With the EU threatening Russia with “massive consequences” and a “severe cost” of coordinated sanctions if it shows “further aggression” towards Ukraine, it is unlikely that Vladimir Putin will lose much sleep! The Russian president knows that Europe’s leaders and their international partners, including the US and UK, have not even agreed on what might constitute “further aggression.”

Western leaders are deeply concerned about the massive military build-up by Russia along the Ukrainian border. The increasingly warlike rhetoric from Vladimir Putin has alarmed the West, who fear the possibility of a full-scale invasion involving 175,000 Russian troops, early in the New Year. Putin has made no secret of his views on Ukraine. In an article he published in July he stated: “I am confident that the true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.” Putin is alarmed that the Ukraine is on the waiting list of countries hoping to join NATO. He sees that as a direct threat to Russia and has demanded assurances from the West that it will not happen.

According to a report published in December last year and commissioned by NATO, Russia will remain the main threat facing the US-led military alliance for at least the rest of this decade. The report highlighted the risks posed by Russia’s “broader hybrid toolkit including offensive cyber, state-sanctioned assassinations and poisonings — using chemical weapons, political coercion and other methods.” In November, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “Our concern is that Russia may make the serious mistake of attempting to rehash what it undertook back in 2014, when it amassed forces along the border, crossed into sovereign Ukrainian territory, and did so claiming falsely that it was provoked.” 

The Biden administration has provided $400 million of military equipment to Ukraine this year, despite warnings from Putin that deploying weapons and soldiers to Ukraine “will cross a red line” for Russia, triggering a robust response, including the deployment of missiles targeting Europe. There is no doubt that any Russian invasion would be met by massive Ukrainian resistance. There are 250,000 military personnel under arms and 400,000 veterans ready to defend their homeland. There would be a deadly and bloody war on Europe’s doorstep and the prospect of it spiralling into a wider conflict is one that we should all dread. But Putin seems impervious to all entreaties.

The Russian president is trying to recreate his country’s imperial past by pursuing a strategy first set by Ivan the Terrible and followed by all his successors. As a former KGB chief in Soviet-controlled East Germany, Putin regards the Warsaw pact as a high point and the collapse of the USSR in 1991 as a temporary setback. Now, with the situation in Georgia and the Crimea, Russia’s direction of travel is forward once again, and Putin will have little to fear from the US or EU. He will have taken comfort from the chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, handing victory and a treasure-trove of sophisticated US weaponry to the Taliban. Putin will have concluded that Biden is a weak leader and that threats of economic sanctions emanating from Washington and Brussels are a less than convincing deterrent. In a statement that will have emboldened Putin, the UK defence minister, Ben Wallace, said it is “highly unlikely” that Britain or its allies will send troops to defend Ukraine if Russia invades, because Ukraine is not yet a NATO member.

Of course, Putin has previous when it comes to Ukraine. With the occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia in 2008, Putin was testing the reaction of Europe and the US to the use of violence. He discovered that there was little appetite for confronting the Russian bear. The West’s failure to react to the Georgian tragedy also gave Putin the green light to advance his claims on Ukraine. In March 2014 he achieved his objective, annexing Crimea and the city of Sevastopol as two federal subjects of the Russian Federation. The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has so far led to the deaths of more than 14,000 people, many of them innocent civilians. 

Now Putin is using the 764-mile-long Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany as the ‘sword of Damocles’, hanging threateningly over the head of the new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Recently completed at a cost of $11 billion (£8.3 billion), but not yet switched on, the pipeline offers an essential energy lifeline to German factories at a time of soaring international gas prices. But Germany’s allies, led by the Americans, are urging Scholz to mothball Nord Stream 2 in retaliation against Russian aggression in Ukraine. Energy experts claim that Western threats to boycott Nord Stream 2 have caused gas prices to soar, as Putin angrily demonstrates how he can turn vital supplies to Europe on and off at will. So, Russian aggression in Ukraine is already having a direct impact on us all.

The combination of American caution and EU vacillation is causing huge frustration in Kiev. They feel that after 8 years of war with the Russian-backed separatists in Crimea, their Western allies are now leaving them in the lurch. Putin has repeatedly blocked moves by Ukraine to join the EU and NATO, with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy warning that leaving Ukraine as a buffer zone, wedged between East and West, as some sort of guarantor of transatlantic stability, is an unacceptable option. Zelenskiy fears that in the absence of a more robust approach by the US and Europe, Putin will invade his country. Certainly, Putin is now deploying the argument of “provocation” as an excuse for his military build-up on the Ukrainian border. Last week Moscow demanded an “urgent” response to its demand that multinational NATO forces should be withdrawn from the bloc’s member states in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, countries that used to be part of the former Soviet Union. For the president of Russia to be dictating military strategy to NATO and demanding a veto on future Ukrainian membership, is clearly not medicine that can easily be swallowed by the west. Will it be bluff or blitzkrieg in 2022?