Europe must admit Russia is waging war

The persistent lack of response from the EU, NATO, or individual countries only convinces Russia it is free to carry out attacks across Europe with impunity.

Expert comment Published 23 April 2021 Updated 25 August 2021 3 minute READ

Toomas Hendrik Ilves

President of Estonia (2006-16)

The bad news from Russia continues to come thick and fast with the ongoing slow-motion murder of Alexey Navalny in prison and the continuing presence of Russian troop concentrations on the Ukrainian border, both of which present significant policy challenges to supporters of human rights and of Ukraine’s independence.

But the disclosure of a direct attack by Russia on a NATO and EU member state – a massive explosion in an ammunition depot in the Czech Republic back in 2014 – is an action to which a failure to respond assertively would be both inexcusable and highly dangerous.

The Czech authorities say the explosion was the work of the same two Russian military intelligence officers – Aleksandr Mishkin and Anatoliy Chepiga – who carried out the 2018 Salisbury poison attack. It is hard to overstate the significance of this action if Russia has indeed sent serving military officers to carry out a deadly sabotage attack against munitions stores in the heart of Europe, killing two Czech citizens in the process.

As Tom Tugendhat – chair of the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs committee and a British Army reservist with operational experience – says, ‘if that is not a war-like act, frankly I don’t know what one is’.

Ritual incantations in the face of outrage

And yet the strongest term that European Union (EU) High Representative Josep Borrell could bring himself to use was ‘disruptive actions’ by Russia. Even after discussing the attack at a meeting of EU foreign ministers, Borrell mentioned no action but only pronounced the ritual incantations of ‘unity’, ‘solidarity’, and ‘concern’ – expressions which have become so routine in the face of outrage that senior European leaders are plainly in grave need of a thesaurus.

Continued failure by Europe to respond adequately to the long-term deterioration of its security serves only to convince Russia it can carry out these attacks with no fear of retribution

Europeans have become accustomed to the EU acting as though the war in eastern Ukraine is merely a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom they know nothing. A declaration by France and Germany calling on Ukraine to ‘show restraint and to work towards the immediate de-escalation’ as Russia massed troops on the border provoked disgust, but little surprise.

But to disregard what has been declared an act of state terror resulting in deaths of innocent civilians on the territory of a NATO and EU member state represents an entirely different magnitude of irresponsibility. There are also strong indications Russia may have caused a series of unexplained explosions in Bulgaria during the same period. Continued failure by Europe to respond adequately to the long-term deterioration of its security serves only to convince Russia it can carry out these attacks with no fear of retribution.

In response to expulsions from its embassy in Prague, Russia expelled a larger number of Czech diplomats from Moscow, eviscerating the Czech embassy. The Czech Republic has now called for ‘solidarity expulsions’ which the UK especially should heed after the wide-ranging support it received following the Salisbury poisonings.

It is also crucial the Czech Republic’s other allies in NATO and the EU should join the Baltic states in immediately supporting its newly-appointed foreign minister Jakub Kulhánek in showing Prague will not be cowed by Russian escalation. The latest round of US sanctions came with a clear and explicit invitation to Russia to cease the cycle of escalation and start a conversation. But that was emphatically rejected by Russia, leaving the way open for the US to bring in broader and deeper measures so far held in reserve.

Allies must stand together

Sanctions and diplomatic expulsions only form part of a coordinated response to Russia. There should be a joint and public recognition that Europe is under attack, and that allies must stand together to confront it. However, some western capitals continue to inadvertently encourage rather than discourage Russian aggression.

Germany continuing with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project confirms to Russia it can avoid serious consequences for its conduct. The United States failed to explain clearly its plans –  or lack of them – for moving warships to the Black Sea during Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine, allowing Russia to believe it backed down in the face of Russian warnings.

It is hard to overstate the significance of this action if Russia has indeed sent serving military officers to carry out a deadly sabotage attack against munitions stores in the heart of Europe

The widespread relief at the Russian announcement – whether true or not – that it will now withdraw forces menacing Ukraine indicates the effectiveness of Russian threats. The suggestion that ‘not invading any deeper into Ukraine’ is somehow a positive outcome deserving of thanks betrays a highly dangerous mindset of submission to Europe’s serial abuser.

When Moscow threatens or demands the unacceptable, it is too often counted as a success if the worst imaginable case is then averted. This encourages Russia’s steady encroachment on the security both of its neighbours and its perceived adversaries further afield. The fact Russia could often have gone further is no excuse for the excesses it does commit, nor should it be an excuse for Western powers to disregard them.

Direct evidence of Russian culpability must not be played down. Intelligence agencies tracking terrorist networks observe who terrorists communicate with in order to establish their chain of command. Mishkin and Chepiga’s commander for both the Czech and British operations has been identified as GRU Col-Gen Andrey Averyanov.

Averyanov’s phone records indicate he was in contact with the office of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeatedly both before and in the aftermath of the Skripal poisoning. Direct communications between the Russian government and the organizers of a terrorist act should leave no room for doubt as to whether Russia is a party to state terror.

An undeclared war

President Vladimir Putin’s annual state of the nation address contained telling indicators of his attitude to the West. He remains constrained by his Soviet past and his assumption that international relations are, by default, hostile. His comment that ‘if somebody interprets our good intentions as weakness, our reaction will be asymmetrical, rapid and harsh’ is the purest projection of Putin’s own attitude. It is Russia, not the West, that interprets good intentions as weakness.

Putin’s minions too have shown no sign of concern at a warlike act against a NATO country. Margarita Simonyan, head of Russia’s RT state propaganda outlet, praised the GRU perpetrators of the Czech blast, saying ‘if that’s what happened I am proud to know these brave lads, these knights of world peace and law and order’.

Russia is proceeding confident in two notions – that it is already in a state of conflict, and can continue its current course without suffering serious consequence. And it has been proved entirely correct. It is now up to the EU and individual states acting in concert to challenge both these ideas. Senior-level expressions of ‘concern’ in this respect are worthless and serve only to indicate that those who are genuinely concerned are not directing Europe’s responses, and those directing the responses have decided not to be genuinely concerned.

Concern costs nothing and is limitless, whereas meaningful action costs economic and political capital, which is not. But these costs are minor compared to the costs of inaction, with the inevitable result of continuing the present course whereby Russia is not only undeterred but emboldened to wage its undeclared war on the West. The bill for that could be not just economic and political, but for some, existential.

This is a version of an article published in The Telegraph.

This topic will be further covered by Mathieu Boulegue in the Russia and Eurasia Programme’s forthcoming report, Myths and Misconceptions in the Debate on Russia: How they affect policy and what can be done.