Russia’s split with NATO heightens fears of military escalation as both sides trade blame – .

Russia’s split with NATO heightens fears of military escalation as both sides trade blame – .

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, center, with NATO Defense Ministers for a group photo on the first day of the ministers meeting in Brussels on October 21, 2021.KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images

There was a shock across Europe this week when Russia announced it was closing its mission at NATO headquarters in Brussels and ordered NATO personnel to leave Moscow. After all, such direct contacts between the Kremlin and the Western military alliance were established at the end of the Cold War to prevent misunderstandings from escalating into conflict.

But nowadays, misunderstandings are the norm, and both sides find themselves embroiled in a low-intensity, undeclared conflict that began seven years ago with Russia’s seizure and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. to Ukraine. For the Kremlin, ending so-called cooperation with NATO was simply acknowledging the reality.

“Pretending that we are always cooperating, when we are not, has not been very helpful,” said Sergey Utkin, head of strategic evaluation at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations based in Moscow, which is part of the state-funded Russian Academy of Sciences. Utkin called Russia’s break with NATO “a sort of conclusion to a 30-year attempt to build cooperation despite differences.”

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Those differences were highlighted this week, as NATO officials lamented the unilateral announcement as further damaging ties and increasing the chances of a military escalation. “There is nothing to ‘aggravate’ in NATO-Russia relations unfortunately,” replied Mikhail Ulyanov, a senior Russian diplomat, on Twitter. “Everything has already been ruined.

Moscow and the West also have very different accounts of who is to blame for the collapse. Moscow claims the original sin was that the United States and its allies brought former Warsaw Pact states into NATO in the 1990s and early 2000s without inviting Russia to join the group. Western governments are reporting a series of more recent Russian transgressions, including the annexation of Crimea and a series of assassinations and attempts targeting enemies of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Europe. Among these was the 2018 attack on KGB defector Sergei Skripal, who was poisoned in the English town of Salisbury with a chemical weapon developed by the Soviet Union.

“We have seen more and more things that in normal times would be considered acts of war,” said Keir Giles, Russian expert at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. He added a massive 2014 explosion at a Czech ammunition depot, later blamed on Russian agents, and numerous cyber attacks on European GPS networks to Moscow’s list of alleged crimes.

On Thursday, NATO – which in recent years has increasingly focused on the threat posed by the rise of China – announced that it had agreed to a new master plan to defend Alliance members against the Russian aggression. Details are to be kept under wraps, but Reuters said it would involve preparations for simultaneous strikes targeting both the Baltic and Black Sea regions “which could include nuclear weapons, hacking into computer networks and assaults from there. ‘space “.

Speaking after a meeting of defense ministers in Brussels on Thursday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said ministers had approved “a new comprehensive plan to defend our alliance in times of crisis and conflict” which aimed to “have the right forces in the right place at the right time. However, he said, NATO “would not reflect Russia’s destabilizing behavior” and would not deploy new ground nuclear weapons in Europe.

NATO’s requalification of Russia as the main threat to its members ended a month which saw the two sides repeatedly exchanging allegations of espionage. Russia has also been accused of using its abundant natural resources as a weapon by refusing to increase Europe’s natural gas supply at a time when energy bills are skyrocketing on the continent.

At the same time, tensions have built up along the borders between Belarus, Russia’s authoritarian ally, and NATO member Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. The regime of Alexander Lukashenko, furious at Western support for the pro-democracy movement in Belarus, allowed thousands of asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere to land in Minsk on condition that they go straight to the border. Lukashenko has been accused of attempting to widen divisions within the European Union by triggering a new refugee crisis.

In response, Poland closed its border and declared a state of emergency in the region, deploying thousands of additional Polish troops to the region. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Wednesday that NATO’s growing presence in Poland and the Baltic states had forced Russia and Belarus to further develop an integrated defense strategy. (The presence of additional NATO troops in the region, including a Canadian-led battle group in Latvia, is in itself a response to the annexation of Crimea.)

But Ukraine remains the most dangerous potential flashpoint – and the main obstacle to improving relations between Moscow and the West.

Since 2014, Russia has funded and equipped a “separatist” army that controls much of the Donbass region in southeastern Ukraine. The conflict has claimed more than 13,000 lives there, and while the front line has remained largely stable over the past six years, the two sides continue to exchange fire on a daily basis. This week alone, dozens of ceasefire violations were committed – the Ukrainian military on Wednesday accused the Russian side of using mortars, grenade launchers and anti-tank missiles – and observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were prevented by separatists from leaving. their hotel in the city of Donetsk.

Earlier this year, Russia massed around 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine, a situation that was only defused when US President Joe Biden offered Mr Putin a summit meeting in front of face.

This week, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Kiev to reaffirm US support for Ukraine’s eventual NATO membership. Mr. Putin called Ukraine’s NATO membership a “red line,” and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko on Thursday warned that such a move would have unspecified consequences.

Mr Giles of Chatham House said the threats from the Kremlin revealed Mr Putin’s “19th century” approach to international relations – the root cause of the renewed tension between Moscow and the West. “Putin is trying to restore what he sees as Russia’s rightful place and power. Many of the symptoms of it resemble the restoration of the Soviet Union. “

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