Ukraine’s highly anticipated counteroffensive won’t begin until his troops are properly equipped and prepared. A few hours later, the UK defense secretary announced that Britain is supplying Storm Shadow cruise missiles to Ukraine, a significant development given that no other Western country has supplied Ukraine with long-range missiles. Western countries have been hesitant to send weapons that could be perceived as crossing Putin’s red lines, but we shouldn’t be, because realistically Russia has limited options to escalate from its side.

We should also recognize that Putin could view the hesitation as a signal that the West is growing tired of supporting its Ukrainian ally and we need to dispel him of this view. Indeed, while an influx of Western weapons and training will be essential to Ukraine’s continued efforts to defend its territory, Kyiv’s allies should also be thinking about how to continue to support Ukraine beyond any one upcoming counteroffensive. Conflict between Ukraine and Russia has been going on for years on multiple levels, and it’s not going to be easily resolved by a single military counteroffensive. Ukraine’s allies should prepare for sustained battles- both physical and political, emulating the same patience that we’ve seen demonstrated by Zelenskyy and his troops.

Meanwhile, Russia’s growing overtly frustrated with its lack of progress on the battlefield and with internal dissenters. This week, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Russian-affiliated Wagner mercenary group, who has repeatedly expressed frustration with the Russian defense ministry, accused a Russian brigade of deserting its Bakhmut post. Prigozhin has been careful to never directly criticize Putin, but this is also the first time that he’s accused Russian troops of abandoning the battlefield. This early dissent among the military forces is a warning about Putin’s long-term durability and indicates that there’s likely internal conflict within the Russian hierarchy.

Prigozhin also falsely claimed that Ukraine had in fact launched its counteroffensive on Thursday, and that Zelenskyy was “being deceptive” in his statement regarding the delay. While the hard-fought battle for Bakhmut has been underway for months, controlling Bakhmut is usually seen as more symbolic than strategic. The battle is viewed as microcosmic of Russia’s efforts in Ukraine more broadly, and Putin likely wanted to claim Bakhmut before his Victory Day event on May 9 in part to motivate his troops and display strength. But Russia’s inability to claim Bakhmut doesn’t auger well for Putin’s image, and his impatience is influencing his actions on everything from deciding to prematurely replace army generals to arresting Russian artists.

While Putin is trying to maintain control over a disillusioned military and growing civil unrest within his own borders, global events could further increase his frustrations. This weekend, the Turkish people will hold elections, and Turkish President Erdogan’s main challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is known for being friendlier to the West. Even if Kilicdaroglu fails to secure power, the seemingly close contest sends a signal to Putin and other global autocrats. Indeed, just as Erdogan and Putin have been growing impatient with the progress they’ve made on political and economic fronts, their citizenry has likewise been growing impatient with them.

In Other News – A View from Abroad – 5-5-2023

A View from Abroad

Once a month, In Other News features a short op-ed heavily informed by the European perspective. We hope that these special monthly pieces will offer our readers an enriched understanding of global events and allow for a more robust international risk calculus.

If EU member states maintain a more unified stance on China, it will bolster the EU’s standing on other issues. Despite the European Union’s adherence to the One China policy, in the current complex global geopolitical environment, EU member states have been struggling to send a coherent message on China. This makes the EU weaker as a collective body since Beijing can leverage the differences among members to advance its economic and political goals. It also weakens the EU’s relationship with Washington and sends mixed signals on how the allies would respond to any forthcoming Chinese military, economic, or political actions.

EU policy differences on China are especially pronounced regarding Taiwan. The EU and its member-states officially follow the One China policy, which means that they exclusively maintain diplomatic relations with Beijing and support China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. The states have also cultivated non-diplomatic relations with Taiwan, especially in trade. But they have to tread carefully. When China tried to punish Lithuania last year because of the country’s strong economic relations with Taiwan, the bloc did not uniformly act against the Chinese sanctions imposed against Lithuania.

European leaders who recently visited China also exemplified this divergence. After Macron visited Beijing, he stated that Europe should avoid getting dragged into a confrontation between China and the United States over Taiwan and should more generally reduce its dependency on Washington. However, fellow EU leaders were quick to criticize Macron’s irresponsible comments, which some attributed to the large Chinese commercial orders for French companies that Macron secured during his visit.

Indeed, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock took a different line when she traveled to China. Baerbock asked Beijing to de-escalate tensions over Taiwan and stated that a military escalation in the Taiwan Strait, where 50% of daily world trade flows, would be a global disaster. The EU’s high representative for foreign Affairs Josep Borrell has reiterated this position as well, while diplomatically stressing the One China policy. The United Kingdom also stated it would support the United States if China were to attack Taiwan.

The disconnected EU member state policies on China allows Beijing to leverage its economic power to pressure certain leaders to toe the line on Taiwan. But these policy differences also have wider policy implications. Washington and EU alignment against Russia has been essential to supporting Ukraine’s valiant defensive efforts, and China has no doubt been keeping close watch. But as the EU member states diverge on China, it’s uncertain if the United States can depend on the EU for political support and economic sanctions should a military conflict between Taiwan and China ever arise.

When the United States and EU member states are aligned, it sends a clear message to China who responds accordingly. For example, Washington and the EU were unified in their outrage after the Chinese Ambassador to France questioned the sovereignty of former Soviet Republics “as having no effective status under international law.” The collective outrage led to so much diplomatic pressure that Beijing had to restate its position as: “China respects the status of the republics born after the dissolution of the Soviet Union as sovereign countries.”

More generally, Western countries are refining and updating their approach to China given the current geopolitical context. Initially, some political leaders and analysts suggested an economic decoupling from China. But EU Commission President Von der Leyen was the first to reframe that concept to ‘de-risking’- suggesting that instead of severing all trade ties, a focused and selective approach would ensure that no vulnerable dependencies exist in strategically important sectors. Washington has also espoused the de-risking idea and isn’t aiming for autarky but for resilience and security in supply chains- in close cooperation with its allies and partners such as the EU.

The EU has labelled China as its partner, its competitor and as its systemic rival. That general approach gives enough flexibility in daily political and economic life and comes close to the US policy of competing with China on multiple dimensions but not looking for confrontation or conflict. Washington and the EU recognize that to address global problems like climate, macroeconomic stability, health security and food security, China is one of the crucial players. Their position will only be strengthened by unity across and among their allies.