At the end of 2020, I was conferring with colleagues about the likely trajectory of relations between Russia and the West. One was quite optimistic that things were about to “break our way.” Russia was coping with the collapse of energy prices and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Expectations were high that opposition leader Svetlana Tikhonovskaya and mass protests would send Alexander Lukashenko on the same pathway into obscurity in Russian exile as his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, and that Belarus would belatedly start down the same pro-Western course as its larger neighbor to the south. Despite the impeachment distraction, Ukraine was set to benefit from new U.S. weapons and training that would contain and roll back the separatists in the east by using the same techniques so adeptly wielded by Azerbaijan in its clash with Armenia. In addition, hopes were high that promised reforms might solidify Ukraine’s entrance into Euro-Atlantic institutions, starting with NATO. Eleventh hour U.S. sanctions would also deal the death blow to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, forcing Russia to continue using Ukraine as a transit country for energy exports to Europe, while new sources of energy and new infrastructure projects would further reduce Russian sales. Deprived of income and coping with domestic challenges, the Kremlin would have to become much more accommodating of Washington’s preferences.
The Russian calculation was to assume that, in the end, they could regulate their relations with the West on the basis of pragmatic transactionalism. And events for much of 2021 seemed to confirm this prediction. The Nord Stream 2 line was completed, and the Biden administration reluctantly reached an understanding with Germany over the conditions under which Russian gas might flow directly to Germany, bypassing Ukraine. President Joe Biden, during his trip to Europe, publicly threw cold water on Ukraine’s rapid entry into NATO, maintaining that the country was nowhere near fulfilling the conditions needed for consideration. Tikhonovskaya was becoming the European equivalent of Venezuela’s Juan Guaidó. Moreover, the Russian government withstood public criticism of its treatment of opposition figures like Alexei Navalny or the Ryanair incident in Belarus, where a flight was diverted to Minsk in order for security forces to arrest Belarusian dissidents. Finally, in the name of fighting climate change and environmental protection, there was talk about how “green energy” projects in Russia might be exempted from existing or future U.S. and EU sanctions.
But what frustrates the Russian foreign policy establishment is that it can never get guarantees that these pragmatic bargains will be ratified and respected. And exhibit number one, from the Kremlin’s point of view, has been the continuing saga of Nord Stream. At the proverbial five minutes to midnight, the “Hail Mary” pass for stopping Nord Stream rests on drawing out the certification process for the pipeline by German regulators (which includes review at the level of the European Union) to give time for a new round of U.S. sanctions and the hopes that a new coalition government in Germany will provide the coup de grace to the project.
My sense is that the various crises now springing up in Eastern Europe—the deployment of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border, the efforts to use migration from Belarus into the European Union as a tool of pressure, the decision by Gazprom to stick to strict fulfillment of its gas contracts and not to send on additional supplies for the European spot markets, even the recent anti-satellite test which created a debris field which increased risks to the International Space Station—are meant as warnings that assuming that Russia will simply accept whatever state of affairs the Western alliance decrees (the fate of Nord Stream, the future of Lukashenko’s government, Ukraine’s future trajectory) is a highly risky endeavor.
This is a form of stress test: that the migration crisis exposes divisions within the EU and NATO and that increases in energy prices and possible shortages will lead to higher prices from everything from heat to groceries (since limits on natural gas impact not only electricity generation but things like the production of fertilizer). With domestic politics in European states (and even in the United States) already brittle and stressed, the thinking is that domestic opinion will be less concerned with changing the geopolitical balance in Eastern Europe and more on reaching these transactional arrangements to get supplies increased and prices lowered. Moreover, markets have taken off the table the proposals advanced during the Trump administration that Europeans should be prepared to purchase more energy from North American allies—even at a higher price—as Chinese and Japanese firms seek to lock down a larger portion of the Western Hemisphere’s bounty for their own needs (while Russia also pivots some of its energy deliveries eastward as well).
Yet so far, this gamble may not be succeeding. The German regulators have formally invited Ukraine’s state energy company to consult on the Nord Stream certification process; both the EU and NATO are looking at ways of strengthening the eastern border—with the narrative of Poland changing from a country at odds with the liberal values of the West to Poland as a bastion of the Euro-Atlantic alliance; and French president Emmanuel Macron has reaffirmed France’s commitment to ensuring Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
But what are the next steps? Russian president Vladimir Putin’s calls with the outgoing German chancellor Angela Merkel suggest that, having made its point, the Kremlin will want to talk and return to the bargaining table to avoid further escalation—and ideally return to the series of de facto compromises that existed over the summer (toleration of Lukashenko’s hold on power, indefinite postponement of the question of Ukraine’s membership in NATO, and acceptance of the Nord Stream 2 line with a guarantee that some energy transit will continue through Ukraine). Yet as the situation deteriorates, Western governments may be less willing to entertain these compromises. The choice would then be whether Russia would choose to escalate further or decide that further steps would be counterproductive.
It is within this zone of uncertainty that all sides now exist.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a contributing editor at the National Interest.