Recently, our political family, the European People’s Party, held an assembly. I was invited to give a presentation on Russia and Ukraine, in which I gave my assessment.
What is happening today on the eastern borders of the European Union should neither come as a shock nor should it seem like a completely new challenge to our security.
Putin’s rise to power of Putin’s team, that being the former KGB, in 2000 had one clear objective: to halt the democratisation of Russia and restore the Russian Empire as far as they could.
Today, the intelligence services publicise possible scenarios for provoking large-scale military action against Ukraine. It is worth remembering that Putin himself was elected president after a massive provocation by the Federal Security Bureau (FSB), when homes were bombed. People were killed in Russia itself, and the Chechens, who were then striving for independence, were immediately blamed for the bombings. Never mind that boxes full of explosives with FSB markings were found in one of the houses. The Chechens were drowned in blood, the country was devastated, and the terrified Russians voted for their saviour Putin.
In the West, the FSB version of the bombings was easily swallowed by everyone; the Chechen struggle did not seem viable to anyone.
Putin’s election was an FSB operation. The same as the KGB had been doing for decades, both inside and outside the USSR.
The annexation of Crimea was a similar planned operation.
After taking power in Russia, by 2007, Putin had put the key foundations of the power vertical, firstly by destroying the more pro-Western opposition and the free media, and then by placing control of the main resources into his hands’ inner circle. At the same time, he was cautious and restrained towards the West and deliberately sought more friendly relations with some countries because of the need to halt the recession and start growing the economy. Energy resources were chosen as a key economic policy tool. The benefits are manifold: money for Putin’s inner circle and Europe’s dependence on the Russian energy needle. Another tool linked to the export of raw materials is the corruption of democracies. More precisely, the export of corruption.
Since 2007, the Kremlin embarked on the next phase, turning toward the lands of the former USSR empire and declaring the West to be Russia’s enemies. It did this openly at the Munich Security Conference, suddenly declaring the collapse of the USSR the greatest disaster of the 20th century.
The Kremlin has been active in stopping the westernisation of the former USSR republics, especially Ukraine. The so-called soft, or rather dirty, hybrid powers policy has intensified.
At the 2008 NATO summit, he went even further by calling Ukraine a fictional state and, incidentally, achieved his first major victory by denying Ukraine and Georgia a roadmap for NATO membership in Bucharest. However, it is true that thanks to the efforts of some countries, including Lithuania, NATO has included in its joint statement that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO. Incidentally, it is precisely this entry that Putin is demanding to be withdrawn in his ultimatum issued in December.
In the same year, 2008, the aggression against Georgia followed, with all the elements of a hybrid and disinformation war, and a massive militarisation of Russia’s western borders began. As a result, the entire Western Military District of the Russian Federation was modernised and reformed, including Kaliningrad and its nuclear weapons infrastructure.
In 2009, the Zapad exercise was developed in particular, with a scenario involving the use of nuclear weapons for de-escalation. In other words, the taking of certain territories around Russia threatens the capitals of the leading NATO countries with a nuclear attack.
I would just like to remind you that, at that time, NATO had completely turned its back on its primary and most important mission, which was defence. Countries were drastically cutting their defence budgets, and there were no allied bases or even any military severe exercises in the new members.
In both the US and Europe, the beautiful policy of Nuclear Zero was at the height of its popularity, while the Kremlin saw the development of tactical nuclear weapons and high-tech weaponry as its essential goal. The warnings of intelligence agencies working close to Russia about intensive militarisation were not taken seriously by politicians in many NATO countries at the time. On the contrary, there has been intensive military cooperation with Russia to help it modernise its capabilities.
In parallel, like a drug addict, Europe was intensifying its consumption of Russian energy resources, even though most of the money Russia received was for military purposes.
The Kremlin’s script against the West was quite simple – “To test NATO.” The geographically specific Baltic States were chosen for this, and the Arctic was probed and militarised.
The Kremlin was convinced that the political level of NATO was weak and would not be able to make the necessary decisions in response.
Ukraine saved us from the “To test NATO” scenario then. The Maidan of 2013, the flight of Yanukovych, the resistance on the Eastern Front diverted the Kremlin’s resources and political will.
Since then, the defence of the whole of Europe against Putin’s aggression has come precisely through the trenches of Ukrainian troops on its Eastern Front. As a result, NATO’s testing has shifted from the Baltic States to Poland, to Ukraine’s East.
Today, we are in a situation where the Kremlin has returned to the Western test plan, thinking that the timing is right. Germany has a new government, France is involved in a presidential election, the US is conflicted and weakened, there are public pandemics amid the tensions, an energy resource price crisis, inflation is rising.
Ukraine is, for the Kremlin, a key element in the future architecture of Russia and of the whole of Europe under the Kremlin.
But it is not the only target. The target is to create a multipolar world with Russia in it. With an aggressive Russia that everyone fears. This requires the US role in Europe to be displaced or minimised.
But there is another important side to the coin – Putin himself is afraid.
He is afraid of being too late. The Kremlin was scared to death of the Belarusians taking to the streets in 2020, scared to see that the Russians want change and that Ukraine can move quite successfully towards its European goal. Even tiny Moldova has managed to beat the Kremlin’s crony.
That is why the “Test NATO” scenario is now being attempted.
So, what are the EU and its politicians to do in this situation?
What should we, the European People’s Party, do?
First of all, to be aware of our responsibility at this important stage in history. There are no naive Chamberlains and no illusions that relations with Putin’s Kremlin can be productive in partnership, that concessions will help.
Just as the politicians who created the EU then took on courageous leadership to unite democratic Western Europe, so today we need leadership on democratic grounds to unite the continent of Europe, which was divided by Bolshevism after the Second World War.
Even if this flare-up ends without large-scale military action, the West must maintain solidarity and remain united.
There is a need to agree on the EU’s role and opportunities, both in Ukraine specifically and for countries seeking future EU membership in general. I am referring both to the countries of the Western Balkans and to the Eastern Partnership Trio – Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia.
Apart from the European People’s Party, nobody else has the potential and the passion for taking responsibility for the future of the entire European continent.
If Europe returns to business as usual with the current Kremlin, we will live permanently on a merry-go-round of hybrid and non-hybrid wars.
The EU is strong in its example of a European way of life, a strong economy. We have this power and we can use it much more strongly.
The term “engagement” is often used in political vocabulary. It is an effective policy tool, but it is only effective with countries that are striving for democracy. It is absolutely not suitable for dictatorships. We must not be afraid to be clear here – containment is needed.
As a doctor, I can diagnose – pills will not help the Kremlin dictatorship. What is needed is a cure from the ground up, including the dissociation of the EU itself from the cancerous cells, i.e. from the Kremlin’s gas.
Make no mistake, the greatest immediate challenge to the EU’s security today is in the East of the continent. So the EU’s strategic strength will depend on our ability to be a major player there.
I call for such work, for Ukrainians to come to their demonstrations of gratitude to the West with the flags of the US, of Britain, and of the EU.
We can do it.
R. Juknevičienė is the vice chairwoman of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, former president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and minister of national defence from 2008 to 2012