Russia believes that its losses in 1989-91 were rounded out by the accession of most of its old allies into Western institutions. This shift in the old balance of power left it in an insecure and volatile environment. To stave off the deterioration of its position, it is piling military pressure on Ukraine as it considers it part of its own identity, something that is not true and especially not in the absolute way it claims.
On the other hand, the West considers Russian challenges on the Ukrainian border a challenge to its preparedness to defend partners and friends, both in Europe and elsewhere. The defeat in Afghanistan and the essential withdrawal of the United States in Syria possibly led President Vladimir Putin to believe that this is the time to test the reliability of the US and NATO. China is also closely monitoring developments, as the situation in Ukraine could also reveal US consistency on the issue of Taiwan.
The prestige and role of the United States in the Western world is at play during this escalation, while Russia wants to reclaim its equal footing. At the same time the situation in Ukraine has impeded the US and the West from concentrating their attention and forces in Southeast Asia, which has allowed China to feel, even if only temporarily, that it is under less American pressure and scrutiny.
Greece could have an important role to play, both internationally and within the European Union, if it assumes the role of mediation, arbitration and negotiation instead of passively adopting the choices imposed by other countries. As a country it can mediate and promote channels of communication between two escalating sides. Our foreign policy has a rich history of mediation.
Greece could also propose thoughts on solving the issues that have appeared and help alleviate the situation as much as possible. The negotiations over the naming of North Macedonia illustrated that there are solutions to even the most intransigent and difficult problems. These talks also proved the importance of confidence building measures (CBMs) in facilitating the negotiations themselves.
It could be useful if in the current crisis Greece would consider contributing similar CBMs to de-escalate the confrontation between the West and Russia. CBMs that rationally and soberly consider the concerns of Russia, separating them from its demands that include controlling the foreign policy and choices of independent countries like Ukraine despite the latter’s objections.
Let’s look at five such proposals.
Firstly, Russia demands that NATO commits to never allowing Ukrainian entry into the Alliance. This is not accepted by the other side as it believes that this will essentially allow Russia to control the future of an independent country, while imposing an unofficial veto on all future Alliance members. What could happen, especially as no one is thinking of inviting Ukraine into the Alliance soon, is an agreement that this would not be considered for the next 10 years.
Secondly, Russia is demanding that the West cease all supplies of arms to Ukraine, including defensive weapons. This is not acceptable to anyone except Germany. However, what can be agreed is that the West never installs nuclear weapons in Ukraine. This is a realistic option, as Ukraine had itself surrendered all its nuclear equipment to Russia in the 1990s. After all, installing nuclear weapons is an immediate concern to the West, and it does not bar Ukraine from independent decision-making as it is not unequivocally tied to its choices.
Thirdly, Russia demands that armed NATO forces stationed in several countries be immediately withdrawn. These same forces are considered by their host countries as a guarantee of their survival and independence. What could be achieved through a CBMs framework is a provision barring these armed forces from approaching within a set distance of the border in peacetime, as well as banning the organization of all military exercises on the border.
Fourth, a dynamic and bona fide return of the Normandy Format Talks, in which France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia can discuss the issues developing in East Ukraine. It is an institution in which Ukraine, whose fate is at stake, can participate and will mark the return of the EU member-states to the negotiating table who will no longer be out of the picture. Even if Russia’s desire to negotiate with the West through the United States is understandable, as it makes it feel like it is being treated as an “equal superpower,” the EU and its member-states cannot be left out of conversations on resolving a European issue. Finally, missile systems on both sides should be controlled.
Fifth, the return of the Open Skies agreement on the control of the aerial movement of weapons systems and military forces, but implemented in a more substantial manner.
Clearly, the armed forces are escalating the situation. However, diplomacy can find solutions and deter their use without any side losing face. An importance difference between military conflicts and diplomacy is that in the former there is always a loser (at least one side, if not both) while in diplomacy everyone can win. This is the spirit in which Greece can contribute solutions inspired by the CBMs framework.
Finally, I will note the absurdity of the US bureaucracy that, at a time when everyone understands the dire need to reduce European energy reliance, seeks to undermine the plans for a natural gas pipeline in the Eastern Mediterranean, the only solution that would eliminate the dilemma of relying on Russia or Turkey. In practice, the most pro-European solution is the “independent path” of the Eastern Mediterranean. Anyone who rejects it while also desiring to hinder the flow of natural gas from Russia is ultimately being a hypocrite; their goal is to reinforce Turkey and certain other players.
* Nikos Kotzias is a Greek politician who served as minister for foreign affairs from 2015 to 2018.