It seems that European politicians are not enjoying a respite from their battles of recent years against the unconventional challenges presented to the Old Continent that range from the worst wave of terrorist attacks ever to have struck it as a result of the rise of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Another, new, yet also old, issue has now resurfaced that raises political problems and even a possible military conflict with Russia over the latter’s military pile-up near the Ukrainian border.
Ukrainian officials say that an estimated 90,000 Russian troops have massed near the border, indicating the intention of a possible invasion of Ukraine by the Russian military. The troops, which have been taking part in military exercises, have not returned to their regular bases, raising the possibility that Russia may be mulling a possible invasion.
Russia has believed that NATO has been encroaching on its western borders systematically for more than two decades, especially after Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, once members of the defunct Warsaw Pact, joined NATO in the 1990s. Accordingly, it treats Ukraine as the last line of defence, or buffer zone, between Russia and the NATO countries. It is clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin has set a number of “red lines,” including refusing to countenance Ukraine joining NATO.
Ninety thousand Russian troops would hardly be able to occupy a country the size of Ukraine with its population of 44 million, especially since Ukraine has recently modernised its military with the support of the Western powers. But the ongoing war in the Dunbas region of Ukraine, which started in 2014, is not something the world can ignore. This war between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists in the region supported by Russia has left around 14,000 people dead and over 30,000 injured since 2014. Russia has also managed to annex Crimea, formerly a part of Russia ceded to Ukraine during the Soviet era.
Ukraine was once part of the Soviet Union, and it hosted some of its most important military and naval bases. Ukraine has since drifted further from Russia, the successor state of the Soviet Union, seeking more economic, military and political independence and moving steadily towards the West.
Russia believes that escalating the conflict against the now European-oriented Ukraine is timely and may work in its favour, especially with Europe still battling the ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic that have left the continent economically battered. The Russians also have a formidable weapon in the Russian gas supplies to Europe, one of the main sources of energy to the continent. As the winter season approaches, the consumption of gas of the European countries increases, and so does the European reliance on Russian gas supplies.
If the EU countries and NATO decide to support Ukraine military, they may face a Russian gas embargo that will critically hit the European economies. However, for the Russians using the gas supplies as a trump card for political purposes may be a powerful threat, but it could also be one that could backfire. Despite having China as a traditional and reliable client for their natural gas exports, the Russians will not want to disrupt their supplies to Europe.
The reason is that were the Russians to use the gas card it would not be playable again in any future conflict because the Europeans would find alternative sources for gas from the Mediterranean region, including from Egypt, Algeria and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The Europeans would not sit idly by and watch Russia swallow up Ukraine while limiting supplies of gas to them. This would encourage them to counter any Russian movements politically and militarily and by imposing harsher economic sanctions on the Russian state.
French President Emmanuel Macron has expressed the clearest statements on this thus far, informing Putin that France and NATO would be prepared to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty from any Russian plans to intervene or invade the country. This can be considered as the clearest warning yet to Russia from a European politician. It was clearer than the statement made by NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, for example, who despite being aware of Russia’s military moves near the Ukrainian border said that NATO “did not want to speculate” on Russian intentions towards Ukraine.
Russia has been emboldened recently as a result of US President Joe Biden’s rash decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan in what has been labelled as a victory for the Afghan terrorist group the Taliban. The manner in which the shambolic withdrawal was conducted and the failure of the Biden administration to assess the situation were perceived in Moscow as signalling Biden’s intention not to get involved in any new military theatres.
However, Biden cannot afford to look the other way when it comes to Ukraine or Taiwan, where a potential Chinese invasion would be the last nail in the coffin of his administration. He cannot afford to show weakness, even if he is not seeking to open a new front with another superpower.
There has to be common ground to avoid further escalation of the situation in Ukraine. There are negotiations going on behind closed doors to save the face of both the parties and reach a peaceful outcome that could prevent this crisis from spiralling out of control. It seems that the US administration and the members of NATO still desire to have Ukraine as a NATO member and possibly as a member of the EU as well, but at the same time they cannot risk a military confrontation with Russia as this could ignite a third world war. At the same time, the Russians understand that they will not be allowed to annex Ukraine or use pro-Russian militias to gain more territory from the Ukrainian state.
Such moves would likely spark the kind of direct military confrontation that the world could do without. Common ground can be reached if both sides understand the consequences of carrying out their plans unfettered by the other side’s opposition. A compromise must now be reached to defuse a situation that could trigger the worst confrontation since the end of the Cold War and that could turn into actual war between the US and Russia.
* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.