“Putin doesnt want a war with West, but the situation may escalate unintentionally”

Tensions on the eastern border of Europe are continuing to rise. Russia started placing men in Belarus last week, not far from EU countries. NATO is now sending more fighter aircraft and ships to Eastern Europe, the United States considering sending thousands of additional military personnel.

Diplomatic talks between Russia and the West have not led to a solution in recent days. Meanwhile, the threatening language is only increasing again and again.

But in the end, no one is waiting for an armed conflict between the two power blocks. Neither does President Vladimir Putin, says Andrey Kortunov, director of the Russian think tank Russian International Affairs Council. The US will not fight for Ukraine and Russia will not invade a NATO member state.

Rem Korteweg, Europe specialist at the Clingendael institute, agrees. The intention of the Americans is not to use the extra troops in combat, he says. That new move by President Joe Biden should, above all, give the Central and Eastern European allies within NATO a sense of confidence that America is also behind them.

Chain reaction risk

And yet, Kortunov warns, there is a risk of war between NATO and Russia. The risk is growing and we may face unintentional escalation due to human error or miscalculation. Everything can go wrong and that can trigger a chain reaction that no one actually wants.

Kortunov‘s think tank has close ties with the Russian government. He acknowledges that the Russian troop building and military exercises on the Ukrainian border can also trigger such a chain reaction. If Russia goes too far, it can have bad consequences. Not only for the relations between Moscow and Kiev, but also for the general security situation in Europe.

Ultimately, the European countries will not want to go so far as to send troops to Ukraine, Korteweg expects. On Monday evening, EU ministers spoke with the US Secretary of State and they only agreed that a hefty package of sanctions should be ready if Russia proceeds to aggression.

The EU countries are too divided to speak with one mouth, says Korteweg. You can see that in particular with the two major countries. France believes that Europe should determine its own position much better and not let America take the lead in the negotiations. Germany is actually the pigeon in the room and wants to give diplomacy a chance to the last. For example, Germany does not want to consider not putting NordStream 2, a new gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, into operation. That would cost Russia a lot of money.

Let the Kremlin guess’

At the same time, the ambiguity about what Europe does when Russia invades is not necessarily a disadvantage, according to Korteweg. You have to want to play a certain degree of uncertainty towards Russia, you have to let the Kremlin guess.

But if Russia actually invaded Ukraine, Europe must be able to decide quickly on actions. And to effectively deter you have to be united, you have to coordinate well. The problem is that Europe is anything but united.

Among other things, Russia demands that Ukraine never join NATO. Here‘s why:

Kortunov sees that too. Perhaps the best example of this is NordStream 2′s dual European attitude, and it is not clear whether that project is coming about or not. It should have been put into operation two years ago.

Now is the moment when Europe has to come up with one message, he also thinks. The most pressing task is to deescalate and avoid a major military conflict in the heart of Europe.