Crisis in Belarus and Ukraine: “The escalation can only be attributed to Russia”

Warnings of a Russian invasion of Ukraine and a Belarusian dictator blackmailing the EU with migrants: The Kremlin is challenging the western states. Of the Political scientist Professor Carlo Masala from the Bundeswehr University in Munich explains what drives Moscow, why Putin has such an easy game and how the coming federal government should counter the aggression You spoke of hybrid warfare in connection with the Belarusian smuggling of migrants to the EU’s external borders. The migrants are cynically used in this picture as weapons or cartridges because Belarus cannot attack the EU militarily. But does this hybrid war really start from Minsk, or rather from the Kremlin?

Carlo Masala: I assume that what is happening on the border has Moscow’s backing. But Minsk is the actor. Belarus’ head of state Alexander Lukashenko announced after the EU sanctions were imposed that he would make Belarus a transit station for migrants on their way to Europe.

Why is Russian President Vladimir Putin giving this backing?

This is Russia’s attempt to further divide the EU. Putin also has some success with this, as we can see from the contradicting demands of the EU states. Some do not want to give in, others want to remain tough on Belarus, but at the same time want to accept the people. If there were even uglier images of the use of force, that could also divide society in Europe further. Letting Belarus have its way is part of Russia’s destabilization campaign.

Lukashenko is the actor. But by agreeing to the Belarusian action, Russia is again acting as an aggressor against the West?

Absolutely. In addition to the escalation in Belarus, Russia is doing other things that are in its own interest. That is, for example, the massing of troops on the border with Ukraine.

Relations with Russia have been deteriorating for years. Is the blame so clearly on Moscow?

The NATO countries made mistakes. That cannot be denied. The escalation can only be attributed to Russia. The Russian government is trying to destabilize other societies with military and non-military measures. Russia occupies foreign territories, Russia is an actor in the Syria conflict; So escalates in every nook and cranny. As a revisionist power, Russia wants to reverse the outcome of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

How does the Kremlin intend to achieve this goal?

The plan is to dig into every strategic vacuum, to cause problems there and to overtax the NATO states through the massiveness of these problems because they do not give a coherent answer to them. That is the idea that Russia is pursuing.

That seems to be working well for Belarus.

It works amazingly well. Moscow knows where the weak points of Western societies lie and plays with them. That’s exactly the point: We are terrified of ten thousand migrants in Western Europe.

If Russia stirs up many fires and turns them up and down at will in order to keep the NATO countries busy, the West shouldn’t concentrate on Russia right away, instead of laboriously settling the many conflicts – from Belarus, via Transnistria, Ukraine and the Caucasus – to rub up?

Our only option is to show Russia, by tough measures and countermeasures, that we will not allow ourselves to be blackmailed. So Russia could show itself ready to negotiate at some point. Instead, we cannot find a unified position, but are still trying to negotiate with Russia. But Russia is only interested in negotiations that proceed in its favor.

What options does the west have?

One could extend sanctions against politicians and the military as well as against the economy. The sanctions imposed on the occupation of Crimea are not so severe, otherwise the Russian economy would have more problems. For example, excluding Russia from the SWIFT system would really affect Russia because Russian companies would then no longer be able to participate in international payment transactions.

However, toughness and countermeasures require internal unity and perseverance. Russia, with its authoritarian government and long-suffering population, has an advantage, right?

That is absolutely right. Russia has the dominance of escalation. This is a military term, but it can also be used here. Added to this is the fear that Russia will not provide us with gas in response to sanctions. When there is a cold winter, prices rise and we have to reach our strategic gas reserves.

Germany’s security policy course was not an issue in the federal election campaign. Rumor has it that the upcoming traffic light government wants to disarm rather than arm. Is that a factor in the ongoing dispute?

It is such a factor that we show Russia our own conceptlessness and powerlessness. The lesson is: the Kremlin can lead Europe through the ring by the nose ring. The likelihood that the western states will enter into a direct military confrontation with the nuclear power Russia because of the situation in Belarus or Ukraine tends towards zero. The Kremlin is aware of all of this.

Ukraine cannot hope for military help from the West if Russia invades?

At least I am sure that the West would not send its own troops to Ukraine. A Russian invasion is a realistic option. The number of Russian troop movements and masses that we have been observing on the Ukrainian border in the past few days – and actually for months – is worrying.

From a Russian perspective or representation, the West is the aggressor. The Kremlin believes that it is encircled and that supposedly legitimate spheres of influence of Moscow in the post-Soviet space are threatened. Is this perception so unjustified?

NATO has expanded eastwards with Russia’s consent, but it has no bases on the Russian border. The Russian fear that Russia is encircled cannot be supported by anything. In the Russian perception it may be different and, as is well known, perception is the basis for action. But nowhere does NATO stand in front of Russia. Instead, the Kremlin cites every NATO maneuver as evidence, but Russia does the same maneuver.

But do these maneuvers have to be in front of Russia?

That’s part of the deterrent. We do not know how things would have turned out in 2014 if NATO had not prepared to declare an alliance case after the occupation of Crimea. Then the Baltic states might no longer be independent states.

Do we need a generally more robust security policy in Germany? Does Berlin have to rely more on deterrence than before?

In my opinion, yes. Germany is the largest European military force within NATO and the largest non-nuclear force within NATO. With that comes a responsibility. Not to accept this is a signal to the allies in Eastern Europe, but also to Moscow.

Is this deterrent necessarily defined by the fact that Germany spends two percent of its gross domestic product on the Bundeswehr, as Berlin once promised NATO?

Deterrent is defined by equipment and by readyness, that is, preparation and willingness to act. The two percent target is problematic because apart from a research share of 20 percent it is not specified what this sum should be spent on. The two percent target is not a feature of the readyness, it takes training, practice and equipment.

What role does nuclear participation play, which is also controversial between the parties in a traffic light government? For this, Germany would have to procure successors to the Tornado jet that can carry US nuclear weapons to their target.

Nuclear participation is a deterrent because it creates a link between strategic nuclear weapons stationed in the US and tactical nuclear weapons stored in Europe. The traffic light would do very well to seek a successor to Tornado, because an end to nuclear participation would turn NATO’s entire nuclear system upside down.

The interview with Carlo Masala was conducted by Sebastian Huld

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