Political and military tensions between the West and Russia, centered on the refugee crisis between Kremlin ally Belarus and NATO member Poland, have gained the reinforcement of an old acquaintance.
As in March and several other times since the Kremlin annexed Crimea in 2014, the concentration of Russian troops near Ukrainian borders has raised alarms and alarmism in the US and Europe.
“We are not sure of Russian intentions, but we know their manual. Our concern is that Russia could make the serious mistake of trying to repeat what it did in 2014,” US Secretary of State Antony said Wednesday night. Blinken, responsible for American diplomacy.
There are two aspects to consider in your speech. First, the Western cause for alarm: in fact there are troop movements considered unusual by military analysts. Since the beginning of November, satellite images captured by the company Maxar and evaluated by the intelligence company Jane’s indicate a concentration of troops and armored vehicles in regions such as Ielnia, 300 km from the Ukrainian border.
According to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, there are 90,000 soldiers deployed along the border lines, along the east of the country, which since 2014 has been autonomously governed by rebels from the region’s ethnic majority, known as the Donbass.
They did not break up, like the Crimean peninsula, but they started a civil war that killed more than 13,000 people and has been frozen for about five years. This year, Kiev rehearsed a resumption of troop movements, responded by Moscow with exercises involving 100,000 troops.
In the end, with threats from side by side, the Russians backed away, having managed to stop the Ukrainian action. In President Vladimir Putin’s view, a Ukraine part of NATO, the Western military alliance, is unacceptable.
That stance guided his actions in 2014, when a coup toppled the pro-Russian president in Kiev. Both Ukraine and its ally Belarus are strategic buffers, separating their forces from those in the West, a geopolitical reality since the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union in other forms.
In addition, in the current situation, showing strength is a signal to Turkey, which has supported Kiev with the sale of military drones. They have already been used, with effectiveness seen in the 2020 war between Azerbaijan and the Russian ally Armenia. Ankara, a partner and rival of Moscow, has pretensions in the Black Sea basin.
The Kremlin shrugs. According to spokesman Dmitri Peskov, the movement of troops is a problem for Moscow and takes place in its territory. In addition, he returned to denying aggressive intentions, as would be obvious.
That’s where alarmism comes in. For more anti-Russian observers, the move is part of a larger strategy to put pressure on the West that involves the refugee crisis from war-affected countries in the Middle East and South Asia. Perhaps 15,000 of them are now in Belarus, a country under Western sanctions since dictator Aleksandr Lukachenko unleashed a massive crackdown on protests against yet another rigged election in which he was declared victorious in 2020. He is backed by Putin.
According to the European Union, immigrants were lured into being used as weapons on the border with two bloc members, Poland and Lithuania, in retaliation for sanctions. Minsk denies it, of course.
The Polish government went further, accusing Putin directly of participating in the scheme, which the Kremlin, too obviously, rules out. On Thursday (11), the state-owned airline Aeroflot had to deny reports that it had transported refugees to Belarus.
Lukachenko’s government turned to Putin, who dispatched two nuclear-capable Tu-22M3 bombers to a rare patrol in the Belarusian skies, a foretaste of the support the Kremlin says it is willing to provide if the concentration of Polish and Minsk forces on the border escalates for a conflict.
In this sense, Blinken reflected these concerns in a more alarmist way as well, not least because he granted the interview when he received his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmitri Kuleba. The American has again said that his country is committed to Kiev’s “independence and integrity”.
Here he is in the field of rhetoric, which is permanently threatening to merge with that of conflict. Ukraine has asked to become part of NATO, which is unacceptable to Putin, but the fact is that as it is a country affected by territorial disputes, admission cannot take place according to the statute of the alliance.
At the same time, there has been a brutal escalation of military activity by the US and other allies with Kiev in recent years.
The Black Sea has become, like the Baltic, one of the most active areas of potential friction in the world. In June, the Russians drove a British warship off the coast of Crimea with gunfire and warning bombs, a most serious incident.
There are other factors: elevating Putin’s menacing status is a way for NATO to circumvent its deep internal divisions with a single speech.
With a shock line stretching from the Black Sea to the Baltic, with the crises in Belarus and with Ukraine, the clash between the West and Russia enters a new and dangerous phase. Not that anyone wants war, but the risk of accidents or surprises like the one in 2014 is on the rise.