The war against Ukraine has brought U.S.-Russian relations to their lowest point in modern history. Russia is demonstrating that it has no regard for human rights, nations’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, or nations’ right to determine their own future. Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly has imperialist ambitions. Ukraine did not provoke the war, and Putin likely would prefer to convert Ukraine into Russian territory once again. This is not another Cold War. There is nothing “cold” about naked, violent aggression. This is a new kind of war and the U.S. and its friends allies in the transatlantic community are going to learn how to fight. For starters, the transatlantic community needs to checkmate Putin’s two most important weapons—his military and Russia’s use of energy to blackmail, coerce, and profit.
Strengthening for the Fight
To hold the Russian Federation accountable for its war crimes in Ukraine, support Ukraine, and strengthen the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United States has taken several actions. (The following list is not exhaustive of all U.S. actions taken since February 24, the start of the war, however.) Washington has imposed multiple rounds of sanctions on Moscow, sending the Russian economy south. The Russian ruble now is worth less than one cent in the American economy. The U.S. imposed restrictions on transactions with Russia’s central bank and transactions by U.S. financial institutions with Sberbank, and imposed sanctions on Russia’s VTB Bank and four other financial institutions, VEB, the Russian Direct Investment Fund, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and its chief executive officer, several defense-related entities, Vladimir Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, several Kremlin-connected oligarchs, and more. It also cut selected Russian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) messaging system to “ensure that these banks are disconnected from the international financial system and harm their ability to operate globally.” In addition, the United States is providing to Ukraine advanced weaponry, such as Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft systems, additional military assistance including grenade launchers, rifles, pistols, body armor, and helmets, and humanitarian assistance. The United States also sent approximately 14,000 troops to Germany, Poland, and Romania to reinforce NATO’s Eastern flank, in case the war encroaches onto NATO territory.
Icy U.S.-Russian relations also have had several consequences in recent history. Over the past few years, the U.S. and Russia have imposed multiple tit-for-tat actions, including expelling diplomats and setting restrictions on the number of diplomatic staff allowed to work in each other’s country. According to a senior Biden administration official, the United States has been forced to cut its diplomatic staff in Russia by approximately 90 percent in the last four years. It is also difficult for U.S. citizens to visit Russia due to a Level 4 travel advisory imposed by the U.S. State Department, and likewise for Russians to visit the United States due to most visa services being halted. Three U.S. citizens—Paul Whelan, Trevor Reed, and Brittney Griner—currently are imprisoned in Russia. Whelan and Reed, two former U.S. Marines, most likely are imprisoned on fabricated charges, and Griner, a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star, is imprisoned allegedly for transporting hashish oil in her luggage at the Moscow airport. The U.S. State Department is working towards all three of their releases. Connected to the war in Ukraine, Russia has created a new law that criminalizes any reporting that “contradicts the [Russian] government’s version of events,” which has shut down, whether temporarily or permanently, American media outlets in Russia such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and The New York Times. Similarly, RT America ceased production and laid off most of its staff, most likely because it could no longer be profitable for reasons tied to the war in Ukraine.
Because of Russia’s war in Ukraine, U.S.- Russian relations will suffer tremendously for the foreseeable future.
Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine has proven, at least initially, a severe shock to Europe. For the time being, it’s put to bed questions around the usefulness of NATO and supercharged the obvious need for the alliance’s upcoming strategic concept to place a spotlight on collective defense as the core task of the alliance for the foreseeable future. Russia’s actions have laid bare the reality that military capabilities remain crucial for securing freedom, especially in the era of great power competition. The questions for NATO moving forward are threefold: A) How does the alliance respond to the shifted geopolitical map of Europe in terms of operational planning? B) How do alliance members will respond to the now obvious need to live up to the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article III requirement to “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.” C) Finally, how can NATO continue to aid Ukraine in defending its sovereignty against a Russian regime bent on extinguishing their existence?
In addition to scrambling the political map of Europe, Russia’s war against Ukraine has dramatically altered the physical landscape of the European theater. Russian forces now control additional areas of Ukrainian territory, specifically in the nation’s south, east, and near Ukraine’s northeastern borders with Belarus and Russia. Russia’s has expanded control over Ukrainian territory along the Black Sea, seeking to consolidate its position and eventually push forward to link with the occupied Transnistria region of Moldova. It’s too early to determine the outcome of the conflict, however, even if we assume Russian forces are pushed out of Ukraine, Russia’s de facto absorption of Belarus necessitates NATO update its operational planning. Alliance members should also be aware of ways in which Russia will utilize the war in Ukraine to impose additional economic pressures against Black Sea nations. A recent example of this tactic is Russia’s disputed claim that mines laid by Ukraine had become unmoored during a storm and were drifting southward. As Bulgarian Rear Admiral Kiril Mihailov told a news conference the claims “may be more a matter of complicating shipping and instilling fear and tension among sailors and coastal states rather than a real threat.”
Russia’s war against Ukraine has awoken many NATO members from their defense spending slumber, resulting in new pledges to attain the NATO spending benchmark of 2% of GDP. Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine caused a shift in threat perceptions amongst many NATO members, particularly those closest to Russia. This changing threat assessment, alongside perhaps in part, the stridency of U.S. calls for more defense spending, led to real increases. As NATO’s Secretary General’s Annual Report noted, “2020 marked the sixth consecutive year of growth in defense spending by European Allies and Canada, with an increase in real terms of 3.9% from 2019 to 2020. Moreover, 11 Allies met the guideline of spending 2% of their Gross Domestic Product on defense, up from just three Allies in 2014.” Putin’s actions have supercharged this trend, leading some nations such as Germany and Denmark for instance to announce plans to spend 2% of GDP. Other nations, such as Estonia and Romania, which spend 2%, to increase defense budgets even further. At March’s extraordinary NATO Summit in Brussels, Secretary General Stoltenberg announced that NATO allies who have not attained 2% will bring plans to raise spending to that level to the next NATO Summit taking place in Madrid in June. Also at the Summit, NATO announced the creation of four additional battlegroups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. These will join the existing NATO battlegroups deployed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. NATO must be cognizant of the potential that, however unlikely, Putin could decide to expand his war against Ukraine to target a NATO member and prepare accordingly. The alliance must move beyond mere “tripwire” force deployments to large, permanently deployed capabilities in eastern member states to adequately deter Putin from contemplating future action against a NATO member.
Finally, NATO has a role to play in organizing deliveries of aid and weaponry to Ukraine. Since the war began, NATO member states have sent weapons and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. At the Brussels summit, members made additional commitments to Ukraine for weapons deliveries, including further antitank weapons, drones, and anti-ship missiles. While this aid has been donated on a bilateral basis between individual nations and Ukraine, NATO can and should take a leading role in organizing aid from its member states to Ukraine which should over time better maximize the impact on western aid on the ground in Ukraine.
Fighting for Abundant, Affordable, Reliable Energy
Europe is facing an energy crisis. In the European context, Russia most benefits from the current energy crisis. Never one to pass up an opportunity to turn a geopolitical crisis and to his advantage, President Putin has used the energy shortage in Europe to give Russia the upper hand.
Europe already depends on Russian natural gas for 40 percent of its needs. In total, almost 200 billion cubic meters of natural gas are now imported from the country annually due to declining European production and rising demand. Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Nord Stream 2 is dead. However, as long as Europeans keep buying gas from Russia they will continue to indirectly fund Russia’s war machine against Ukraine. Europe needs to do a better job at diversifying its energy resources away from Russia. This can be done by Europe looking south instead of east for new sources of energy.
For example, the Southern Gas Corridor connects gas from the Caspian Sea to southern Europe and has the potential to supply 60 billion cubic meters per annum of natural gas to European markets. Right now, the Southern Gas Corridor is only delivering 10 billion cubic meters per annum. There is also talk of finally building a Trans-Caspian Pipeline to bring natural gas from Central Asia to Europe bypassing Russia. This pipeline would connect to the Southern Gas Corridor.
A pipeline is the only economically viable way to move natural gas across the Caspian Sea. This means that right now there is no profitable way to get Central Asia’s gas to Europe without going through Russia or Iran. Europe should be taking a leading role in making the proposed doubling down on a reality.
In addition, Europe’s energy security can be bolstered by the Three Seas Initiative. Launched in 2016 to facilitate the development of energy and infrastructure ties among 12 nations in eastern, central and southern Europe, the initiative aims to strengthen trade, infrastructure, energy and political cooperation among countries bordering the Adriatic Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. As a vestige of the Cold War, most infrastructure in the region runs east to west, stymying greater regional interconnectedness. Developing northsouth interconnections and pipelines will boost Europe’s energy security.
Russia has a track record of using energy as a tool of aggression. As Nord Stream 2 gets closer to being fully operational and as winter approaches, do not expect Russia to help Europeans solve their energy crisis. Each barrel of oil and cubic meter of gas that Europe can buy elsewhere other than Russia will make it more secure. Finally, the U.S. should boost LNG exports to Europe American energy companies continue to be a major reliable and cost competitive supplier of natural gas to European markets. Upon Congress’ lifting of a ban on U.S. export of natural gas (and oil) in 2015, U.S. export capacity has grown from negligible amounts to being among the top three exporting countries in the world and meeting roughly 19 percent of global demand. The U.S. will have the largest LNG export capacity in the world by the end of 2022 with the completion of the Sabine Pass and Calcasieu Pass facilities in Louisiana and uprates to increase production capacity at several existing facilities (for a total of 13.9 billion cubic feet per day, compared to 11.6 in 2021). An eighth LNG export facility in Texas is expected to come online by 2024 and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has approved several other projects which are not yet under construction. In October 2021, LNG exporters in the U.S. were operating beyond capacity and the EIA expects U.S. exports to be 16 percent more than last year in response to new capacity and high demand for natural gas in Europe and Asia.
Each barrel of oil and cubic meter of gas that Europe can buy elsewhere other than Russia will make it more secure. While these proposals alone are not enough to completely decouple Europe from its energy dependency on Russia, they are a good start.
Time for Choosing
After the war against Ukraine, Putin will be faced with the challenge of rebuilding his military and the Russian economy. In these months, or perhaps years, the Kremlin will be limited in its capacity to threaten the transatlantic community. That is exactly when the West needs to step boldly forward with serious defense and energy policy to ensure future Putin threat can be stiff armed.