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Sunday, 23 June 2024
Eastern Europe at Boiling Point
James Denselow
Today sees what is being described as a ‘showdown’ call between US and Russian Presidents against the spectre of escalating conflict in the east of Europe. How did we get here and where are events likely to take us? It almost seems as if we have slept walked into a moment where despite the continued chaos of the Covid pandemic, the prospect of World War III is not wholly removed from the table.

Cynics describe the continued use of Russian military build-up and exercises as a ‘stunt’ designed to force opponents to the negotiation table and to push back on the possible accession of Ukraine into NATO. Earlier this year a similar series of events happened that deescalated following a Biden-Putin meeting and we shouldn’t rule out the same thing happening again. Yet seasoned US military observers have explained that Russian isn’t ‘sabre rattling’ but has actually got their swords out and could be poised to act.

The Washington Post reported leaked US Intelligence analysis that warned that the Russians had deployed into four different locations with 50 tactical battle groups and are likely poised to enter the country in early 2022. Putin’s Russia of course has a history of seizing territory in Ukraine and Georgia, speculation is that they could be looking to seize southern parts of Ukraine to give themselves a land bridge to Russian Occupied Crimea.

The Ukrainian flashpoint comes at a moment of a confluence of issues. Germany has just had an election and is undergoing a handover of power. Talks around reducing Europe’s energy dependency on Russia and the construction of gas pipelines are big issues. The crisis at the border between Poland and Belarus has only recently abated but the fact that a Russian ally was willing to weaponise refugees is a testimony to the poverty of relations.

Political leaders seem united on the narrative that ‘nobody wants a war’, but such sentiments have not been enough to prevent conflicts across history. Russia has warned war is 'highly likely' with Ukraine following orders to troops to remain 'combat ready'. The Kremlin has said that Kiev's desire to retake Crimea is "direct threat", as the US vows to respond following growing reports of a Russian invasion.

Playing political tennis with threats whilst conducting military manoeuvres on the ground at a time of such tension is of course a recipe for unpredictability and events taking a momentum of their own. The US have already started lining up the toolkit of actions that they could respond with. Perhaps most interestingly it includes cyber tactics, actions that are arguably even more unpredictable in impact and in what response it eludes from Moscow.

More conventional tactics have been seen before when Russia seized territory in the past fifteen years or so. Sanctions and economic tools are Washington’s go to tactics. The ruble fell about 1% against the dollar Monday to the lowest level since August on fears the tensions could trigger new sanctions. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this month: “I can’t speak to Russia’s intentions. We don’t know what they are.” What is clear is that the Russians are far happier with military brinkmanship and pressure than their Western counterparts. Some 14,000 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine since 2014 but unlike the Cold War era there is little in the way of public awareness or concern of events amongst the Western public.

The outgoing head of the UK’s armed forces has said the British military will have to be ready for war with Russia after recent tensions in eastern Europe, but he does not believe Vladimir Putin really wants “hot war” with the west. This dance of preparing for war but not really believing that you opponent wants it and knowing that you don’t want it, makes for an interesting but fairly predictable playbook.

In a sense Russia’s foreign policy has been defined by an approach that it will move as far as its opponents allow it too. In Syria for example Moscow was able to dominate events partly due to the US-led Coalition not backing up its own policy ‘red lines’ with actual resource. The test for President Biden is to demonstrate to President Putin what the US considers to be its red lines on Ukraine. Will he be willing to pause or end the NATO accession in return for calm at the border, or does that accession provide the exact guarantees that would deter future Russian aggression. The centrepiece of brinkmanship is that we don’t know the answer but await instead events to unfold.

James Denselow,

BY:  James Denselow