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Why chaos in eastern Europe is never bad news for Vladimir Putin

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On Monday, NATO’s Secretary-General warned Moscow against “potential aggressive actions” after Ukrainian officials estimated there were 90,000 Russian troops “near the border and in the temporarily occupied territories,” as well as in the Black Sea.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that the US was “concerned by reports of unusual Russian military activity” and mentioned the possibility that Russia may be “attempting to rehash” its 2014 invasion of its neighbor. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Russia to “adopt a posture of restraint” because any attempt to “undermine Ukraine’s territorial integrity would have serious consequences.”

The questions that require answers are: 1) How immediately dangerous is the situation; 2) What can the Western alliance do, if anything, to dissuade Russia from further provocation; and 3) What does the Russian President Vladimir Putin actually want?

In private, European diplomats and officials answer these questions by saying they don’t believe the situation is the same as in 2014, when Russian operatives invaded Ukraine and annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.

Orysia Lutsevych, a Ukrainian analyst at Chatham House, agrees. “It’s the best war you can fight without boots hitting the ground. Unlike 2014 this is not about territory, but about undermining Ukraine’s persistent movement towards the West and telling the West that Russia has a legitimate presence in this region.”

However, those officials do fear that Putin has created something of a Catch-22 that he is very happy to exploit.

Putin knows that if he builds up troops, the West has to respond. That means statements like the above from senior US, French, German and EU officials. The rub is that statements and other measures have not historically forced Putin’s hand.

“Russia has demonstrated many times that it is able to wait out sanctions,” said Cathryn Cluver Ashbrook, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations. “Putin knows that sanctions are difficult to sell to certain groups at home when they can indirectly impact German business or energy supplies in France,” because companies cannot work with Russian companies.

The Catch-22 is that Putin receives a legitimacy boost when these Western leaders are forced to talk with him in order to deescalate tense situations. “Every time someone like Merkel is forced to pick up the phone and talk to him about preventing a crisis, he becomes simultaneously the cause and solution to the problem. It makes him seem very powerful at home and elsewhere in Europe,” said a senior EU diplomat.

There is another situation unfolding in Europe that could allow Putin to play both foe and friend. The border between Belarus and Poland is playing witness to a migration crisis that has been lurching toward violent escalation. On Tuesday morning, tensions erupted when migrants trying to gain entry to Europe threw rocks at Polish border guards, who responded with water cannons.
Violence erupts on Poland-Belarus border as Polish guards fire water cannon on migrants throwing rocks

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been accused of manufacturing the crisis by directing migrants from the Middle East and Asia to the border. A sudden influx to any country within the EU creates the real possibility of a political crisis and headache for Brussels.

The nature of the EU’s internal borders mean that once you have entered a country like Poland, it becomes easier to move around within the bloc. This would almost certainly lead to member states turning on one another, sowing divisions within the bloc and undermining the EU’s unity — something that makes Putin and Lukashenko very happy.

To make matters more complicated, Poland is currently in a protracted spat with Brussels over Warsaw’s lack of compliance with EU law. A senior EU official explained to CNN that Poland was “already using this crisis to argue for unity on the issue of migration. The problem is, solidarity on this will be taken by Poland as collaboration in their own rule-breaking that undermines the Union.”

While Putin has denied any involvement in this redirection of people, he has defended Lukashenko’s handling of the crisis. Russia is also Belarus’ most important ally, helping keep Lukashenko — a man often called Europe’s last dictator — stay in power. Most analysts say it is extremely unlikely such a confrontational policy would have been carried out without at least consulting the Kremlin.

This type of crisis allows Putin to enjoy supporting Lukashenko and stoking the fire, while also playing peacekeeper. If Putin made it clear he wanted Lukashenko to stop, it is almost certain he would.

Vladimir Putin (R) meets with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko in Sochi in May 2021.

It’s not clear what Putin’s long-term plan is for either crisis. It is, however, a safe bet that the West looking disunited and impotent while its borders face being overrun is deemed good news for the Russian President, and the crisis will get steady coverage on Russian state TV.

And the West has looked impotent in the face of Russian aggression many times over the past decade.

“The West’s diplomatic toolbox is depressingly empty when it comes to Russia,” said global affairs analyst Michael Bociurkiw.

Tensions are rising on the Poland-Belarus border. Here's what you need to know

He believes that the combination of American indifference, Europe’s cognitive dissonance on what it wants from Russia and Putin’s relative inability to do any real harm to the more powerful Western nations have left Putin with the impression that he can essentially do what he wants and get nothing more than harsh words.

“Lots of Eastern European nations are now terrified that the US and its closest allies are just not interested in foreign affairs any more, especially since the withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Bociurkiw said.

As serious as the situations in both Ukraine and Belarus are, it is entirely possible that they are easily explained as relatively weak leaders like Putin and Lukashenko flexing their muscles in parts of the world they know they can get away with it. Realistically, Putin simply is not a major threat to the West.

The tragedy of that reality is that for those who live in his sphere of influence, a lack of pushback from the international community means that a man who despises playing by the rules has as good as absolute power over their lives. Whether that becomes a strong enough incentive for countries like the US, Germany, France and the UK to act, should the aggression get worse, is really anyone’s guess.