The President's Take

Grappling with the Ukraine War’s Multi-faceted Threat

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine poses the greatest danger to global peace and security in decades. In her introduction to the EU Watch List 2022 – Spring Update, Crisis Group President & CEO Comfort Ero lays out the biggest dilemmas and sets some guideposts for international action.

Europeans have entered a new world since January, when Crisis Group published its 2022 EU Watch List. Back then, Russian troops were massing near Ukraine’s border. Western intelligence reports warned that an invasion could be on the cards, causing considerable disquiet in European capitals, but Moscow still insisted that its soldiers were merely conducting exercises. Then, on 24 February, Russia launched a full-scale invasion, turning what had been a grinding standoff in Ukraine’s east into a quest to conquer the whole country. The war has wreaked destruction on much of Ukraine, killing perhaps tens of thousands, displacing some 14 million, many of whom have fled to EU countries, and upending European security. The fighting has not gone Russia’s way, to put it mildly. The Kremlin, encountering much fiercer Ukrainian resistance than it anticipated, has for now abandoned efforts to take Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and is concentrating forces in the country’s south and east. The invasion has united NATO and the West more broadly – the opposite of what Moscow intended. Many countries in the Global South, however, have been wary of picking sides. 

The war is the gravest threat to international peace and security in decades. To be clear, it does not matter more to Crisis Group because it’s in Europe; every death, every casualty, every person displaced due to war is a tragedy, no matter where it happens. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the biggest violation of another country’s sovereignty since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Especially perilously, it pits Russia, the state with the largest nuclear stockpile in the world, against a smaller neighbour backed by NATO powers, three of which are themselves nuclear-armed. There is a real danger of things spiralling into direct war between Russia and NATO, a confrontation that could quickly turn nuclear. 

Russia’s invasion poses big dilemmas for European leaders. In Ukraine, they must balance competing imperatives: supporting Kyiv, while minimising risks of escalation into a direct NATO-Russia clash and ideally creating incentives for an end – even if it starts as a temporary pause – to the war, on terms Ukrainians can accept. European capitals must prepare for what comes next, particularly as it relates to Europe’s security architecture and the EU itself. They must adapt to a world in which Russia-West hostility is ever more ferocious, doing as much as possible to insulate other crisis management from acrimony. They also need to respond to the cascade of pernicious effects the war has unleashed upon global food and energy prices and supplies, for which some governments blame Western sanctions as much as the Kremlin’s aggression.

In Ukraine ... the risks of escalation ... are perhaps higher now than ever.

In Ukraine itself, if Russia has tempered its goals, the risks of escalation are no less severe; indeed, they are perhaps higher now than ever. Western governments are pumping in more and more powerful weaponry, partly because Ukraine’s Soviet-era supplies have dried up and partly because, thus far, Russia has done little in response. Some Western leaders have stepped up rhetoric alongside arms supplies, suggesting that their long-term goals are to debilitate Russia and bring Russian President Vladimir Putin to heel. It’s not hard to see things spinning out of control.

Clearly, Western arms supplies are critical for helping Ukraine hold the line and securing a settlement it can live with, but Western leaders still need to steer clear of tactics and language that carry too grave a risk of provoking a Russia-NATO war. As our entry below details, that means refraining from providing training to Ukrainian forces on Ukrainian soil and continuing to avoid their own forces’ engagement, all while trying to introduce greater oversight regarding the weapons flowing in. It means emphasising that they will take their cues from Kyiv as to what peace deal or other violence reduction arrangements are acceptable: neither pressuring Ukraine to agree to something not in its interests – a ceasefire whose terms lay the ground for a fresh Russian offensive, for example – nor using language suggesting that Ukrainian victory requires immediate Russian acceptance of Kyiv’s control over all Ukraine’s territory, including Crimea, let alone Putin’s downfall. European leaders should also ponder which sanctions levelled against Russia they might lift if there is a deal acceptable to Ukraine.

Beyond Ukraine, the war’s implications for Europe’s security architecture are already far-reaching. It has breathed new life into both NATO and the EU itself. In mid-May, Finland and Sweden applied for NATO membership – their break with long traditions of neutrality is a direct response to changed perceptions about the menace Moscow’s belligerence and unpredictability pose. If their membership goes ahead, as appears likely, it would reinforce the alliance’s deterrence and provide further reassurance to the Baltic states, offering substantial capabilities and strategic depth. The very act of their joining would contribute to what looks set to be a large NATO-scale buildup in the east. That said, both countries’ ties to NATO were already tight and their militaries largely interoperable, meaning that their entry into the alliance would not significantly alter Europe’s strategic balance. Thus far, Moscow has said it will cut off gas supplies to Finland in response, but beyond that its rhetoric has been fairly restrained. Nor, sensibly, have Western capitals been especially inflammatory in talking about Finnish and Swedish membership. While new deployments to the Baltics are likely, it is not clear that anything extra to their own considerable capabilities will be deployed to Sweden or Finland themselves.

As for the EU, Russia’s invasion has given new impetus to the stalled enlargement process, accelerated defence integration plans and rekindled its ambition to scale up political and trade relations with former Soviet republics. Broadly speaking, the challenge for the EU, as it reinvigorates ties with eastern neighbours, is to avoid fuelling unrealistic expectations for EU accession that could easily undercut Brussels’ credibility. European leaders should make clear that accession is a long and hard-to-accelerate process, but that they can develop other forms of closer association that can have earlier tangible benefits for neighbours, even as they plough ahead with the accession track.

The collapse of Russia-West relations looks set to deepen already dismal trends in multilateral crisis management.

Overall, the collapse of Russia-West relations looks set to deepen already dismal trends in multilateral crisis management. True, we should not yet despair. At the UN Security Council, Ukraine hasn’t seeped into all files: in fact, Russia has yet to veto anything not Ukraine-related in 2022. Nor has renewed Russia-West hostility much affected the Iran nuclear talks: the main sticking point now – the U.S. designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a foreign terrorist organisation – doesn’t involve Moscow. Recent truces in Ethiopia’s and Yemen’s catastrophic wars weren’t Ukraine-linked but show that peacemaking can trundle along and opportunities arise notwithstanding broken geopolitics. Still, despite small glimmers of light, the Ukraine war bodes awfully for collective efforts to end crises. The Security Council itself, gridlocked on major crises for years, could well become even less effective. Many efforts to end or head off crises worldwide could be doomed if bad blood from Ukraine spills across multilateral diplomacy.

The EU and European leaders should try not to let that happen. It’s not only about European states on the Security Council trying to firewall disputes over Ukraine from other Council business. The entries below show how important that is more broadly. In Nagorno-Karabakh, Brussels will need to cooperate, at least to some degree, with Moscow to avert another bout of fighting and push Azerbaijan and Armenia toward steps that could shore up the region’s stability. Russia needs to be involved in diplomacy to help Libyan factions resolve their new political standoff.  If including Moscow openly proves too hard on either of these files, Brussels and European capitals should at least maintain discreet or, if necessary, indirect lines to the Kremlin.

Nor should European leaders be too quick to write off relations with countries edging closer to Moscow. As our entry below details, former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s anti-Western rhetoric and ill-judged visit to Moscow on the day of Russia’s invasion strained Islamabad’s relations with Brussels. Yet the new government that has since come to power quickly signalled that it wants to turn the page on the quarrels of the Khan years, which Europe should welcome. In Mali, relations have deteriorated further still, partly due to the coup leaders’ refusal to hand over power to civilians and partly to their increasing reliance on the Wagner Group, a Russia-based private military contractor closely associated with the Kremlin. Both concerns predated Ukraine, but Western disquiet about Wagner has heightened since Russia’s invasion. Yet in Mali too – as our entry lays out – opportunities may yet appear for the EU to turn the page, in this case by supporting a transition, particularly if the regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, can nudge the authorities in the right direction.

Lastly, the EU should do whatever it can to help countries cope with the global commodities crisis that is another horrific side effect of the war. For many countries already buffeted by COVID-related shocks, potentially disastrous gaps in food, fertiliser and other goods loom.

Several factors lie beneath shortages and price hikes. The main ones are the war itself and Russia’s de facto blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, which hinder the export of Ukrainian grain and other exports (land routes are congested and much less efficient). Russia has stopped exporting its own grain and other cereals, as well as fertiliser – none of which are actually under sanction. Sanctions do play a role, though: the blacklisting of key financial intermediaries has upset trade in commodities and deterred insurance companies from covering Russian maritime shipping, inhibiting their operations. Perhaps as important are the jitters generated in global markets by the war and sanctions. The grain market was tight before the war; now India – partly due also to extreme weather – and more than a dozen other countries have imposed food export bans as a hedge against domestic shortfalls.

The commodities crisis is reverberating worldwide but its brunt will be borne by those who can least afford it.

The commodities crisis is reverberating worldwide but its brunt will be borne by those who can least afford it. Even countries that have ways to buffer shocks will find those hard to sustain the longer the crisis endures. Foreign debts ballooned during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving many states with little fiscal headroom and vulnerable to default. Global price hikes do not necessarily fuel unrest, but for many countries, especially those whose social contracts the pandemic has already torn at, further instability is all too plausible. The war is further testing a global humanitarian aid system that for the past few years has been creaking at the seams. Even before the war in Ukraine, funding shortfalls had forced cuts in life-saving aid to seventeen countries in Africa, plus places including Syria and Yemen. These countries are bracing for further cuts, which will mean yet more suffering for the world’s most vulnerable.

International action so far has focused on increasing emergency aid, mainly by providing the money necessary to procure food supplies at today’s higher prices. The U.S. contribution has been substantial, including an additional $4.3 billion for food and other humanitarian aid that President Joe Biden signed into law on 21 May. The EU has reallocated some existing development and humanitarian funding and mobilised additional aid to respond to these emergencies, while also supporting member states and multilateral initiatives. In May, the G7 presidency and the World Bank, with participation from the European Commission, launched the Global Alliance for Food Security, which will coordinate the efforts of various UN agencies and the African Union. Whether through this initiative or others, the EU and its member states should further increase their aid contributions.

The current attention to food aid is entirely appropriate given the severity of the crisis. The shock waves will grow in the months ahead, affecting not only food but economic systems more broadly. But supporting the demand for food should not be the EU’s (or the world’s) only concern. States and multilateral institutions also need to work on the supply side of the equation, to reestablish the smooth functioning of global supply chains for food, fuel, fertiliser and other commodities, if they hope to escape the reactive posture they find themselves in today.

The war in Ukraine poses Europe its biggest test in a generation and, however it ends, will reshape the continent’s security. Supporting Ukraine, while avoiding policies that run too high a risk of escalation with Russia; preparing for what comes next; all while avoiding a global standoff that would spoil crisis diplomacy elsewhere; and, crucially, mitigating the food shortages and price hikes that the war has triggered will be no small challenge for European leaders. This Watch List Update sets out some guideposts for these efforts.

Comfort Ero, Crisis Group President & CEO

May 2022

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