COLUMN-With Ukraine standoff, Putin takes Europe into the unknown
Last Sunday, Russia’s three most watched weekly news shows – on state-owned Rossiya 1 and Channel One and Gazprom-run NTV – instead looked back to a "prescient" speech made by President Vladimir Putin at the annual Munich Security Conference in February 2007. In that address – long regarded in Russia as a defining moment for Putin’s foreign policy but barely remembered in the West – the Russian leader ripped into what he called the "monopolistic dominance" of the United States in global affairs and its "almost uncontained hyper use of force in international affairs".
- Russian Federation
As foreign states pulled embassies from Kyiv last weekend ahead of a feared Russian invasion of Ukraine, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace warned that there was a "whiff of Munich" to European affairs, a reference to the 1938 agreement that failed to halt German expansionism under Adolf Hitler. Russian media, however, was dominated by very different references to Munich. Last Sunday, Russia’s three most-watched weekly news shows – on state-owned Rossiya 1 and Channel One and Gazprom-run NTV – instead looked back to a "prescient" speech made by President Vladimir Putin at the annual Munich Security Conference in February 2007.
In that address – long regarded in Russia as a defining moment for Putin’s foreign policy but barely remembered in the West – the Russian leader ripped into what he called the "monopolistic dominance" of the United States in global affairs and its "almost uncontained hyper use of force in international affairs". He also attacked NATO’s then-recent expansion to include Eastern European members such as Poland and the Baltic states. With Ukraine possibly on the brink of war, what Putin is doing now increasingly appears nothing less than an effort to undo all of the above. Whether he invades or not, Moscow hopes to humiliate the United States, assert Russia’s right – or at least ability – to use military force unilaterally just as it says Washington has done elsewhere.
Perhaps most worryingly of all, it also wishes to undermine or if possible destroy Western and NATO commitments across the former Eastern Bloc. In a Foreign Ministry statement on Thursday, Russia specifically repeated its demand not just that NATO withdrawal offers of membership to Ukraine and withdraw recent weapons shipments but also that the United States pull back its forces from across eastern and central Europe. MORE THAN UKRAINE
That clearly will not happen – even as that statement was released, NATO officials in Brussels were discussing the eastward deployment of new battle groups, supporting those already in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland as well as newly arrived U.S. forces also taking up position in Bulgaria, Romania, and Germany. This year’s Munich Security Conference – conveniently taking place this weekend – will likely see more assertions of support and strength from Western leaders, including a speech from U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris.
Thursday's Russian statement, however – repeating demands made in December already rejected by Washington and allies – made it clear once again that the current face-off is about much more than just Ukraine. In the former Soviet-controlled Baltic states, in particular, the mood is grim. The Russian statement specifically warned of unspecified “military-technical steps” if NATO forces did not pull back, among the most explicit threats Russia has made towards democracies that are now well embedded NATO and EU members.
That statement also made it clear, if ever there was doubt, that Moscow’s military threats and potential invasion of Ukraine are not just about Putin’s long-held frustrations over that country’s existence and NATO hopes. They are also intended for a larger audience across Europe – with the primary aim of inflicting intimidation, fear, and coercion. INTO THE UNKNOWN
For all the U.S.-talk of potential “false flag” operations to justify Russian intervention in Ukraine, what is perhaps even more striking is just how little Moscow seems to care about whether anyone believes the daily drumbeat of claims from Russian media that it is the authorities in Kyiv who are about to go on the offensive. To persuade the world of the danger of the Russian threat, the United States and its allies have engaged in what the New York Times described as the most aggressive briefing of classified intelligence since the Cuban missile crisis, releasing details of what they said were secret Russian plans and repeatedly asserting that invasion appears imminent.
That may or may not prove right – but in truth, the endless social media and satellite footage of Russian forces moving up to the front just serves to support Putin’s underlying goals, asserting Russia’s strength and will as the United States and its allies lock up embassies in Kyiv and withdraw to Poland. It is those latter images that have most worried Eastern Europe, even as they join the United States and Britain sending armaments to Ukraine. Their hope is relatively simple – that if Russia does cross the border, fighting in Ukraine will confront Moscow with the challenges, complexities,, and uncertainties of war that the United States discovered in Iraq after its 2003 invasion.
That remains a credible possibility. No European army has gone on the offensive against its neighbor on this potential scale since 1945, and no one knows what a fight for a city like Kyiv or Odesa might look like. Ukraine has raced to arm defensive militia, but how they might perform against the Russian army in the short or long term is a huge unknown. So is the reaction of Europe, still heavily dependent on Russian gas, and Germany still unambiguously keen to open the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, from Russia to Germany, sometime this year.
What happens next will have profound implications not just for Europe, but the world. Watching from the sidelines is a rising China, no less determined than Putin to push back against years of U.S. dominance, and which may already have signed off on what Russia does next. *** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalization, conflict, and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralyzed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party.
(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)
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