In February 2014, Russian troops in unmarked green uniforms marched in and occupied Crimea, much to the outrage of the international community. This week, Russia has mobilised an even larger force on the border: an estimated 125,000 troops which include tanks, artillery and air power.
The White House believes the full invasion of Ukraine is “imminent”. Russia’s threat of force is accompanied by demands that the West rolls back NATO’s eastward troop deployment and that Ukraine must never join the alliance. The West has so far refused to give in to these demands, and in response, the number of Russian troops has continued to grow.
However, there is a sense that despite the desperate situation in Ukraine, Western leaders seem to have their attention elsewhere. Boris Johnson’s government has been consumed for a month in “Partygate”, a media firestorm caused by reckless wine and cheese gatherings during the lockdown.
That’s not all though. There has been the recent row over the Owen Paterson breach of lobbying rules and a long-running question about who funded Johnson’s flat makeover. The scandals were coming so thick and fast that several of his longest-serving aides walked out last week after the PM wrongly blamed Kier Starmer for not prosecuting Jimmy Savile at Prime Minister’s Questions.
Johnson has been so focused on keeping his head above water that he had to ask Russian President Vladimir Putin to rearrange a planned phone call about Ukraine last week because he had to prepare for the publication of the Sue Gray report. Moscow rejected the request to reschedule.
Tobias Ellwood, the chairman of the Commons defence select committee, told the Telegraph this would “remind Putin just how distracted Britain has become.” The public has noticed the slap-dash job. A recent poll by IPSOS found that only one in five think Johnson is handling the situation between Russia and Ukraine well.
But it is not just the UK that is distracted.
Angela Merkel has recently stepped down after 16 years as chancellor and her replacement, Olaf Scholz has only been in office for seven weeks but is struggling to keep his three-party coalition together regarding the Ukraine crisis. The Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats all have differing opinions on how Germany should respond. The country is also split between East and West, with a poll finding the East were half as likely to support sanctions on Russia.
There is also the worry that since Germany sources 55 per cent of its imported gas from Russia it will be reluctant to impose the necessary sanctions that would be needed to effectively deter Russia from launching a full-blown invasion. This is especially noticeable in Germany’s reluctance to cancel the controversial Nord Stream two pipeline, which runs under the Baltic Sea and when fully operational will bring in around 15 per cent of the EU’s annual gas imports.
Germany is particularly vulnerable to even higher spikes in energy prices as they have shunned nuclear power stations and have come to rely on Russian gas more than any other member of the EU. And for sanctions to be passed by the EU, all 27 member states must agree on them.
However, French President Emmanuel Macron seems to be paying more attention. This week he visited Putin at the Kremlin and said: “I secured an assurance there would be no deterioration or escalation”. But only a few hours later, the Kremlin slapped down any suggestion that a guarantee of no Russian action was “not right”.
Macron is known within the EU as always keen to boost France’s standing on the world stage and with the current French elections only three months away, there is a sense that making a breakthrough with Putin would do his prospects well.
Macron’s status as a statesman would help separate him from the other candidates, especially if he managed to draw comparisons between himself and De Gaulle if he brokered a peace between superpowers.
It turns out that Macron is in danger of being outflanked by those on the right of French politics – Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour – who are critical of France being sidelined in the EU and want to leave NATO. Putin would prefer one of them to win the French election and is conscious about not giving Macron the limelight he is seeking.
Even if another French leader was in charge, however, Russia still views itself as a great power and views only the United States as its equal. The United States has always been the leader of NATO, but since the disorganised Fall of Kabul last summer, other Western nations are now questioning this fact.
President Joe Biden also has his domestic problems to deal with. The pandemic recovery and the economy continue to be the most important issue for Americans. The American media continues to be polarised, but is becoming more critical of Biden as time goes on – his approval ratings are now at their lowest ever point.
The question of what happens next in Ukraine can only be answered by one man. It will be down to Putin to decide if he is just bluffing or really plans on launching the biggest European invasion since WW2.
There is no doubt Moscow is unpredictable. Putin has a proven track record of using force to get what he wants. But it seems the West is once again distracted and divided. Each with its own domestic interests that have taken priority over Ukraine.
There is the unfortunate sense that things will have to turn violent before they really start paying attention.
Featured Image Credit: Metro