NATO says tens of thousands of Russian troops are massed on the border with Ukraine for a potential invasion, yet Western states still lack a strategy to stop Moscow from intervening in its former Soviet neighbors.
With military action to protect non-NATO states effectively ruled out, current and former officials say sanctions and isolation provide the best — and perhaps only — way to pressure Moscow. Ramping up the pressure on the rich and powerful around Russian President Vladimir Putin, they say, might in time push him toward a much more conciliatory approach.
However that, they concede, could prove a long game and some both in and outside government worry that a more isolated Russia may simply become both more nationalist and self-sufficient. Putting Putin under more pressure, they worry, may give him even more incentive to take a populist, more aggressive approach.
Ultimately, Moscow’s commitment to rebuild the former Soviet Union as its own unilateral sphere of influence may outstrip the determination of Washington and its European allies to stop it.
Experts say Moscow has been infiltrating its neighbors ever more deeply, building its influence among security forces, government officials and politicians. That, some say, allows it to stir up instability in locations such as eastern Ukraine, and create both confusion and potential preconditions to invade.
“What we’re seeing here is a new form of warfare and part of a concerted strategy,” said Chris Donnelly, a former senior adviser to NATO on Russia and now director of the Institute for Statecraft in London. “Either we stand up to it or we let it happen. So far the response has been totally inadequate.”
With Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea now largely seen as an irreversible fait accompli, many now see more confrontation over the years to come.
In a March 18 speech following the Crimea intervention, Putin made it clear he would be willing to use force to safeguard the interests of Russian-speaking minorities.
The breakup of the Soviet Union left about 25 million ethnic Russians outside the borders of the Russian Federation, concentrated in places such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Central Asian and Baltic states, and breakaway enclaves in Georgia and Moldova.
Tens of millions more — classified in their old Soviet passports as ethnic Ukrainians, Belarussians or others — speak Russian as their first language.
There may be little Western states can do to stop Moscow reabsorbing into the Russian Federation three breakaway statelets its military already occupies — Moldova’s Transdniestria region, and Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Nor is there political will to stop Russia going further if truly determined to do so. The only true red line, some say, is that attacking the NATO member Baltic states would trigger NATO’s self defense clause, and a wider war with the alliance and its nuclear super power the US.
“We are in new territory,” one Western official said on condition of anonymity. “Realistically, there is little the West can do to prevent Putin invading Ukraine or other non-NATO former Soviet states, except for applying diplomatic and economic pressure. The priority now is to deter any aggression against NATO.”
The strongest message Western states could send to Moscow, some experts suggest, is that for every move Russia takes to entrench its position in the areas it can control, the closer other countries near its orbit would move to the West.