Jens Stoltenberg's fist was clenched when he approached the Russians, but only so he could give them a corona fist bump. Still, when the NATO secretary-general posed for a photo with Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko and Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin on Wednesday, their stiff postures and somber expressions made it clear that it was far from a relaxed occasion.
It was the first meeting of the NATO-Russia Council at NATO headquarters in Brussels in over two years. Ahead of the gathering, the alliance’s foreign ministers held a video conference. The United States undersecretary of state and her Russian counterpart met in Geneva on Monday. And on Wednesday, the EU foreign and defense ministers held a meeting in Brest, France.
All these meetings had the same primary aim: to deter Russia from a possible invasion of Ukraine.
But the outlook is growing gloomier. "There is a real risk of a new armed conflict in Europe," Stoltenberg said after the meeting.
Demands NATO Can't Meet
Moscow is accusing the West of seeking to establish military superiority. The Kremlin is demanding that NATO stop admitting former Soviet republics like Ukraine into the military alliance. Moscow also wants NATO to withdraw its forces from its member states in the east.
These are all demands that would be very difficult for NATO to meet. Stoltenberg has emphasized that every country has the right to choose its own path, and that this "core principle" is part of the foundation for European security.
And with that, it appears that preparations for war in Eastern Europe are continuing. For the past several weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been amassing troops near the border with Ukraine, some 100,000 soldiers equipped with tanks, drones and artillery. NATO believes that hostilities could begin soon, even if not all the troops are prepared for a full-scale invasion.
Risk of an armed conflict: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (right) with his Russian negotiating partners.Foto: Olivier Hoslet / REUTERS
In Brussels, it is no longer even considered impossible that Putin could seek armed conflict with the West beyond Ukraine.
As insiders told DER SPIEGEL, fears are now circulating within NATO that Russian forces could use their recently increased presence in the Mediterranean, the North Atlantic and the Arctic to strike on a broad front – even targeting NATO member states. The sources said that massive disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks are also to be expected.
Extras on Their Own Set
NATO sources say that while there are currently no concrete indications of preparations for such an attack, Moscow’s options for escalation are real – and NATO wouldn’t be able to counter Russia quickly, either militarily or digitally, if worse came to worst.
At the moment, it remains unclear whether Putin will actually invade Ukraine. For weeks, NATO has been puzzling over why, exactly, the Russian leader is deploying troops on the Ukrainian border – particularly since his primary demand has already been met. The prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, which was extended to the countries in 2008, is essentially off the table for the foreseeable future because of the ongoing border conflicts.
Putin has achieved an additional goal as well: U.S. President Joe Biden is negotiating directly with Russia’s leaders. Russia has returned to the world stage as a superpower. The Europeans, on the other hand, are merely extras on the set.
Putin’s provocations have already ruthlessly exposed the weaknesses of Western alliance. Just how far the U.S. and the Europeans would go to defend NATO countries like Estonia or Lithuania remains an open question – not to mention non-members like Ukraine. It is also unclear whether the Europeans could bring themselves to impose tough economic sanctions in the event of an invasion of Ukraine given that such sanctions would cause energy prices in Europe to rise further.
A "Tool of Malign Influence"
The outbreak of war in Ukraine would also likely spell the end of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, the direct natural gas link between Russia and Germany which is essentially finished, but not yet operational. Following the meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman said that from the American point of view, it would be "hard to see gas flowing through (the) pipeline, for it to become operational if Russia renews its aggression on Ukraine."
It is unlikely coincidental that Biden’s Democrats introduced a White House-backed bill in the Senate the same day, countering a Republican sponsored bill that the White House opposed. The Democrats' bill calls for the use of "all available and appropriate measures" to prevent the Russian-German pipeline from becoming operational. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently described the project as a purely "private-sector venture," adding that approval was "completely unpolitical." The pipeline has already been built, but it cannot become operational until it is given authorization by the government in Berlin.
Biden’s fellow Democrats obviously view things differently. The draft bill in the Senate describes Nord Stream 2 as a "tool of malign influence of the Russian Federation."