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The Guns of August



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With the Russian invasion of Ukraine having been taken — how shall I put this — to the next level, what next?

Writing in Slate, Anne Applebaum:

In the past few days, Russian troops bearing the flag of a previously unknown country, Novorossiya, have marched across the border of southeastern Ukraine. The Russian Academy of Sciences recently announced it will publish a history of Novorossiya this autumn, presumably tracing its origins back to Catherine the Great. Various maps of Novorossiya are said to be circulating in Moscow. Some include Kharkov and Dnipropetrovsk, cities that are still hundreds of miles away from the fighting. Some place Novorossiya along the coast, so that it connects Russia to Crimea and eventually to Transnistria, the Russian-occupied province of Moldova. Even if it starts out as an unrecognized rump state—Abkhazia and South Ossetia, “states” that Russia carved out of Georgia, are the models here—Novorossiya can grow larger over time….

Novorossiya will also be hard to sustain if it has opponents in the West. Possible solutions to that problem are also under discussion. Not long ago, Vladimir Zhirinovsky—the Russian member of parliament and court jester, who sometimes says things that those in power cannot—argued on television that Russia should use nuclear weapons to bomb Poland and the Baltic countries—“dwarf states,” he called them—and show the West who really holds power in Europe: “Nothing threatens America, it’s far away. But Eastern European countries will place themselves under the threat of total annihilation,” he declared. Vladimir Putin indulges these comments: Zhirinovsky’s statements are not official policy, the Russian president says, but he always “gets the party going.”

A far more serious person, the dissident Russian analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, has recently published an article arguing, along lines that echo Zhirinovsky’s threats, that Putin really is weighing the possibility of limited nuclear strikes—perhaps against one of the Baltic capitals, perhaps a Polish city—to prove that NATO is a hollow, meaningless entity that won’t dare strike back for fear of a greater catastrophe. Indeed, in military exercises in 2009 and 2013, the Russian army openly “practiced” a nuclear attack on Warsaw….

Applebaum (who is married to Poland’s foreign minister) is clearly writing from the perspective of those too close to the Russian border for comfort. She concedes that she may sound “hysterical, and foolishly apocalyptic, to American or Western European readers.” Well, let’s hope she turns out to be very wrong in her worst fears. That said, her belief that “Novorossiya” is not going away anytime soon and her suspicion that Putin may well be looking to test NATO run all too true. Such testing will not (I am as sure as I can be) run to a nuclear strike on a Baltic or Polish city (how appalling it is to even contemplate such a thing), but some more, say, exploratory nibbling on the edges of Baltic self-determination cannot be ruled out.

That Putin is running the risks that he is reflects his sense that, as risks go, they aren’t too bad. And that, at least in part, is a result of his perception of weakness in the only NATO member that truly counts, the U.S. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, in an article that begins with the assertion that “Barack Obama is the worst president in the history of the Atlantic alliance,” Edward Lucas, a journalist who has been reporting for decades on Eastern Europe with erudition, sympathy, and perception, noted:

It is no excuse to say that Europe is divided and weak. That is deplorable but not new. Washington could have used its clout as a superpower to deter Moscow with serious sanctions, to support Kiev with serious military and other aid, and to bolster the front-line states—Poland and its Baltic neighbors—by moving serious numbers of troops and equipment there, backed by a full-scale standing defense plan. It didn’t. Vladimir Putin and his friends have drawn a dangerous conclusion from that.

Indeed they have.

Over at the XX Committee John Schindler sketches out what is a (to me) persuasive scenario:

The next few days will be decisive in determining if Russia’s war against Ukraine remains limited or expands significantly into a major conflict that will imperil European security in a manner not witnessed in decades. The course that Putin has plotted is described ably in an article today in Novaya Gazeta, the last Kremlin-unfriendly serious newspaper in Russia, by Pavel Felgenhauer, a noted Russian defense commentator. “We are still a half step from full-scale war,” he states, explaining why:

“War will happen if the current alignment does not achieve the strategic goals that Moscow is setting itself. The strategic goal, as Putin has been saying since April, is a stable ceasefire. In order to achieve it, it is necessary to achieve a military balance on the battlefield: To rout the Ukrainian forces, throw them back from Donetsk and Luhansk, and consolidate the territory that the insurgents are controlling. Donetsk People’s Republic representatives have repeatedly stated that they want the complete withdrawal of the Ukrainian troops from the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk.”

To date, Moscow has shown restraint, Felgenhauer notes, committing only a few thousand Russian troops to battle in Ukraine, rather than the tens of thousands it could deploy. But that may not last:

The main battle now will obviously take place around and within Mariupol. Unless the Ukrainians are driven back, a real war will begin….

The observant will note that this leaves Ukraine with no attractive options.

Meanwhile the Financial Times reporrs:

Britain and six other states are to create a new joint expeditionary force of at least 10,000 personnel to bolster Nato’s power in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

The force will be one of the boldest steps taken by any group of Nato members in response to the crisis. The aim is to create a fully functioning, division-sized force for rapid deployment and regular, frequent exercises. Officials involved in the planning say it will have the capacity to increase significantly in size.

The force will incorporate air and naval units as well as ground troops and will be led by British commanders, with other participating nations contributing a range of specialist troops and units. Countries involved at present include Denmark, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Norway and the Netherlands. Canada has also expressed an interest in taking part.

So this this expeditionary force is made up of the Baltic trio, acting out of understandable self-interest, together with the Netherlands, euroskeptic Denmark, non-EU Norway, and the loathed, europariah Britain. Non-EU Canada may join in. But as for those EU machers, Germany, France, ah well . . .

That may change, but for now there looks to be a lesson in the composition of that force which Eastern Europe would do well to remember.   



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