Can Diplomacy Rescue European Security?
By Judy Dempsey, Carnegie Europe, 13 January 2022
Faced with Russia’s military threat against Ukraine and demands for NATO to stop further expansion, the West wants a dialogue with Moscow. Diplomatic efforts that are not underpinned by hard power may not be enough to avert a war.
Daniel Baer Acting director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
In considering the prospects for diplomacy today, I think back to arguably the most successful diplomatic bargain on European security in the last fifty years—the Helsinki Final Act of 1975.
Back then, some things were similar to today. Then: the Soviets were concerned about being bested in geopolitics by the United States and saw a risk in their own declining relative power; now: Russian President Vladimir Putin knows his country’s economic and demographic woes are manifold and that energy may not be a permanent point of potential leverage.
Then: the United States wanted to avoid conflict in Europe and was exhausted by years mired in Vietnam; now: U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration never wanted Europe to be on its top three or five crisis hotspots and hoped to focus instead on knitting the United States back together after two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But one thing was importantly different. In 1975, the Soviets wanted to lock in the status quo of the Warsaw Pact. Today, Putin is dissatisfied with the status quo. When a declining power wants a different reality, the incentives to use force can outweigh the attraction of diplomacy.
Even so, we must try.
Piotr Buras Head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations
Diplomacy can hopefully prevent an invasion of Ukraine, but it is not likely to rescue European security as we know it. The European security architecture based on the Helsinki principles and post–Cold War settlements has been destroyed. Most agreements struck by the West and Russia in the 1990s exist only on paper. The recent escalation is an attempt by Moscow to take advantage of the U.S. pivot to Asia, transatlantic fragility, and the EU’s weakness to impose its own concept of a European security framework.
This is not going to succeed as key Russian demands regarding NATO are unacceptable and have been rightly rejected. The West can discourage Moscow from an all-out war against Ukraine if its unity is backed up by deterrence: threatening with concrete far-reaching sanctions and bolstering Ukraine’s defense.
At some point Russian troops may return to their barracks. However, the European security gap will persist as long as the Europeans are not able to adapt to the new geopolitical constellation or Vladimir Putin’s Russia gives up its ambitions to turn back the clock. Neither of these will happen any time soon, providing for a less and less secure Europe.
Raluca Csernatoni Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
There has been a lot of diplomatic flurry between the United States and Russia over the latter’s military buildup near the Ukrainian border, with the EU playing a minor role in the negotiations. This has led Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, to state that if European security is being discussed by Washington and Moscow, Europeans should also have a seat at the table.
The EU, however, is yet to emerge as a global power and credible security provider, even on its own continent, with NATO acting as the foundation of Europe’s collective defense and the forum for its implementation. For lack of hard power means, the EU has been at the forefront of proposing soft power, economic, and non-military tools championed under the principles of diplomacy and peace.
When it comes to Russia, since 2014, in response to the illegal annexation of Crimea, the EU has imposed different types of sanctions, including diplomatic and economic measures. It is now considering the imposition of export controls and restrictions on Russian access to critical technology.
The jury is out on whether such measures are effective given the current escalating tensions.
But does the EU have what it takes to become a player on the grand geostrategic chessboard and engage in high-stakes diplomacy? The United States does not seem to think so, as it has been primarily holding talks with individual European states such as France, Germany, Italy, and the UK, as well as Eastern European allies, and using organizations like NATO and the OSCE as discussion forums.
Europe, whichever geographic, state, and institutional configurations this word might entail, needs to be prepared to act on its own and with partners when Russia chooses conflict over cooperation.
François Heisbourg Special adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research
Only six months ago, this question would have seemed pointless.
For sure, there were difficult situations: unresolved conflicts in Ukraine and the Caucasus, repression in Belarus, Russian revisionism, and Western sanctions. But overall, the post–Cold War security order in Europe didn’t appear to be in imminent peril. NATO was in status quo mode. It had stuck to its three “no’s” of 1997 even when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014: no nukes, no forces above brigade level, and no foreign bases in the countries of the erstwhile Warsaw Pact. Since 2008, there was no realistic prospect of Ukraine joining NATO.
For reasons of its own, Russia decided to threaten Ukraine, while seeking diplomatically to limit the sovereignty of all European states to choose their alliances. By attempting to upset the status quo, Russia has locked itself into a dilemma: will it lose face by accepting a basically unchanged pre-crisis situation or use force to gain territory as a form of success in Ukraine?
The answer to the question is in the Kremlin’s hand. The West can only help defuse tensions, not unmake a crisis it didn’t create.
Ben Hodges Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA)
I don’t think so... Certainly not if it’s conducted in the usual way. If the Kremlin looks over and sees just the United States without strong European support in a unified front, then the risk of a new Russian offensive (they’ve already invaded Ukraine) goes up. Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t been stopped since 2008 when he invaded Georgia, so he’s operating at a high risk-tolerance level right now.
If Germany steps up to be a “partner in leadership” for the United States, as former President George H. W. Bush had hoped, then there is a chance.
But the Kremlin must do something it seldom does: be transparent and live up to agreements that already exist. I am not optimistic. According to the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission's (SMM) Daily Report from January 10:
“In Donetsk region, between the evenings of 5 and 9 January, the SMM recorded 152 ceasefire violations, including 38 explosions. In the previous reporting period, it recorded 85 ceasefire violations in the region. In Luhansk region, between the evenings of 5 and 9 January, the Mission recorded 791 ceasefire violations, including 213 explosions. In the previous reporting period, it recorded 58 ceasefire violations in the region. Members of the armed formations denied the Mission’s passage near Stanytsia Luhanska, Luhansk region.”
Ronja Kempis Senior fellow of the EU/Europe research group at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)
If one sees the EU’s Eastern Partnership as an instrument of diplomacy, then diplomacy has made security in Europe uncertain. It seemed inconceivable in 2009 that the €15 billion ($17 billion) that the EU has given to Ukraine would not trigger any serious attempts at reform. It seemed equally implausible that Russia would counter the security order enshrined in the Charter of Paris.
In these January days of 2022, diplomacy is likely to do further damage to European security.
The Geneva talks between the United States and Russia have not averted the risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin has achieved what he wanted: Washington has given political weight and legitimacy to Russian concerns.
The epochal break, however, is that U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has excluded the Europeans from the talks. American diplomacy seems to be returning to transatlantic security relations whose structure is reminiscent of that of the East-West conflict.
Should that be the case, Europeans have no time left in either NATO or the EU to execute the conclusions reached at the end of the Trump era: Europe cannot rely on U.S. leadership and must therefore stand up for its security interests more strongly, more comprehensively, and more independently.
John Kornblum Former US ambassador to Germany
I would suggest that the question be restated. European security is a generic category, like gravity. It cannot be “rescued,” but it can be applied for both good and bad ends.
Is there a role for diplomacy? Depends. Mikhail Khodorkovsky argues that even talking adds to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s chances for success. To get the right answers, one must ask the right questions.
NATO is not really the problem. The current crisis began with the signature of a relatively minor economic agreement between the EU and Ukraine. Putin is most worried about the threat of democracy in post-Soviet space. We can’t allow him to divert our attention from this fact.
Then, what is to be done? First, stay calm. The more Europeans whine about being left out of things, the more confident Putin becomes.
Most importantly, do not accept Putin’s agenda. Define the crisis as an outbreak of disruption, originating from a failing kleptocratic regime. Overseas assassinations and election meddling are also part of the problem. Focus on firming up respect for the 1975 Helsinki principles.
Unfortunately, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has come dangerously close to asking the wrong questions. They seem to worry more about how their statements sell domestically than giving hope to Ukraine and others. Our leaders need to learn a difficult lesson. An unfamiliar and confusing digital world will require us more than ever to fit new questions to dangerous new threats.
Kristin Raik Director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute
Diplomacy is one element in a broader toolbox on both sides. It is most likely to bring at least some results expected on the Western side—preventing military escalation and bringing down the level of tensions—if backed up with credible defense and deterrence by NATO, Ukraine, and other European actors. Such deterrence includes military readiness, the threat of sanctions as well as societal resilience.
The current diplomatic efforts should not even aim at reaching an agreement on a new security order, as there is no sufficient common ground for that. Deep disagreements between Russia and the West over the European security order are likely to persist as long as Russian President Vladimir Putin is in power and possibly beyond.
Unfortunately, the Russian side has learned over the past years that military escalation usually yields some results that strengthen Russia’s position with regard to the West. Western powers have responded to new incursions—be it in Crimea, Donbas, or Belarus—by seeking to stop Russia from moving further, but not even seriously trying to push it back.
Witold Rodkiewicz Senior fellow at the Russian Department of the Center for Eastern Studies (OSW)
Diplomacy alone cannot rescue anyone’s security when the threat is being posed by a power that is willing to use military force and acts according to the logic of power politics. That is, unless we accept the definition of security that Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Ryabkov outlined on January 11 in his briefing after the talks in Geneva and which is implicit in proposals Russia unveiled in December: European security equals Russian military preponderance over Eastern and Central Europe. In dealing with powers like Russia, diplomacy is useless unless it is used in conjunction with military force to deter and, if need be, repel, its military aggression.
With powers like Vladimir Putin’s Russia, signalling resolve and willingness to use force is the precondition of effective diplomacy. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan demonstrated this very well. When challenged by Russian military forces he shot down a Russian fighter plane and was not afraid to fight against Russian proxy forces both in Idlib, Syria, and in Libya. As a result, he was able to engage in effective diplomacy with Putin and reach compromise deals with him.
James Sherr Senior fellow at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute
European security will not be rescued until we stop asking Russia’s permission to preserve it. Once that is understood, diplomacy can perform its classical role: to clarify, to warn, to find common ground if it exists, or establish that there is none.
For the first time since the Berlin crisis of 1958–1961, the West has been presented with a Russian ultimatum. It is no longer possible to pretend that Russia seeks anything less than a wholesale rewriting of European security arrangements, underpinned by new “guarantees” that would supersede those we depend upon.
As the ill-crafted choreography of December’s meetings between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin recedes, the reality and brazenness of Russian demands are concentrating minds. Far from treating Russia to a cabaret of disarray, this month’s talks are likely to present Russia with a united Western front.
But what then? “We spoke our lines well” is neither a deterrent nor a defense. Warnings of more of the same are unlikely to make the Kremlin’s blood run cold. To deter Russia, we need to confront it with what it fears: the creation tomorrow of the very threats we are accused of posing today. Are we capable of that? If so, the scope for diplomacy will grow. If not, the risks of war will probably increase.
Ben Tonra Professor of International Relations at University College Dublin
No. Not alone.
While much ink has been spilt on the precise relationship between diplomacy and power, neither—in isolation—will deliver. Put another way, diplomacy is a necessary, not a sufficient, condition of security. We know that for Europeans—in whatever multilateral format (EU, NATO, OSCE)—diplomacy is only effective with clear objectives, evident political will, and the power, hard and soft, that can change the strategic calculus of other actors.
It appears that we are at a critical juncture with respect to European security. Neither NATO nor the EU are presenting themselves as well-directed actors—not least with EU and NATO heads of government expressing solidarity with European and Eurasian dictators.
Old paradigms of European security being determined by the diplomacy and the power of others are also re-emerging. If adversaries judge correctly—that Europeans have nothing but diplomacy at their disposal—European security will suffer accordingly.
Pierre Vimont Senior fellow at Carnegie Europe
Amid a threatening escalation where Russia is maintaining its military buildup along the Ukrainian border, diplomacy may sound irrelevant. Indeed, calls are heard in many Western quarters for an enhanced military posture against Moscow’s current stance.
Yet diplomacy may be precisely what has been missing lately on both sides. As tensions gradually spiralled out of control after the 1997 NATO-Russia agreement, the need to rethink the European security order has become all the more urgent. But no genuine effort materialised in that direction. Even more concerning is that there has been no genuine effort to stop the abandonment of most of the arms control agreements tailored to promote stability in Europe.
Today the debate around who is to be blamed for that failure should not prevent diplomats from moving out of the prolonged passivity that has characterised strategic talks in Europe for the past fifteen years.
The diplomatic meetings currently taking place testify to the urgency of starting a dialogue that faces at last the confrontational reality in Europe and looks for solutions in line with the Paris Charter principles. NATO allies may understandably resent being forced into that direction by Russian military coercion, but their interest—and that of the EU—is to have, in the end, reason prevail over force.
Anna Wieslander Director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council
The diplomatic door has always been open to Russia. The problem is that Russia has not been willing to use it until now, having mobilized some 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, repeatedly testing its new hypersonic Zircon missiles, holding back gas supplies to Europe, and putting a couple of absurd draft treaties for security guarantees on the table. There is something utterly disturbing about a situation where the perpetrator demands security guarantees and those under threat are willing to discuss them: an Alice-In-Wonderland-Upside-Down kind of feeling.
Russia perceives itself as negotiating from a position of strength. By flexing its muscles and playing spoiler, Russia has advanced its negotiating position on a new European security order, aiming to legitimize and expand its sphere of influence.
The West is still reluctant to define the world in terms of confrontation. It wants dialogue and is less inclined to indulge in a show of force. But there can be no successful diplomacy unless it is coupled with firm deterrence and defence.
For starters, no real negotiations should take place until Russia has withdrawn its troops from the Ukrainian border. In order for diplomacy to succeed, the West must first and foremost stand its ground.
Carnegie and CEMAS do not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.