Joe Biden’s foreign policy has been driven by two objectives: to revive the US-led alliance system that atrophied under Donald Trump and to clear the decks to allow for a new focus on China. This requires America’s allies doing more elsewhere to free the US up for the task of preventing Beijing from achieving regional hegemony in Asia.
America has been moving in this direction for some time: Barack Obama spent his presidency talking about an Indo-Pacific pivot. Yet every time the US has tried to get out of a region, it’s been pulled back. One of the reasons that Biden was so determined to withdraw from Afghanistan — despite the chaos that would inevitably ensue — was to show his willingness to jettison other priorities to focus on great power competition with China.
Events, though, might be about to intervene again. On 15 November, Biden and Xi Jinping held a virtual summit — to talk about how to avoid stumbling into war — or, as the US President put it, the need for ‘guardrails to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict’ and ‘to keep lines of communication open’. This brought to mind the Cold War hotline between Washington and Moscow that Kennedy and Khrushchev set up after the Cuban missile crisis. As befits a cold war, America is now moving towards a diplomatic boycott of the coming Beijing Winter Olympics.
Yet nothing that came out of this summit could match the drama of what Antony Blinken, Biden’s Secretary of State, said days before. When asked about the prospects of Russia invading Ukraine, he voiced his fears that ‘Russia may make the serious mistake of attempting to rehash what it undertook back in 2014 when it amassed forces along the border, crossed into sovereign Ukrainian territory, and did so claiming falsely that it was provoked’. In other words: the world should prepare for a new war in Europe.
This was no slip of the tongue. After Blinken’s speech, there was a period of frantic US diplomacy designed to alert European states to what Vladimir Putin might be considering with the military build-up on Ukraine’s borders. In 2014, Putin got away with it: he annexed Crimea and all the West could do was to impose sanctions after the fact. This time, America wants to be better prepared. Or, rather, it wants Europe to be better prepared.
The message appears to be getting across. Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, this week visited Ukraine and met the President and Defence Minister: the UK is now ready to arm Ukraine, selling it surface-to-surface Brimstone missiles that can be deployed from Ukrainian destroyers. For his part, Emmanuel Macron has told Putin in a phone call that France is prepared to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Even Berlin is doing its bit, having paused approval of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that connects Russia to Germany (and would allow Moscow to bypass its Ukrainian pipeline, making war easier).
When I put it to one diplomatic source that Blinken’s very public warning seemed rather blunt, he outlined just how high the stakes are for Washington. If Putin did march into Ukraine, Biden’s foreign policy would be in tatters. If Russia did succeed in annexing more Ukrainian territory it would significantly weaken the very alliance system that America is trying to strengthen. But if the US intervened, as it did in Bosnia and Libya, it would be a massive distraction from the Chinese challenge.
It has never been easy to read Putin’s intentions, but there are plenty of signs that he’s serious about Ukraine, or more specifically eastern Ukraine, where Russia already has an informal presence. Previous Russian military build-ups near the Ukrainian border have been explicit, almost designed to discomfit the West. The current exercise, involving about 100,000 Russian troops, has been lower profile. Putin, a tactical opportunist if ever there was one, may just be trying to test and probe to see how serious Biden is about his China shift — and if America really might leave the Europeans to it this time.
Putin’s trump card is Russian energy supplies. With Europe suffering an energy crunch as winter approaches, storage tanks are only half-filled and some reports predict energy blackouts, so it’s a good time for him to play hardball. Moscow may well feel that the EU, which relies on imports for more than half its energy, will be reluctant to break relations with its biggest supplier. In pressing ahead with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the face of repeated American and eastern European protests, Germany had put its own energy needs first.
It was German intelligence that, in the spring, first identified the new threat facing Europe: that one of its adversaries could use migrants as part of a ‘hybrid war’. A classified 19-page document outlined what could happen: a foreign power could divert migrants to Europe’s weak spot to promote border chaos and the ‘political incitement of society’. When the EU placed sanctions on the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko (to punish him for abducting a journalist from a Ryanair flight), he replied by enacting precisely this strategy.
What we are witnessing, then, is a new form of warfare. Belarus is flying migrants in from Iraq and Syria to Belarus and then, upon arrival, dispatching them up to the Polish and Lithuanian borders. Video footage shows the Belarusian military using vehicles to try to take down Polish border posts and wire fencing. They have used lasers to make it impossible for Polish troops to see what is going on, fired blank rounds and even armed migrants with stun grenades. On Tuesday, footage showed children throwing rocks at Polish forces.
Polish police have seen waves of migrants before, but nothing like this. In their daily dispatches — accompanied by videos of advancing, sometimes armed migrants — Polish authorities refer to ‘waves’ of ‘attacks’. They haven’t yet fired on the migrants. But Belarus’s actions make that an ever-increasing risk; it is not hard to see how a Polish soldier might panic given the pressure.
In August last year, there were no recorded illegal attempts to cross the Belarusian- Polish border. But 17,000 attempts were made last month alone. Lithuania this week declared a state of emergency on its border. One Lithuanian television investigation found black Mercedes vans awaiting Iraqis at Minsk airport, taking them to hotels for several days until the call came to pack their things and head for the border. The migrants are falsely promised a similar service on the other side of the border.
This playbook was written by Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who successfully blackmailed the EU by saying he would stop large numbers of migrants reaching Europe. In return, Brussels moderated its criticisms of Erdogan’s increasing turn to authoritarianism and his regional power plays. Lukashenko was clearly looking to see if he could pull off the same trick. Hence, his decision to entice migrants to Belarus.
That’s why it was such a mistake for Angela Merkel, the outgoing German Chancellor, to buckle and contact Lukashenko earlier this week, giving him the line of communication — and recognition — that he craves. It was the first call between Lukashenko and a western leader since his brutal crackdown on the opposition after the August 2020 election. Lithuania has openly accused Merkel of playing into Lukashenko’s hands. Putin, for his part, will see yet again an easily divided Europe unable to agree on a common line.
Behind this lies perhaps an even-bigger question: how should western governments respond to the migration challenge? There’s little doubt that those migrants freezing in the woods on the Belarus side of the border are victims exploited by Lukashenko — just as those crossing the English Channel are being manipulated by people-smugglers. But if Poland waved them through and let them settle across the EU, it would undermine the faith of their own citizens in the basics of border control, promoting outrage and political instability. The Liverpool bombing is a reminder of the security risks of not controlling your own borders or running effective asylum policies.
No wonder Washington is concerned. The problems being cooked up on Europe’s borders are already causing division and mayhem.
The best the free world can do in responding to this threat is to use its economic muscle. The UK, Canada, the US and the EU have already cooperated effectively on sanctions on Belarus. They should now aim to expand their alliance as much as possible and make clear that any airline involved in flying migrants to Belarus will be sanctioned. Equally stringent sanctions should apply to any firm that leases aircraft used for these flights. Anyone playing Lukashenko’s game should be deterred.
The next thing the free world should do is to reduce its dependence on authoritarian regimes as much as possible. The aim should be to deny them leverage. This means freezing Nord Stream 2, which had been weeks away from opening until German regulators withheld approval very recently. If opened, the pipeline would deepen Europe’s reliance on Russian gas and give Putin more freedom of action in Ukraine. Perhaps the single greatest contribution the incoming German government could make to European security is to drop the project.
Today’s Russia is a shadow of the Soviet Union. Yet Putin remains determined to create a near abroad for Russia by fair means and foul — with Ukraine his obvious next target. He’ll be looking at the reaction to the latest border chaos, and asking what would happen if the annexation of eastern Ukraine was thrown into the mix.
Ultimately, Biden is right in his analysis. China is the most serious threat that the US-led world order has faced in decades, with economic power and technological prowess which make it a more formidable foe than the Soviet Union ever was. Biden is also right to see Moscow’s adventurism as a problem that can be confronted if Europe is clear-eyed about the shared risk — and the need for a shared response. It’s a test. Much depends on how Britain — and the rest of Europe — responds to it.