April 24, 2023
On April 7, a batch of classified documents detailing American national security secrets from Ukraine to the Middle East to China surfaced on social media sites. It caused a shock in Washington. The leaked documents contained some Ukrainian war plans and also an alarming assessment of Ukraine’s air defense. But they also revealed that the Russian military is struggling in its war in Ukraine.
In other words, the leaked documents were damaging to both sides of the war in Ukraine. Regardless, a senior Ukrainian official said that the leak appeared to be “a Russian ploy” to discredit a counteroffensive. American officials said these “modified” documents overstate American estimates of Ukrainian war dead and underestimate estimates of Russian troops killed. However, once Jack Teixeira, the young Massachusetts Air National Guard member, was arrested, the attempts to discredit the leaks were zeroed out.
These documents also made clear that the US is not spying just on Russia, but also on its allies. Since this is regular practice, nobody made a fuss. In 2015, for example, it had become clear that the US National Security Agency had tapped phone calls involving Chancellor Angela Merkel and her closest advisers for years and spied on the staff of her predecessors, according to WikiLeaks. Nothing happened.
After the leaks, President Joe Biden said that while he was concerned that sensitive government documents had become public knowledge, “there’s nothing contemporaneous that I’m aware of that is of great consequence.”
In a way, he is right because, in an era of stunning technological progress, there are few secrets left. Last week Euronews, in a commentary titled, “The anticipated Ukrainian counter-offensive: When, where and how?” gave all the details of Kyiv’s “spring offensive”. It said, “The Pentagon documents, if they are to be believed, indicated that the offensive was planned to start on 30 April.” The Economist says that almost no one knows precisely when or where the counter-offensive will come but gives extensive detail about Ukraine’s capabilities. It seems that the element of surprise is no longer a factor in operational planning.
Beyond intelligence leaks, distortions, and a relentless propaganda war, many observers now agree that the Russian military has failed to reach its initial targets and is facing fierce Ukrainian resistance. They also agree that Ukraine regaining all its lost territories including Crimea is a chimera. For them, the most likely scenario is a “stalemate”.
The leaks which seem to have confirmed this broad assessment lead to questions about the wisdom of continuing the fighting and causing further loss of life and devastation for both sides. But the big question is who is going to make a move at least for a ceasefire. Yes, “NATO has shown unprecedented solidarity in the face of Russian aggression against Ukraine”, but what could be the incentives to encourage Kyiv to start thinking of talks with Russia? Membership in NATO? NATO’s security guarantees as an integral part of a peace deal? A most generous Marshall Plan? Membership in the EU?
A brief look at the past might offer a few clues:
A year ago, in May 2022, “It will take decades for Ukraine to be accepted into the European Union” President Macron said. Months later, in December 2022, he spoke to journalists on his return from Jordan. “Ukraine’s entry into NATO would be seen by Russia as confrontational. You can’t imagine it with Russia as it is,” Mr. Macron said. “Whether or not Ukraine joins NATO – and this is not the most likely scenario – it will have to be given stronger security guarantees because it’s been attacked by Russia,” he added.
A little more than a year ago, in February 2022, Chancellor Scholz, to counter Russian criticism, maintained uncertainty when asked about Ukraine’s possible NATO membership, saying that this is “not on the table at the moment”, so it is “strange that Russia would raise the issue.” However, he also affirmed that NATO’s “open door” policy to potential candidates had not changed.
But on April 20, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Kyiv and struck a different note. In a press conference with President Zelensky, he said, “Ukraine’s rightful place is in the Euro-Atlantic family. Ukraine’s rightful place is in NATO. And over time, our support will help to make this possible.” [i] CNN reported that Mr. Stoltenberg said, “NATO membership for Ukraine will be high on the agenda at the Alliance’s summit in July”.
At the end of World War II Europe was devastated. Imperial colonies were being lost despite European resistance. The victors of the War were the US and the USSR, soon to be called “superpowers” representing capitalism and communism engaged in a new, hitherto unseen strategic competition. The Marshall Plan became Western Europe’s life buoy. Stalin’s purges and atrocities until his death in 1953 switched Western Europe’s threat perception from Germany to the USSR. With Khrushchev coming to power, the Cold War order gradually became more stable, and Western Europe started enjoying an era of prosperity that reached higher levels following the fall of the Soviet Union. All of that happened under NATO’s security umbrella, provided essentially by the US. During my years in Brussels in the mid-1970s, NATO members were expected to spend 3% of their GDP on defense. But failures to meet the target led to endless debates between allies. With a growing sense of continental security and stability, this dropped to 2% and but even that became hard to achieve.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upended the post-Cold War European security order making Europe once again largely dependent on the US. Nonetheless, European countries, perhaps except the former members of the Warsaw Pact which today constitute NATO’s “eastern front”, are less likely to dramatically increase their defense expenditures as they have seen the limits of Russia’s conventional military power, and more likely to seek an end to the war in Ukraine in the face of growing economic challenges. President Macron often refers to “strategic autonomy for Europe” because that is the tradition of French foreign and security policy. But his words would not turn into action in the foreseeable future.
In brief, despite undercurrents, the need to balance transatlantic interests, and the war in Ukraine, for now, all seems to be in order on the Western Front.
But there is an Indo-Pacific Front as well.
NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg visited the Republic of Korea and Japan from January 29 to February 1, 2023.
At the CHEY Institute during his visit to the Republic of Korea, Mr. Stoltenberg delivered remarks and took questions. He said, its increasing capabilities in many spheres have made “China something that features much higher on the NATO agenda and matters for our security in a way it did not do before.” [ii]
In Japan, a joint statement was issued following Mr. Stoltenberg’s talks with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. [iii] It said:
“We recognize that the security of the Euro-Atlantic and of the Indo- Pacific is closely connected and stress the necessity of further strengthening cooperation between Japan and NATO, in order to respond to the changing strategic environment. Japan welcomes NATO’s determination to strengthen dialogue and cooperation with partners in the Indo-Pacific.
“We strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion in the East China Sea. We express serious concern about reports of militarization, coercion and intimidation in the South China Sea. With regard to China’s rapid strengthening of its military capabilities and expansion of military activities, we strongly encourage China to improve transparency and to cooperate constructively with international efforts for arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. Our basic positions on Taiwan remain unchanged, and we emphasize the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element in security and prosperity in the international community. We encourage a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.”
Moreover, European navies should patrol the disputed Taiwan Strait, EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said last Saturday in an opinion piece in Journal Du Dimanche.
The question is how much NATO’s and EU’s “global south” agree with Mr. Stoltenberg and Mr. Borrell. Yes, NATO has agreed that it sees China as a strategic competitor, and it is strengthening relations with its partners in the Indo-Pacific region – Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and New Zealand. The question is how far? In these four allies, Washington probably sees more potential for cooperation, though in varying degrees, to contain China, perhaps for an Indo-Pacific alliance inspired by NATO. But if the long-term plan is to link this with NATO, this could be a huge challenge for Brussels since it would amount to the declaration of Cold War II. As Italian Prime Minister Meloni’s, Spanish Prime Minister Pérez-Castejón’s, Chancellor Scholz’s, and President Macron’s recent visits to China show, some NATO capitals, already with enough Russia-related troubles, would prefer a different approach toward China.
As Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said last week, “There is a world in which, as companies in the U.S. and China challenge each other, our economies can grow, standards of living can rise, and new innovations can bear fruit.”