Vilnius Security Forum 2022 “DEFENCE OF EUROPE”
Growing tensions in the Eastern EU and in vicinity of the Ukraine border combined with the organized illegal migration to EU via Belarus directly threatens European security and stability.
To better understand the security environment and unite Western allies against possible rising threats “Vilnius Security Forum 2022” will organize discussions which will help to facilitate projection and preparations for the coming uncertain future for the Western allies.
Panel 1: Situation: Ukraine and Russia
Moderator: Mr. Liudas ZDANAVIČIUS, Policy analyst, Center of Defence Analysis, General Jonas Žemaitis Military Academy of Lithuania (LTU)
Panel: Mr. Marko MIHKELSON, Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, Parliament of Estonia, (EST)
Mrs. Maria SNEGOVAJA, George Washington University (USA)
Mr. Mikola BELIASKO, National Institute of Strategic Studies (UKR)
Marko Mihkelson states that despite various attempts by the Baltic states and Ukraine to build transparent and normal relations with Russia, the Kremlin continuously blocks the initiatives. From the historical perspective, it is important to keep in mind that since the creation of the Soviet Union, Russian tactics of hybrid aggression against democratic Europe in large part remained the same. Their actions stem from a deep antagonism against freedom and democracy as such.
Mr. Mikhelson believes that the Cold War never ended and Russia is persistently seeking to spread their influence through hybrid, malign and conventional operations as they have done throughout the years. To counter their actions – against Ukraine, Western democracies – Western politicians have to start speaking in the same language as Russians – the language of deterrence, both diplomatic and military. The Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense says that the West must build a comprehensive and real strategy to deter Russian aggression, and achieving such a thing requires unity among the allies. At the moment there are various opinions about what should be done to normalize the situation in Ukraine – some are certain that Crimea should be recognized as part of Russia in hopes of the Kremlin ending the aggression against its neighbours and deescalating the geopolitical tensions. Mikhelson underlines that it would be a major strategic mistake as it would only encourage Russia to act even more aggressively than now. Mr. Mikhelson concludes that the West, NATO allies in particular, must show the declarations the alliance made in the 2008 Bucharest Summit are “rock solid” – Ukraine and Georgia will become members not only of NATO, but the European Union as well.
Maria Snegovaja begins by observing that since 2014 Kremlin’s red lines have changed – while the illegal annexation of Crimea was justified by NATO’s expansion to traditional Russian strategic interest spheres, the causes of the renewed tensions near the Russian-Ukrainian border are different. Russian officials are replacing the NATO issue with other red lines such as deepening collaboration between Ukraine and the West, including military cooperation and assistance. The analyst highlights two main reasons as to why Putin keeps shifting those red lines – first, he has yet to face a strong response from the West and that motivates him to push even further, second, the international context for Russia at the moment is the most favorable given the long-term Russian demographic and economic decline. As an additional trigger for Russia’s aggressive posture towards Ukraine, as Mrs. Snegovaja names, is putting Viktor Medvedchuk, a Kremlin-leaning lawmaker, on a sanction list by the Ukrainian government. This move triggered Russia to place more troops on the Ukrainian border in April 2021.
From the Western point of view, both EU and NATO are certainly not doing everything in their power to stop Putin and his aggressive actions, the expert says. She points out that overall, speaking from the United States’ perspective, Biden and his administration’s response is generally weak – for example, the NordStream2 sanctions have been lifted, the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny never faced any serious sanctions either. Mrs. Snegovaja concludes by noting that Western countries cannot show any signs of weakness when negotiating with Russia. If they do, it gives the Kremlin a precedence in the future.
Mikola Beliasko analyses exclusively the military dimension of the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian confrontation. He starts off by assessing the situation in the Russian armed forces and acknowledges the fact that in the last 12 years, the Russian state has done a lot of work to modernize and strengthen their military. In terms of weaponry, technology, command structure, military doctrine, intelligence, electronic warfare and other fields, significant changes have occurred and it is important to not underestimate the capabilities the Russian armed forces have today.
Assessing the Ukrainian armed forces‘ capabilities, Mr. Beliasko states that Ukraine went from a barely existent military, when defense spending was barely 1 percent of GDP, to a much stronger and capable military total of 215 thousand troops, with defense spending reaching almost 3 percent of GDP. During the years after the Crimea occupation in 2014, the Ukrainian armed forces significantly modernized their military in terms of weaponry and weapon systems, technologies, personnel and other fields. Nevertheless, the analyst admits that the military faces problems such as shortage of personnel, lack of funds or different views about military doctrines, which hinders the modernization process.
The expert considers a few possible scenarios of a renewed Ukraine-Russia conflict, the most realistic ones being a) operations in Donbas by Russian forces, b) blocking Ukraine’s access to the Black sea, c) a combination of both. There is a high probability of conflict because Putin is deadlocked in time: Ukraine is shifting away from Russia, its capabilities to defend itself are higher, moreover, it has strong support from the West. Despite that, the Kremlin is facing the challenge of its threat credibility and it has to prove itself. But at this moment, Mr. Beliasko concludes, looking at the statements from Russian diplomats, it seems they do not have a clear mandate from Putin himself, so their talks are not open and direct. The final decision is to be made by Putin and he has not decided on his action yet. It is exactly the reason why Ukraine is asking for as much Western assistance as possible – in this situation, deterrence is key.
Panel 2: Most probable/dangerous course of action
Moderator: Mr. Andras RACZ, senior fellow, German Council of Foreign Relations (DGAP) (DE)
Panel: Mrs. Solomiia BOBROVSKA, Member of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine (UKR)
Lieutenant General (Ret.) Ben HODGES, Expert, Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), Former Commander of United States Army Europe (USA)
Mr. Konstantin EGGERT, Journalist, Kolumnist, Deutsche Welle (RUS)
Professor Julian LINDLEY-FRENCH, Chairman, The Alphen Group (UK)
Solomiia Bobrovska underlines that at the given moment the Ukrainian government is working in “ordinary regime” with an understanding that the tension of war has been around for 8 years, but no significant developments are happening as of yet.
The news about a potential escalation between Ukraine and Russia began in Spring 2021 and most of these news came from Western media, member of the Verkhovna Rada says. However, the media was selective in which news to publish as they failed to report that in May 2021 15 percent of Russian troops left the Ukrainian borders. She underlines that the concentration of troops on the northern and southern borders of Ukraine have mostly remained the same.
Nevertheless, the politician says that it does not mean that Ukraine and the region as a whole is not facing a threat. Russia is sending their troops from the Far East to Belarus for military exercises on 10-12th of February, which is an additional signal about a potential escalation. Despite that, the Ukrainian military is working under usual conditions and no additional movements are added to their work. Mrs. Bobrovska concludes that the media, especially Western, ought to stop creating panic and in this way play into the hands of Russia.
Even though there were no breakthroughs during the diplomatic talks between the West and Russia, LTG (ret.) Ben Hodges expresses optimism about the unity that Western countries have shown during the times of increased tensions between the two sides. He is confident that, however, the Kremlin never actually wanted to try and achieve a negotiated settlement of the situation – they are interested in advantage, not equilibrium.
Mr. Hodges estimates that a large, full-scale operation against Ukraine is not likely as Russia could not sustain such an operation, moreover, they would not be able to justify the casualties to the domestic public. Most likely, Russia could launch a series of small objective operations initially along the coast of Azov and Black seas, emanating from Crimea. The general also pointed out that Russia could launch amphibious operations from Azov sea using the Caspian sea flotilla. It is probable that the operations could be launched based on success and reactions of the West. Admittedly, some European capitals would be reluctant to invoke hard sanctions as they would affect them economically.
When speaking of Ukrainian armed forces, the expert expresses optimism about its strong position, however, it is concerning that they have been in a “fairly static environment most of the last 7 years” which affects the military’s mobility and response time, besides, they are still vulnerable to air attacks from Russia.
Mr. Hodges says that NATO’s approach of “deterrence based on revenge” could be difficult to enforce, instead more effort should be put into taking the initiative in the Black sea region, increasing deterrence there.
Konstantin Eggert thinks that the current U.S. administration made a mistake last year in spring when, in response to the first concentration of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border, President Biden invited Putin to the Geneva summit. The invitation ended Kremlin’s international isolation – in a sense, Russia has been re-invited to join the international society.
The journalist pointed out that in comparison to Biden, Donald Trump was a “more difficult partner” for Russia and a much more reliable ally for Ukraine.
What are Russia’s motives for a renewed Ukrainian invasion? Mr. Eggert sees three main reasons: 1) Putin sees Ukraine not only as his presidency, but historical legacy; 2) the main goal of Putin and his entourage is the survival of the regime, which is usually achieved at a cost of using external enemies as decoy to suppress domestic opposition and mobilize domestic opinion; 3) Putin is using the disunity and lack of clear agreements between NATO/EU countries – the result of this disunity, according to Mr. Eggert, is the troop concentration by the Ukrainian border we see today.
The columnist believes a full-scale invasion of Ukraine is not probable as it would require lots of resources and it would eventually work against Putin’s domestic prestige. Instead, he believes, the Kremlin is going to continue pressuring the West for concessions. Putin understands that NATO is not going to take back the invitation from Georgia and Ukraine or withdraw its forces from the Baltic states and Poland. It is likely that Putin is going to pressure some European allies to acquiesce and pressure Ukraine to accept new diplomatic talks, likely in the Minsk III agreement format. Mr. Eggert concludes that without tangible results it is unimaginable that Moscow will decrease tensions and withdraw its troops.
Professor Julian Lindley-French is certain that the orientation of Ukraine – whether it’s NATO/EU, neutrality or towards Russia – has implications for the security architecture of Europe. However, if Ukraine was forced into Putin’s sphere, it would humiliate NATO as a “paper tiger” and worsen U.S. military overstretch, given the rise of China in the Indo-Pacific. He says that the threat of Russia is not only a threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty, it’s about the security of Europe and the wider posture of Western powers.
Professor suggests 3 probable courses of action:
Panel 3: Western response (I)
Moderator: COL (ret) Gintaras BAGDONAS, member of the Colonels Association, (LTU)
Panel: Mrs. Beata PATAŠOVA, Public Diplomacy Division, NATO
Mrs. Molly McKEW, lead author of greatpower.us, writer/lecturer on Russian influence and information warfare (USA)
Brigade General (Ret.) D. Rainer MEYER ZUM FELDE, Senior fellow, Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Gmbh (DE)
Beata Patašova notes that NATO remains committed to the same line with Russia, which is a political way forward. While the defensive posture remains strong, NATO keeps an open window for discussions in the NATO-Russia Council format. Mrs. Patašova underlines three main things:
Molly McKew highlights that the situation on the Ukrainian-Russian border is only one part of a broader picture – according to her, Russia has a global strategy and the West must think of its own strategy of countering Russia. Firstly, Western countries have to start discussing about what the new European security architecture is going to be before the Kremlin sets its own terms. That includes topics like total mobilization of society, readiness of armies and talks about asking more of different NATO members. Mrs. McKew believes that the United States must lead this process.
However, the analyst also notes that NATO must acknowledge its weaker points and needs to change the strategy towards Russia. In the example of Lithuania, the expert admits that EU and NATO were slow to provide support to what was clearly aggression from the Kremlin. For this reason, the alliance must have a better set of tools – strategic, economic, military – to come to aid for the allies and have creative and thorough responses.
According to Mrs. McKew, the diplomatic talks between U.S. and Russia were unproductive because the White House went with no outcome in mind, which was a strategic failure. More consultations with the allies, especially the Baltic states, could have helped to “push the talks to the right direction”. She concludes that even though there is an understanding that NATO, and the West in general, has to come up with a new strategy of how to counter Russia, it simply lacks the will to “sit down and do it”.
Retired Brigadier General Rainer Meyer zum Felde says that at the moment Europe is facing multifaceted threats, most of them coming from aggressive Russia. To counter these threats, the West collectively, especially in the NATO framework, must demonstrate to the Kremlin that any aggressive action is counterproductive to Russian interests. What Putin so far has produced, both in 2014 and now, is that each time he witnessed a revitalization of the alliance – contrary of what he might have wanted to intend. NATO has to demonstrate that it stands for its principles.
The general believes that the best thing the West can do, both in the Ukraine case and the challenge for NATO, is to “stay calm”. Talking from the German perspective, as a native himself, the expert says that all diplomatic and political efforts (bilateral, multilateral superpower level frameworks) must be applied, including the Normandy format. In addition, more strict measures should be taken regarding the NordStream2 project, especially from the German government.
From a broader perspective, Mr. Meyer zum Felde has certain suggestions for some of the NATO countries to contribute to the overall security of Europe:
Panel 4: Western response (II)
Moderator: Dr. Timo HELLENBERG, Chief executive of Hellenberg International Ltd (FIN)
Panel: Mr. Rasmus HINDREN, Head of International Relations of the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, (FIN)
Mr. Tomas JERMALAVIČIUS, Head of Studies/Research Fellow, International Centre for Defence and Security (EST)
COL (ret) Adrian SIADOWSKI, Professor of WSB University (POL)
Rasmus Hindren begins by questioning the Western deterrence strategy against Russia – is the West trying to prevent escalation against NATO/EU or further escalation against Ukraine? Ideally, the West should aim for both, but in each scenario instruments, interests and approaches differ.
Mr. Hindren presents a few possible intergovernmental (EU-wise) responses to the challenge of aggressive Russia:
As for the European Union, Mr. Hindren says that the Union is currently punching below its weight in security policy and the current crisis as well. EU is a comprehensive actor, therefore the overall response in the contemporary situation should be thorough and include the fields of maritime, cyber, trade, economic and transportation policy. EU has a broad toolbox, Mr. Hindren argues, but some of them are disconnected from strategic EU objectives and there is lack of coherence between the instruments.
The Head of European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats applauds NATO for its strong unity and notes that the differences that are seen between some of the allies are not disagreements but rather show flexibility of the alliance. The expert observes that when certain decisions are implemented by individual allies rather than the alliance as a whole, it does not mean that the mechanisms have failed, it’s simply an example of flexibility of the system. The expert also notes that NATO must keep balance between its nature as a defensive alliance and its principled approach of upholding the existent security architecture. He says that while supporting Ukraine is important, NATO should be aware of provoking unnecessary aggression against its members. Mr. Hindren concludes by stating that while NATO has tools to deter Russia, they are mostly military and not as broad as the toolbox that EU has, therefore EU-NATO cooperation must be strengthened.
Tomas Jermalavičius underlines the importance of a whole-of-government approach, especially in the contemporary context, however, in the Baltic states, the implementation of this model is still problematic. The expert takes the example of Lithuania and argues that even though the government had been developing concepts, legal frameworks and held various interagency exercises, in the event of the migrant crisis there was too much chaos and confusion in the government. There was lack of strategy, no proper preparedness, coordination and strategic communication. Moreover, there is a problem of institutional rivalries, various government actors are not all on the same page which further complicates the process of a proper governmental response. Mr. Jermalavičius suggests that in this case societal organizations, such as NGOs, could be used to build consensus in the government and play more of an informal role in preparing a national response.
Whole-of-society approach is another piece of the puzzle, the analyst argues, but the implementation is even more problematic because societies are becoming more and more polarized, lacking trust and cohesion, as well as critical thinking which is essential to national security. This approach takes great leadership, consistency and years of building societal resilience and the government must work on the societal dimension of national security.
Mr. Jermalavičius also identifies the whole-of-alliance approach which focuses on steps allies must take as a collective. One of the most important steps is NATO-EU cooperation as it would demonstrate a collective West. However, EU in large part has marginalized itself by underinvesting in defense, ignoring the geopolitical dimension for too long and not understanding the threat posed by Russia. Most capable partner to get both these alliances to work together more closely is the United States, therefore Mr. Jermalavičius concludes that the U.S. must take leadership to strengthen the security of Europe.
Adrian Siadowski overviews the regional situation regarding the border crisis, focusing on the Polish case. He says that this crisis was artificially created as an aggression testing mechanism against the West. After the illegitimate election in 2020 after which Lukashenko stayed in power, neighboring countries showed support for the Belarussian opposition. In response to Polish support to the opposition, the Belarussian regime started persecuting and imprisoning Polish minorities in the country. After the forceful Ryanair flight landing and arrest of political activist Raman Pratasevich, the EU imposed sanctions on Belarus. In reaction to the sanctions, Belarussian regime began their hybrid attack in the form of the migrant crisis against the Baltic states and Poland. Statistics shows that in 2021 alone almost 40 thousand illegal migrants tried to cross the Polish border outside the official crossing points, whereas in 2020 there were only 129 attempts. Professor notes that the most effective tools to counter the crisis are a physical border and a firm migration policy, as well as avoiding provocations from Belarussian border officers.
Mr. Siadowski believes this tactic is a product of the Kremlin and Lukashenko is merely being a puppet in the whole process. In a way, using the crisis that Russia and Belarus had created, Putin achieved his goal – French president Macron started speaking to Lukashenko, German chancellor spoke to Putin – it means that he is back in the international arena again as the safety of the region is being discussed with him directly.
Retired Colonel argues that the concentration of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border is of demonstrative and provocative character, putting pressure on both Ukraine and the West.
The goal of Russia is to grant asymmetrical safety guarantees for themselves, and concentrating large numbers of troops near the borders is “a useful tool in the negotiations”.
Concluding remarks: Mr. Ariel COHEN PhD., Senior Fellow, The Atlantic Council, Founding Principal, International Market Analysis (USA)
Dr. Ariel Cohen presents his remarks for conference conclusion and begins by pointing out that the relative balance of power in Europe has significantly changed in the last 20 years, underlining the fact that from a historical perspective, there is nothing new – Russia would come from a weak position, falling behind in technology, to a political reform that consolidated the state and modernized the military. The historical examples of Ivan III, Ivan the Terrible, Alexei, Peter the Great or Stalin illustrate that the cycle of expansion, recentralization and collapse has always been part of Russia‘s history. Right now, we are seeing Russia in the expansion cycle once again.
The expert admits that the Western response to pressure from Russia has been relatively weak. Europe is still dependent on Russian gas, the NordStream2 project is still running, and the EU is going against unplugging Russia from SWIFT even if they are going to invade Ukraine. The sanctions that the West have imposed on Russia are not powerful enough because they do not change Russia’s foreign policy and security behaviour. The question is whether the Western community actually has the political will to do it.
Dr. Cohen notes that Ukrainians have a tremendous defense and military potential. They have significantly improved their strategic coordination and command level and built up their military-industrial complex in the last 8 years, however, the reserves need more organizing. They are not properly trained, equipped, there is no proper military strategy or doctrines which could be followed during reserve training. Moreover, according to the expert, their armed forces do not have a centralized general staff, strategic communication between the units on the highest level should also be improved.
Mr. Cohen, similarly to other panelists, concludes that some of the European allies, such as Germany, France or Italy must change their attitude towards Russia and realize it is as much a threat to them as it is to the Baltic states or Poland. He reiterates the point that coherence between European countries must be reached if the West wants to have a strategic advance against Russia.