A statement by President of the United States Joe Biden which appeared to suggest that a 'minor incursion' by Russian military forces into Ukraine would not meet with as serious a response as a larger incursion has harmed western unity and is likely to have emboldened Russia, Estonian Foreign Policy Institute (Välispoliitika Instituut) director Kristi Raik says.
Speaking to ERR, Raik said that: "I think that the possibility [of a Russian attack on Ukraine] was high as it was. But this [statement by Biden] proves that there are divisions in the west and wrangling over how to discourage Russia and how to respond to a new attack."
"So, yesterday's presentation by Biden as part of the wider picture gives Russia additional encouragement," she went on.
"Whereas last week the west demonstrated surprising unity towards Russia, what has transpired in the last few days shows that the picture is not so good and united," she added.
"While speaking of Biden's statement yesterday, this was a clear error in strategic communication. However, it also reflected the real debate both in the U.S. and in Europe."
"There is now in the west an ongoing debate about what we can do or are prepared to do such that Russia is discouraged and an escalation of a conflict situation is avoided," Raik continued, adding that Russia, too, was keenly following this debate.
Three issues of contention in the West's reaction
Raik highlighted at least three things which are being debated in the west in the context of Ukraine and tensions there.
"The first of these is sanctions," she said.
"While wide-ranging sanctions have been prepared, the reaction especially of Europeans to the really serious imposition of sanctions in uncertain," Raik continued.
At the same time it remains unclear whether how serious a renewed attack by Russia would need to be in order to result in the strongest sanctions being imposed, Raik noted.
"This was also exemplified by Biden's speech yesterday, where this was not clear."
Another area of contention is the military aid which some states have provided Ukraine or promised to provide but, for instance, Germany has opposed.
"The message has also emerged that this aid will be forthcoming should Russia engage in a new attack. However, whether more aid would ensure remains an unanswered question. In reality, in the current situation, Ukraine would need this aid immediately," she continued.
"The third question relates to deterrence on NATO's eastern flank, which NATO last week promised to strengthen if Russia behaved more aggressively. But yet again, there is uncertainty here, about how much deterrence NATO is prepared to give and under what conditions."
"So in summary – whether the west will be able to put off Russia via these messages is very doubtful. Add to that what Biden said to the effect that he expects a Russian attack will happen in some shape or form," she continued.
"There is a strong possibility that [an attack] will happen in some unanticipated way and in such a way that the west continues to debate on whether the situation is sufficiently serious to, for instance, instigate harsh financial sanctions or sanctions on the energy sector," Raik added.
Russia would additionally place extra steps and a new test into the situation regarding the West's new decision making and capabilities for action.
"And the fear is that Russia would then be able to escalate things further and successfully and the west's response would not be strong enough," Raik added.
Macron added further ambiguity
Remarks made by French President Emmanuel Macron before the European Parliament on Wednesday, in which he called for separate EU talks with Russia aside from those involving the U.S., further muddied the waters with regard to the west's positions, Raik found.
"Macron's appearance added to the ambiguity of western positions and doubts about western unity. Macron called on Europe to discuss and prepare proposals on how to address the present security situation. This reiterates his old idea, which he actively promoted a few years ago, that Europe should negotiate a new European security order with Russia, which did not bring any success that time," Raik continued.
"Now, in the current, very tense security situation, he has returned to the idea, which has caused a great deal of confusion and doubt as to whether this now means that the unity between Europe and the U.S. is not as strong as it may have been last week."
"Instead, I would say that there are still very different views between European countries on how Russia should deal with the threat now. And it could be stated that from the viewpoint of the Baltic states, for example, the idea of Europe negotiating with Russia is simply not realistic at all, and such an idea is also in the current situation dangerous," Raik said.
"In this region, we know very well how dependent European security is on the U.S. contribution, and the U.S. is currently working hard to get a unified western response to Russia," Raik said, adding that Macron's behavior seemed to undermine that.
The Estonian Foreign Policy Institute is part of think-tank the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS).
Editor: Andrew Whyte