The arc of military tensions generated by the Kremlin in Eastern Europe is growing by the day, affecting more and more countries. The vortex of geopolitical fears is engulfing more states and increasing the risks to their economies. Despite constant talks and ongoing consultations, the level of confrontation on the Russia-West axis has not abated.
Moscow’s aggressive start to negotiations with Washington in the form of unacceptable demands for an end to NATO enlargement appears to have paused.
But after high level face-to-face meetings and telephone conversations at different levels, after calls for Moscow to de-escalate and start withdrawing troops from Ukraine’s borders, the Kremlin continues to build a strike force in the west.
In total, Russia has concentrated between 130,000 and 150,000 troops, tanks, aircraft, missile and artillery systems and electronic warfare equipment on Ukraine’s borders. Iskanders and S-400 missile systems are being covertly deployed. Chechen military personnel have been transported from the Khankala base to Donetsk, and mercenaries from the Wagner Cheka are also being transported there. The deployment of units of the Russian Federal Guard Service to the regions bordering Ukraine has begun, and Russia has developed field hospitals close to the border with Ukraine and blood transfusion stations.
The redeployment of 10 out of 11 Russian ground armies raises fears. The Washington Post said that Russia had deployed to Ukraine’s borders about 70 percent of the forces and means necessary for a full-scale invasion. Reuters and The New York Times came to the same conclusion. 83 battalion tactical groups have already been trained in the border area, 17 air regiments have increased their squadrons from two to three.
Russia’s creation of offensive alliances outside the country poses a particular danger. Experts say that Moscow has moved 200 echelons to Belarus in the last month, which roughly corresponds to 30 battalions. Some S-400 complexes have also been sent there to take part in the February exercise. Almost half of the Eastern Military District, including the commanding officers, are now concentrated in Belarus.
Another serious threat is Moscow’s intention to hold a strategic command post exercise Thunder this month, which will include launches of ballistic missiles of all types (silo, submarine, airborne), simulating the start of a nuclear war.
Of particular concern is the large-scale exercise conducted by the Russian navy in the Mediterranean and Irish seas. Following the exercises, ships of the Baltic and Northern Fleets are planning to enter the Black Sea, putting together a large strike force of landing craft (13 landing ships).
Although both Ukraine and Russia claim their forces are defensive in nature and carefully avoid any hint of readiness for an attack, the balance of power in favour of Russia is obvious. The Kremlin is preparing an operation involving almost 150,000 troops and exclusively offensive weapons, concentrated on three sides around Ukraine. The maximum concentration of troops and the navy will be at the end of February and the beginning of March. Ballistic missile launches are expected to take place at the same time.
The date appears in a report to the US Congress by General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Committee of Chiefs of Staff, and Avril Haynes, Director of National Intelligence. The Financial Times also believes that Moscow could launch an invasion in February or March.
Foreignpolicy believes that the totality of the facts adds up to the only logical conclusion that there is a comprehensive Russian plan to invade and occupy Ukraine. This is confirmed by the German tabloid Bild – an attack could start “no later than March”, and calls “a full invasion now the most likely scenario”.
In this case the Russian side’s denial of preparations for aggression makes no sense. But Moscow assures us that troop movements on its territory should be of no concern to anyone. The Kremlin continues to insist that NATO will not expand eastwards and demands that Kyiv close its doors to the organisation. Remarkably, the Russian regime does not make any commitments while keeping its hands untied. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has threatened that Russia will “eliminate the threat” to itself if NATO and the US do not respond to the “security guarantees” offered by the Kremlin.
We should not forget that since 2008 Russia has been systematically carrying out acts of aggression and provocation to test neighbouring states. Be it Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltics, the Caucasus or Central Asian countries, they have been under constant attack by the Russian security services for all these years. To date, the Kremlin has done everything possible to prepare for a major war in Europe. The ultimatum on “security guarantees” was not meant to be met, but rejected, giving Putin an excuse for a military redistribution of spheres of influence.
Military experts point out that the situation on the border with Ukraine is so heated at the moment that a simple mistake, rather than a pre-planned provocation by Russian special services, is enough to make the situation spin out of control. A large-scale military conflict can start without Putin’s sanction, which does not absolve him of responsibility. Military aggression can be launched by accident and without an explicit command.
It is clear that the target of Putin’s unprecedented military adventure is not only Ukraine and spheres of influence. The Kremlin master’s constant raising of the stakes is aimed at splitting NATO and the EU as a unified system, bringing the members to a point where his own interests exceed their collective interest. Putin has previously made no secret of the fact that he is an ardent supporter of bilateral relations. By his aggressive approach the Russian leader is pushing the EU’s members to violate their collective security commitments in exchange for certain economic (energy) preferences that are either bluff or cost prohibitive to the victim. The calculation is that not all EU and NATO members will be united in support of a sanctions policy when it comes to the crunch. Putin hopes that the common stand will be broken and that in the face of an energy crisis some European countries will opt for bilateral agreements with Russia.
Facing such a reality, the European and Euro-Atlantic community needs to remain united to counter the threat of a major war. The leaders of the U.S., Italy, Poland, France, Germany, Britain, the EU, the European Commission and NATO have agreed that if Russia invades Ukraine, the allies should adopt a “swift response, including an unprecedented package of sanctions”.
However, imposing restrictions will not preempt tactical action. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that “the US is considering scenarios for imposing new anti-Russian sanctions regardless of how the situation around Ukraine develops”. The US Senate believes that sanctions can be imposed as a preventive measure.
Constant blackmail, periodic escalation of violence, rattling the cage and the threat of war must be met with a strong response geared to stop the Kremlin’s precocious and unacceptable behaviour on the world stage.