As Russia masses more than 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine and the threat of an invasion dominates world headlines, experts ponder what Vladimir Putin really has up his sleeve.
On Jan. 31, two Washington-based European diplomats—Ambassador Mikko Hautala of Finland and British Deputy Ambassador Michael Tatham—analyzed the rapidly shifting situation in a webinar moderated by Ravi Agrawal, editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy.
“Russia says it has no plans to attack, but the boots on the ground suggest otherwise,” Agarwal said. “Moscow prefers to negotiate with Washington, and to not only sideline Europe but expose differences between European countries. The question now is what Europe and NATO can do to deter a potential Russian attack.”
Such an attack would be the largest military operation on European soil since 1945. According to a US intelligence briefing reported on Feb. 5 by the New York Times, Putin could capture Kyiv and overthrow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky within 48 hours of a full-scale invasion. Up to 50,000 civilians could die in such an operation, prompting a refugee crisis of enormous proportions.
Hautala, who’s been posted here since September 2020, knows the wily Russian president better than perhaps any other diplomat on Embassy Row. Before coming to Washington, he spent four years in Moscow as ambassador to Russia, and four years before that as foreign policy advisor to the president.
“Obviously, if I knew what was going on inside his head, I’d not be sitting here but selling this information at a high price,” he said of Putin. “But it’s not only about Ukraine. He’s also trying to renegotiate the European security order, which is not really beneficial to Russia. Regardless of what happens in a couple of weeks or months, he will continue to pursue this long-term goal.”
Hautala based his assessment on his own observations gathered over decades as a top Kremlin expert. Early in his career, Hautala served as attaché at Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2001-02), and later as attaché at the Finnish Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine (1998-2001). Besides his native Finnish, Hautala is fluent in English, Swedish, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish.
“He wants to make us believe he would be ready to use force, while at the same time pursuing the best possible offer,” Hautala said. “The Kremlin wants to see how far they can get through negotiations.”
Unity and discord in the EU
Perhaps no country in Europe has been more forceful in supplying weapons to Ukraine and advocating sanctions against Russia than the UK. On Jan. 31, Britain urged Putin to “step back from the brink” over Ukraine, warning that any incursion would trigger sanctions against firms and wealthy Russians with huge assets abroad.
That’s at odds with Germany, the EU’s largest and most prosperous member, which refuses to arm the Ukrainians.
Tatham, who participated in the event after British Ambassador Karen Pierce had to cancel at the last minute, is a regional expert in his own right.
Previously director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia at the UK’s mission to the United Nations in New York, Tatham specialized in supporting post-communist transition processes and conflict resolution throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans. He was also British ambassador to Bosnia & Herzegovina, and deputy head of mission at the British Embassy in Prague.
“We feel that a muscular approach is necessary. We see this as a really serious situation for European security, but it’s not just about Europe, it’s about global security,” Tatham said. “The heart of the issue here is respecting the sovereignty of independent countries and rejection incursions, subversion, destabilization and illegal annexation,” said Tatham, adding that if Putin’s goal was to drive a wedge among NATO allies and EU member states, he is clearly not succeeding.
“There is widespread agreement that Russia’s demands are unacceptable, that Russia should de-escalate its current military buildup, and above all, that if Russia does move further against Ukraine, there should be very heavy consequences flowing from that,” he said.
‘Inflicting real pain on Russia’
Yet economically, said Finland’s Hautala, Russia is in a rather strong position at the moment, and is uniquely positioned to use that to its advantage.
“They have amassed a lot of money,” he said. “Oil is at roughly $90 per barrel, an extremely good price. Putin has modernized his military and also feels that during the last couple of years, he’s been fairly successful in tackling foreign policy challenges, be it in Belarus, Nagorno-Karabach or Kazakshtan. He is able to make demands and pursue more ambitious goals.”
To that end, sanctions may be the best way to hit Putin where it hurts, said Britain’s Tatham.
“We definitely think sanctions are an important of the potential responses, should Russia move against Ukraine. When we were an EU member, we were in the forefront of that debate about the appropriate level of sanctions after 2014,” when Russia annexed Crimea and launched a separatist war in eastern Ukraine, Tatham said. “Now that we’ve left the EU, we have created legislation that allows us to expand the range of sanctions we could apply. There is a definite readiness on our part to inflict real pain on Russia, should it do the wrong thing.”
How effective those sanctions can be is a matter of debate, considering the huge investments Russian oligarchs have made in the UK, and particularly in London. According to a Feb. 1 article in the Washington Post, “Russian millionaires and billionaires have bought up so much of wealthy areas like Belgravia in Central London that certain British neighborhoods have gained their own Soviet-inspired nicknames like Londongrad or Red Square.”
Even so, insisted Tatham, “we are very clear that there is a robust legal framework in place. We take very strong action against any illicit finance in the UK that we’re aware of, from any country. We are absolutely not turning a blind eye to illicit financing in the UK.”