Mizuno: End Putin’s game of Russian roulette

Time for the West to hold the trigger

Dane Mizuno, Staff Writer

In recent weeks, tensions between Ukraine and Russia have never been this high since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Ukraine is bracing itself for a full-scale conflict as thousands of civilians volunteer for the resistance in the event the 100,000 Russian troops stationed at the border of the two former Soviet republics invade. Given that the United States and United Kingdom’s governments have started to pull some of their personnel out of embassies, the expectations are that open hostilities are seemingly imminent.

In such dire circumstances, Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons back in 1994 is without a doubt a major blunder in international diplomacy. Its past liberalist foreign policy is the one to blame for such foolish behavior because it gave Ukraine a disillusion that Russia would uphold Ukraine’s territorial integrity as agreed in the Budapest Memorandum. Further, it created the impression that the lovey-dovey post-Cold War peace would prevail forever. This idealistic folly produced a status quo of Ukraine throwing away its greatest weapon of protection known as nuclear deterrence.

This was evident when Russia forcefully annexed Crimea in 2014 and only faced minor repercussions even after violating every single international treaty. If Ukraine had its nuclear weapons, perhaps Crimea would still be under the sovereignty of Ukraine. However, with such a precedent set, Russian President Vladmir Putin has this misconception that he can do anything he wants, and no one can stop him. Considering that the circumstances are similar to those in 2014, it looks like an invasion of Ukraine is highly likely.

Just as in 2014, Putin is playing to the nationalistic sentiments of Russians who yearn to go back to the glory days when the Soviet Union was at the peak of its powers. By forcefully obtaining diplomatic concessions or perhaps even invading Ukraine, he puts Russia in this position of power. With his popularity waning from his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, such a move would instantly turn the tables for him and bolster his ability to maintain his despotic control over Russia. Putin’s unreasonable demands—that in no way the West would ever succumb to—only further solidify this point that he will twist anything to become a pretext for invading Ukraine.

Now, international diplomacy is a dangerous game of Russian roulette, where Putin is holding the trigger. One minor incident could create a major conflict, such as how the Balkan Peninsula—also previously known as the “powder keg of Europe”—was the catalyst of World War I.

But history doesn’t need to repeat itself. There are ways for the trigger to be in the hands of the West. At this crossroads where the fate of Europe and global democracy is at stake, Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have to be united now more than ever for the West to prevail. To unite Europe, the difficult but necessary decision will be for the U.S. to pull out its military commitments in Europe. For far too long, the U.S. has coddled European states, leading to an overreliance of U.S. protection of Europe. American protection has led to Europe living in a state of utopian delusion that the threat of Russia is not imminent. It is why much of Europe’s military, such as its European equipment—from submarines to fighter jets—are not in the condition needed to be mobilized. 

No, the status quo is that a resurgent Russia is seeking to undermine everything the West has built since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. By having the U.S. pull out, it would force Europe to form a balance of power in response to Russia’s growing threat and stop neglecting its Article 3 “to maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.” If both countries rely on the ideology that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” they could set aside their differences and allow for practical realpolitik action to occur against Russia. However, Putin has one trump card up his sleeve that can strike the Achilles heel of any multilateral European cooperation. That trump card is his ability to extort one of the linchpins of NATO and the European Union: Germany.

The trade relationship between Germany and Russia is lopsided in Russian favor; Germany imports more than half of its natural gas from Russia. Especially, given that Germany has pledged to move away from coal by 2038 and shut down its last three nuclear power plants by the end of this year, its reliance on Russia to provide more natural gas for heating and energy production is only increasing.

Once this Nord Stream 2 pipeline is approved, Russia will be able to export double its previous amount of natural gas to Germany. Germany’s economy will be at the mercy of Russia if Russia decides to engage in coercive energy diplomacy to get its demands across. Historical evidence suggests that Russia will carry out such despicable behavior if it gets the chance. One of many examples is that Gazprom, one of Russia’s largest natural gas companies in the world, accepted massive debt from its clients in Ukraine. However, when geopolitical tensions between Russia and Ukraine go up, Gazprom has weaponized gas by jacking up its prices and enforcing strict payments. 

The threat of cutting off Germany’s supply line gives massive leverage to Russia, compromising NATO. Therefore, Germany ought to reopen its nuclear power plants since the dividends of nuclear energy far outweigh its costs. Major nuclear meltdowns have only occurred in two nuclear power plants out of hundreds across the world. Yes, the fact that one of the incidents happened in Japan, one of the most technologically advanced countries, can be unnerving. However, rationally speaking, nuclear meltdowns are rare, looking at statistical likelihood. On the other hand, climate change is an existential threat to humanity. Nuclear energy provides clean, reliable energy that operates close to full capacity without any breaks making it a valuable asset in the fight to preserve our climate.

Thus, reopening these nuclear plants is something that warrants serious consideration as it kills two birds with one stone: combating Russia and combating climate change.