Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters

Provocations between Russia and NATO threaten armed conflict

Rhetoric and maneuvers in Ukraine and the Baltic are reaching a fevered pitch

December 4, 2014 2:00AM ET

There is sudden new worry in Europe that the Ukrainian civil war, frozen since September with a haphazard cease-fire, is deteriorating again in a direction that can lead to a major conflict with Russia. 

The general anxiety concerns not only the fighting in Donbass, the eastern Ukrainian region under siege by Kiev’s national guard since the spring, but also the possibility of armed conflict between NATO and the Russian Federation.

The complaint in Western Europe is that there is a total lack of trust and transparency with regard to the U.S. relationship with the government in Kiev. American agents are not providing convincing denials in response to the Moscow reports of weapons running into Ukraine.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin has asked Washington to supply arms as well as nonlethal aid to Kiev. However, Kremlin officials assert that Washington is already supplying Kiev with lethal aid and that Washington is not waiting for the new Republican majority in Congress to pass a bill that will give full assistance to Ukraine not only to conquer the rebels in Donbass but also to recover Crimea from Russia’s annexation. 

Double-edged threat

The threat of war is double-edged: Ukraine and the Baltic. First, Vice President Joseph Biden traveled to Kiev on Nov. 21 to walk ceremoniously alongside President Petro Poroshenko on the anniversary of the tragedy of Maidan demonstrators being gunned down by sharpshooting assailants. A crowd of well-wishers turned quickly into a mob, crying “Shame!” as Biden’s motorcade approached, and the Secret Service sped away. Later, Biden was pictured holding forth at a table of Ukrainian officials, including Poroshenko.

The opinion in Moscow and in other European capitals is that Poroshenko is relying on covert U.S. aid in order to build up his forces again through the winter for an early spring offensive into the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. This can be possible only if Kiev is reinforced with weapons, cash and energy to last through the winter. 

It is still warm in Ukraine. Moscow reports that Ukraine has not started taking Russian natural gas yet. Kiev still depends on stored sources and reversed flow from Europe. However, there is a shortfall in natural gas and coal for winter.

The larger fear is that an incident along the Russian frontier with Poland could trigger a NATO response under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Moscow, Berlin, Brussels and London all recognize that Poland’s fiercely anti-Russian speaker of the parliament, Radek Sikorski, is leading a faction that believes that Russia intends to reconquer Eastern Europe.

Poland is part of the Visegrad Group of Eastern European nations, with Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. There is a split in the Visegrad Group about the necessity of economic sanctions against Russia. While Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic hesitate, Poland is warning them to beware Russian subversion. Warsaw is moving closer to the Baltic States — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — which fear Russian aggression not just in Ukraine but across the Baltic basin.

America does not and will not recognize Russian occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea. We do not, will not and insist others do not accept this illegal annexation.

Joseph Biden

U.S. Vice President

NATO observers see the Polish belligerence as unwarranted and heedless. Washington’s decision to increase its military presence in Poland, with advanced elements of the 4th Infantry Division, does little to improve the situation.

In response, Moscow has announced that it will stage increase its military exercises next year, with one scheduled for its central military district, which includes Moscow, and another with Belarus, which borders the Baltic states and Poland. 

This escalating maneuvering is a formula for accidental disaster. For example, on Nov. 30, NATO member Norway provided a video of a near collision between one of its patrolling F-16s and a Russian Mig-31 warplane. The video is ambiguous, but there was suspicion that the Russian pilot was taunting a NATO patrol over international waters.

Anxiety in Europe

Berlin is said to be exhausted by the machinations between the two sides. A sizeable plurality of the German public is reported leaning toward accepting Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Chancellor Angela Merkel has gone along with the Russian handling of the Ukrainian civil war because she is persuaded by the Common Eurasian Home — the idea that a positive relationship between Germany and Russia could lead to their dominance over the supercontinent. Merkel is distracted by economic weaknesses in the European Union, facing a third recession in seven years. She is asking Putin to wait out Kiev’s provocations and the aggressive posturing of President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress.

Washington’s confrontational view of the Ukraine crisis was summarized baldly by Biden during his visit to Kiev. “Let me say as clearly and categorically as I can, America does not and will not recognize Russian occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea,” he said. “We do not, will not and insist others do not accept this illegal annexation.”

Moscow’s resolute view on Kiev and the civil war was expressed succinctly by President Vladimir Putin recently, speaking of the rebel Donbass region. “You want the Ukrainian central authorities to annihilate everyone there, all of their political foes and opponents. Is that what you want? We certainly don’t. And we won’t let it happen.”

Moscow’s militant view of the U.S.-led sanctions against Russia was summarized by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “The West is making clear that it doesn’t want Russia to change its policy but to achieve a change of the regime,” he said.

In the event of an outbreak of hostility between NATO and the Russian Federation, the plan in Moscow is to take only the eastern portion of Ukraine, where Eastern Orthodox Christians dominate, and to secure the important Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Kiev.

In the event of war along the Polish frontier, the plan in Warsaw is to invoke Article 5 and demand NATO counterattack.

The important question into the winter, as the snow falls makes it unlikely to sustain an offense, is how far will Washington, Moscow, Kiev and Warsaw go in provoking one another?

John Batchelor is a novelist and host of a national radio news show based in New York City.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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