Vladimir Putin’s theatrical recognition of the separatist statelets in Eastern Ukraine and the official introduction of Russian troops signals not the end, but the beginning of more dangerous stage of the war in Ukraine. The EU and NATO must respond with resolve, and now.
Vladimir Putin’s approach, thus far, has so completely mimicked the 2008 recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia so closely that you’d be excused for thinking that history is repeating itself. An Olympic Games in Beijing (check); mass passportization of local residents (check); claims of atrocities against ethnic Russians followed by evacuation (check); Russian troops moving in to “maintain peace” and “guard the border” (check.) Even the recognition decrees seem to have been copy-pasted from 14 years ago.
What changed was the bizarre performance of President Putin who collected his Security Council, seemingly to force each and every major political and security leader in his entourage publicly declare support for his escalation in Ukraine. Putin did not even allow them the possibility of lying low; even those most likely to be unhappy about the economic calamities that an escalation will bring, such as Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, had to find the words to show loyalty to the boss. Whatever their reluctance, ach of them now owns the escalation.
Both this and Putin’s completely unhinged speech afterwards — in which he openly disputed Ukrainian statehood, and accused the West and Ukrainian nationalists of fueling Islamist terrorism, among sins – were likely also meant to suggest that the recognition of the two territories is just the beginning of an escalation, not an end.
The fact that Putin did not achieve any of his strategic objectives in Ukraine before sending in the troops also suggests this: that the Minsk agreements, which would have provided an avenue for Russia to cement its political influence in Ukraine, and which the Russian government has insisted must be adhered to, are hereby officially dead. No regime change has taken place in Ukraine and no agreement has been reached that would conclusively block cooperation between Ukraine and NATO.
Before today, Putin could theoretically have used the Duma resolution calling on him to recognize the independence of the territories as a sword of Damocles hanging over diplomatic negotiations, but he chose not to. This has essentially been replaced by a much sharper sword: the unresolved question of whether Russia also recognizes the expansive territorial claims of the two statelets against Ukraine, which could give it an immediate pretext to escalate, even without clumsily fabricated videos of Ukrainian attacks.
The aggressive posturing and the performative theater of the Security Council meeting may also serve the purpose of suggesting, to the EU and to NATO, that Russia is unlikely to change its behavior and thus it is futile to introduce sanctions — as if sanctions could not be used to signal that red lines have been crossed. Indeed, it seems that the recognition of the separatist territories may have exacerbated the EU’s indecision. Germany may have moved to suspend the certification of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, but Hungary’s authoritarian leader, who is on amicable terms with Putin, is opposing further sanctions.
Some may hope that the act of recognition will be the end of the story; others may say sanctions will trigger escalation. But delaying them further would be a mistake. The US, the UK and the EU should adopt an initial package of coordinated personal and sectoral sanctions this week, with more extensive and crippling measures triggered automatically in case of any further escalation. Leading EU members should push for the immediate suspension of Russia from the Council of Europe. They should also offer full solidarity to Ukraine, including faster provision of security assistance, even if channels of diplomacy with Russia are not closed.
They should also embark on an ambitious regulatory campaign to root out corruption fueled by dirty money from autocracies, which facilitates the voices of appeasement.
If the EU and NATO do not say a strong enough no to Putin’s continuing escalation in Ukraine, they are bound to see history repeating itself again, and again.
András Tóth-Czifra is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. He is a political analyst from Hungary, based in New York City.