Russia threatens to spread the fog of war across Europe, but a strong, principled Transatlantic response can cut through the haze.

The Kremlin treated the world to an authoritarian theatre of the absurd on February 21. It started with a Soviet-style double-feature including a matinee Security Council meeting in which Putin openly berated subordinates who bumbled the script. That was followed by a chilling, grievance-filled, prime-time Putin rant, light on historical or logical coherence, but heavy on histrionic threats to Ukraine’s sovereignty and Transatlantic security norms.

The day ended with Russian recognition of the “Donbas republics” by Russia’s fraudulently elected Duma members, de facto voiding Russia’s agreements under the Minsk 2 framework, and an act that European Union (EU) leaders called “a blatant violation of international law” and Anne Applebaum called “legal aggression.” Shortly thereafter, Putin pressed forward with overt military aggression toward Ukraine — ordering Russian military forces into Ukraine’s Donbas region – immediately shattering norms settled long ago about the postwar security landscape that has underpinned Transatlantic stability for decades.

In times of crisis like this, the policy community often must scramble in the search for a novel response. Unlike other crises that have taken the world by surprise, however, intense Transatlantic diplomacy and targeted the US and European intelligence declassification have allowed for months of thought on what to do. And that follows years of careful thought and analysis by the European security policy community, who have published common sense actions to deter Putin’s adventurism abroad.

There will no doubt be years of debate on whether pre-emptive sanctions would have been more effective in halting Kremlin aggression, but it is undeniable that the Transatlantic community needs to take action at this vital hour. Therefore, to help interrupt Putin’s advance against Ukraine, and force Russia to rethink its calculus on further invading Ukrainian territory, the “swift, severe, and united” consequences that have been threatened by the US and the EU need to be urgently rolled out. The first step in that process began on February 22 on both sides of the Atlantic.

These included the announcement by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that the certification process for the Kremlin-backed Nord Stream 2 pipeline had been suspended. The move marks a long overdue policy shift that was urgently needed.

Germany revoked an October assessment sent to the Bundesnetzagentur regulator by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy that “the issuing of the [Nord Stream 2] certification does not endanger the security of the gas supply.” I roundly criticized the conclusion at the time, noting that it came amid one of the most severe EU energy crises in recent memory, something exacerbated by the Kremlin’s politically driven energy market moves.

Suspending the certification process for Nord Stream 2 should be seen as a first step in deterring further Russian military action, since this announcement is by its very nature a temporary decision. Urgent additional measures should include:

  • Germany should demand sanctions at the EU level to ensure Nord Stream 2 never becomes operational. This action to “limit Russian export capabilities in Europe” is something Germany pledged in its July agreement with the US, “should Russia attempt to use energy as a weapon or commit further aggressive acts against Ukraine.” That has clearly now occurred (while experts and officials have accused the Kremlin of weaponizing energy for months.)
  • The EU’s Nord Stream 2 sanctions should be matched by the Biden administration’s enforcement of existing, mandatory US sanctions targeting Nord Stream 2 AG, an entity fully-owned by Kremlin-controlled Gazprom. Even now, with Nord Stream 2 complete but uncertified, Russia relies on pipelines in Ukraine, including some near the current line-of-contact in Donbas, to get its gas to European markets. If it is made clear that Nord Stream 2 will never be used as a diversionary conduit instead of the Ukrainian route, it might make Putin think twice about a broader military advance into Ukrainian territory.
  • Russia’s latest attacks on Ukrainian sovereignty are only the latest signal that the Transatlantic community must once-and-for-all ban former senior officials from Western democracies taking jobs with authoritarian state-owned enterprises or their proxies (something also known as “Schröderization.”) As I wrote with Casey Michel in Foreign Policy last week, this could take a two-phase approach, first declaratory and then legislative. We suggested, “an initial statement – issued in a U.S.-EU format or via NATO or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe – doesn’t need to be complex to start,” it could just be “a simple declaration that the practice . . . must end.” This can happen today. Then work toward careful and synchronized Transatlantic laws formally banning the practice could begin, including legislation in Washington that could be called the Stop Helping America’s Malign Enemies, or SHAME Act.
  • Quite apart from government action, the West’s private sector should also respond. Western firms still partnering with Kremlin-controlled enterprises should demonstrate corporate responsibility by suspending these relationships today. This should include an announcement by the European financial investors of Nord Stream 2 — Austria’s OMV, Germany’s Wintershall DEA and Uniper, the French firm Engie, and the Anglo-Dutch group, Royal Dutch Shell — that they are ending their support for the project in light of Russia’s illegal actions against Ukraine. Other major investors, like Total and BP, which own 20% of Rosneft, should also act.

One last thing: while we are rightly focused on Putin’s threat to extinguish Ukrainian independence, we must remember that the world’s autocrats will be eagerly observing the current crisis to update the how-to-undermine-democracy chapter of their malign playbooks. Former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch said it best in an address earlier this month in Kyiv: “If we don’t support Ukraine now, we can expect to see a lot more aggression elsewhere. Many other authoritarian regimes are watching and weighing up the West’s response.” As I explained with Paul Massaro in Foreign Policy last month, “overlooking sanctionable activities by Moscow today will only leave Chinese officials with a playbook of how to undermine global democracies tomorrow.”

Russia may have spread a fog across the Europe of 2022, but a strong, principled Transatlantic response can thin and ultimately disperse it.

Dr. Benjamin L. Schmitt is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Harvard University, a Senior Fellow for Democratic Resilience at CEPA, and a “Rethinking Diplomacy” Fellow at the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies. (Twitter: @BLSchmitt)


Photo: The logo of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project is seen on a pipe at Chelyabinsk pipe rolling plant owned by ChelPipe Group in Chelyabinsk, Russia, February 26, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov.

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Benjamin Schmitt

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February 23, 2022

Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.