Frédéric Mertens de Wilmars
Coordinator of the Degree in International Relations at the European University of Valencia
ussia has massed thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border in recent weeks, raising fears in the West of a forthcoming offensive. The US has threatened Moscow with retaliation in the event of an incursion.
It is as if the former Cold War is blowing over Ukraine. Already rooted in confrontation since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, relations between the West and Russia have been strained in recent weeks. The cause: a possible Russian invasion, feared by Washington despite Moscow’s denials that it seeks to limit NATO’s influence in its sphere of influence. This is the story of a major diplomatic crisis between two opposing sides.
Already dormant since the 2014 war in eastern Ukraine with pro-Russian separatists, the face-off resumed in November 2021. Faced with ‘unusual’ troop movements on the Ukrainian border, Washington is calling Moscow to account. The US is cautious, especially since Russia has already massed some 100,000 troops on the border since April, raising initial fears of an invasion. NATO, the EU, Paris and Berlin are warning Moscow against any further “aggressive action”.
For Kiev, the hypothesis of an invasion is beginning to gain momentum. On 28 November, Ukraine claimed that Russia had massed some 92,000 troops on its borders in preparation for an offensive in late January or early February. The Russian authorities deny this intention and accuse Ukraine of concentrating troops in the east of the country.
On 7 December, Biden threatened Putin with strong economic sanctions in the event of an invasion of Ukraine during a virtual bilateral summit. The Russian president, for his part, set his conditions: to have “secure legal guarantees” that would prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. This is what is at stake in this tug-of-war. Moscow seeks the withdrawal of foreign troops from NATO countries in all states that joined the Alliance after 1997. Russian diplomacy has mentioned Bulgaria and Romania by name, but the list includes 14 countries from the former communist bloc.
On 10 January 2022, Russians and Americans began tense negotiations in Geneva, the first stage of a diplomatic sequence. But to no avail. On 12 January, NATO and Russia noted their deep “differences” over security in Europe at the end of a NATO-Russia Council in Brussels. On 14 January, several Ukrainian government websites were the target of a massive cyber-attack. On the same day, Washington accused Moscow of having sent agents to Ukraine to carry out “sabotage” operations in order to create a “pretext” for an invasion. Gratuitous” claims according to the Kremlin.
On 18 January, Moscow demanded Western answers to its demands ahead of new talks. For Moscow, the goal remains the same: a withdrawal from NATO, perceived as an existential threat and whose successive enlargements are reminiscent of the humiliation of the collapse of the USSR. The problem is that, for the Americans, a withdrawal from Europe is not a possibility, but the Biden administration says it is willing to discuss Russian security fears.
Russia is beginning to deploy an unspecified number of troops to Belarus to conduct ‘improvised’ combat readiness exercises on the borders of the EU and Ukraine. Washington is concerned about the possible deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus and believes that Moscow could attack Ukraine at any time.
The outcome of this situation is uncertain, but it poses a danger to the EU and its member states. Danger that can come from both Russia and the United States. In fact, both powers prefer not to listen to the voice of the EU, which, let us remember, is the world’s largest economic power. Washington and Moscow have turned Europe into a Cold War-style chessboard. Ukraine is already a pawn like other countries, including former USSR satellites, as well as US-dependent Europeans.
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