Western disunity over NATO is both an opportunity and a danger for Moscow
A number of Washington's normally steadfast European allies have begun distancing themselves from the US's increasingly confrontational approach to the standoff over Ukraine. However, despite the White House's appeals for unity, the cracks in its foreign policy partnerships are beginning to show.
A West that agrees on less is one where Russia's efforts to get concessions on security arrangements are more likely to succeed, but also one where America must crack the whip against it to keep its bloc in line.
A growing split?
After the Cold War, NATO changed its mission from collective defence to collective hegemony. NATO could monopolise on security during the unipolar era and ignore Russian security concerns. As a multipolar order has slowly returned, the West is under growing pressure to accept a compromise. Russia has made its economy somewhat sanctions-proof by reducing economic dependence on the West, and the military has been modernised to uphold red lines against further NATO expansionism.
Stuck in its old hegemonic mindset, American tools for resolving the current crisis are seemingly limited to using economic and military pressure rather than recognising legitimate Russian security concerns. However, European countries such as Germany, France, and Italy are becoming increasingly wary about being on the US frontline against Russia. Further sanctions on Russia will likely hurt the European economies more, and further military posturing can embolden Kiev to invade Donbass and thus spark a major war with Russia.
German dissent is obvious, as Berlin refused Estonia re-export licenses to send German-made howitzers to Ukraine. The country has also refused to include the threat of scrapping the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the US sanctions-package against Russia, which would give Washington and Kiev a powerful incentive to intensify the conflict with Russia. In France, President Emmanuel Macron suggested establishing an EU security pact with Russia, independent of the US, as "it is necessary that Europeans conduct their own dialogue."
The divisions within the West are, at first glance, a positive development for Russia. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had hoped to be able to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with credible threats of military and economic consequences by a united West. Instead, Blinken had to tone down the confrontational rhetoric and promise Lavrov a written response to the security guarantees that Russia demands. Washington has asked Moscow to keep the US response on security guarantees a secret, which is an indication that some form of compromise may be forthcoming.
Restoring bloc discipline
However, the divisions in the West will also have negative consequences for Russia, as unity must be restored with anti-Russian propaganda. A key purpose of propaganda is to elevate the perceived threat of the out-group (Russia) and to instill solidarity within the in-group (NATO). The main lesson from the years of the Russiagate hoax should be that attempts to challenge alliance solidarity by reaching out to Russia is met with a cascade of anti-Russian propaganda.
Bloc discipline is also upheld in Germany, as the head of the German navy, Kay-Achim Schönbach, was forced to resign over what were deemed to be unacceptable comments. The vice admiral pushed against the propaganda from Washington, as he suggested the accusation of Russia planning to invade Ukraine was nonsense, and argued that Putin deserved respect and that it was unrealistic to expect that Russia would return Crimea.
British Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace recently cautioned his European allies against accepting the Kremlin's "bogus allegations" against NATO. In an extraordinary article, Wallace suggests that NATO cannot be considered a threat, as it is "a truly defensive alliance," and it is NATO's values that threaten Putin. The top minister continued with astonishing disinformation, such as claiming Putin is an ethno-nationalist who threatens to awaken the "destructive forces of ancient hatred."
Over the past week, hyperbolic "intelligence reports" have emerged about Russian aggression. Allegedly, Russia plans to stage a "false flag" attack to stage provocations as a pretext to invade Ukraine. Shortly thereafter, Russia is accused of preparing a coup in Ukraine. And now, the US and the UK are evacuating family members of embassy staff in Ukraine. The Financial Times confirms that the US "deployed public diplomacy to convince some wavering European countries" that Putin planned to invade Ukraine. Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia, has argued that Washington was declassifying intelligence "to win back the narrative and reunify the west."
None of these stories to "win back the narrative" make any sense. Staging a provocation has little purpose, as Kiev frequently shells Donbass and refuses to implement the Minsk Agreement, which gives Russia justification to intervene. The intelligence report on Russia preparing to stage a coup collapsed immediately, as Russia's alleged presidential pick was Evgeny Muraev, who is under Russian sanctions. The former spokesperson described the British allegations of a plot as "ridiculous." It is noteworthy that it is the states seeking a confrontation approach to Russia and deploring the lack of solidarity towards this end that are evacuating their embassies.
Yet, despite not making any sense, these reports have the effect of shaming European dissent against the US as giving Russia a green light for invading Ukraine. Discussion about security agreements that recognise legitimate Russian security concerns are silenced and replaced with Washington's language of deterrence and threats. As always, when the propaganda stories against Russia fail to materialise, the US and UK will get to claim that Russia was successfully deterred. The conclusion will therefore be that pan-European security should not be based on security with Russia, but rather that it should continue to be based on security against Russia.