From the first declassified, grainy spy photos of Russian tanks assembled on the Ukrainian border in November to President Joe Biden’s broadcast last week of his personal guess that Putin will “move in” and invade, the United States and their Western partners have for months fought a remarkable public war of words against the perceived threat from the Kremlin.
A daily bombardment of briefings, intelligence, threats and allegations from the White House, NATO, EU and European capitals marked a new approach to averting war. The disclosure of information normally reserved for covert negotiations is highly unusual in modern diplomacy.
But while the strategy changed the original calculus for Russia and negated Moscow’s ability to surprise, it came at the cost of airing the West’s divisions over how to handle Russia to a global audience. .
“Aggressors usually like to have a pretext to go to war, and the Americans have made it more difficult,” said Radoslaw Sikorski, who served as Polish foreign minister during Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia and the invasion. of Crimea in 2014.
“[But] it also made it harder for us because it revealed to everyone how disjointed the West is. . . exposing an impression of Western disarray, which dates back years,” added Sikorski, who is now a member of the European Parliament.
The United States first deployed public diplomacy to convince some hesitant European countries that Russian President Vladimir Putin was considering an attack on its southwestern neighbor.
Europe then adopted the same strategy, leaving Moscow in no doubt about the costs of military action: from painful sanctions on its economy to a better-armed Ukrainian army on the lookout, equipped with Western defensive weapons that arrived in fanfare and press releases.
“At the start of this crisis, the United States and the West in general were losing the information war,” said Michael McFaul, former American ambassador to Moscow. He said the decision to declassify intelligence, highlight Russian proxy actions inside Ukraine and maintain a public dialogue with European partners was aimed at “reclaiming the narrative and reuniting the West.” “.
“Of course, all of this may not stop Putin from invading again, but with weak cards in hand, Biden and his diplomatic team are playing them effectively,” he added.
Sometimes the constant publicity came across as clunky. The US insistence on an approaching Russian attack has baffled many in Kiev, with officials insisting they see no major reason for alarm. Spy discoveries that might otherwise have been quietly implemented have been hastily released for public consumption: Britain’s warning this weekend that a coup was planned in Kiev – without publish no evidence – caused widespread confusion.
And such a public approach has come at the cost of both exposing differences of opinion among Western allies that might otherwise have been masked by private dialogue, and shrinking the space for the behind-the-scenes negotiations that could offer a breakthrough.
“Remaining silent could be perceived as acceptance in Moscow, so it is necessary to continue to remind Russia that there is a united front and that there will be a clear response,” said Andrew Lohsen, a researcher at the Center for strategic and international studies. -Tank. “The problem is that the longer it lasts, the more chances there are of fumbles and errors.”
Last week brought significant fumbles.
First, French President Emmanuel Macron blindsided European and American allies by calling on Wednesday for a new European-led negotiating path with Moscow, forcing his administration to clarify that it would complement, not compete with, continued peace talks. peace led by the United States. .
Hours later, Biden admitted disagreements among Western countries over how to respond to Russia, telling a prime-time press conference that if Putin decided on a “minor incursion.” . . then we end up arguing about what to do and what not to do, et cetera.
Then on Saturday, the head of the German navy visiting India told a televised meeting that the West should accept Crimea as Russian and “respect Putin”. Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach resigned the following day.
“Everyone has a different theory . . . I think [Putin] try to wreak havoc and pull Europe back to see if there is a falling out between the Europeans,” a senior EU defense official said. “[The EU] is very united. But the longer it lasts, the greater the possibility of splits.
Some analysts have also questioned whether conducting high-stakes dialogue at press conferences and speeches has hampered efforts to find a negotiated solution. Publicized meetings earlier this month between Russia and the United States, NATO and OSCE members have turned into opportunities for both sides to reaffirm their tough – and incompatible – talking points.
“It will do no real good to find a solution or to progress if I go into all the details [of possible areas for compromise] in an interview with the Financial Times,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told the FT ahead of those meetings. “Serious diplomatic efforts require that we do not conduct them publicly.”
And shedding light on the crisis may also have another unintended consequence of forcing Putin to take action to avoid appearing to have backed down under US pressure.
“It’s fantastic for the Russians. They’re back in the spotlight, back in the spotlight,” a senior EU security official said. “But it all depends on how Putin can sell it. his home.”
The number of Russian troops deployed near the border continues to rise, although Russian government officials insist there is no plan for an attack. And after a meeting between the United States and Russia in Geneva on Friday achieved the minor breakthrough of agreeing to stay in touch, talks are also continuing.
“It’s a very tense, very fluid situation that changes every day, every hour, so we don’t have to pay attention to specific moments, to specific statements. The philosophy is consistent, the objectives are consistent,” he said. Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares told the FT.
“We need more coordination, it’s neither negative nor positive,” he added. “It’s a simple need to adapt a dialogue that dates back to 1945 to the realities of 2022.”
Additional reporting by Aime Williams in Washington, Dan Dombey in Madrid and Victor Mallet in Paris