Putin and Europe Are Still Preparing for War

Putin and Europe Are Still Preparing for War

  • Political "doublespeak" includes the word “ceasefire.”
  • Putin and his rebels have ignored the agreement, killing hundreds.
  • Russia’s aggression extends beyond Ukraine, and NATO knows it.

In his Wednesday press conference in Louisville, the newly elected Senate Majority Mitch McConnell sounded upbeat about the legislative agenda after the Republicans’ election night wins. He mentioned progress on trade, tax reform, and forcing a vote at last on the Keystone XL pipeline, which has been hanging fire for the better part of a decade. But “the first thing I need to do,” he said, “is get the Senate back to normal, and that means working more.”  

Far to the east, the newly elected speaker of the Ukrainian rebel regions’ parliament also sounded optimistic about the upcoming legislative session.  “I am certain that we must close the circle,” said Oleg Tsarov. “The civil war that started in Odessa must end in Odessa, as well.” That’s Odessa, Crimea, or Odessa, Russia, depending on how permanent you believe Russia’s annexation of Crimea to be.  But it’s certainly not Odessa, Ukraine, which is what it was in February. 

Related: Ukraine’s Election Poses Big Questions for the U.S. 

Doublespeak is endemic to politics, pleasant fictions and meaningless words of a game where so much is for show. There’s some in the American system, where McConnell, for instance, might not actually be that optimistic about getting legislation passed. There’s much more in the separatist’s system. Oleg Tsarov is not “elected,” nor a “Speaker,” and certainly not in a “parliament,” in the Westminster sense of political representatives who make laws.  But that’s how he styles himself and a “speaker” he will likely remain. 

Perhaps the most doublespeak word is “ceasefire,” as in the September 5th Minsk-agreed ceasefire between Ukrainian rebels and Ukrainians and Russians.  According to the Minsk protocol, any vote in the rebel areas had to be conducted under the auspices of the Ukrainian government and in any case couldn’t happen before December 7th.  Western European leaders like David Cameron have thus called the elections illegal, and urged Putin to condemn them. 

Unfortunately, Putin doesn’t really care, and neither do his rebels. Still, it’s nice that somebody still believes in the Minsk agreement, because the antagonists themselves mostly do not. Since the Sept 5th ceasefire, hundreds of people have been killed in random shelling, assaults, and the anonymous violence of civil wars. Ukrainian forces holding the Donetsk airport are still under siege by rebels, and the Ukrainian president Poroshenko has ordered reinforcements to the front. 

The deteriorating situation in Ukraine might deserve its low profile if it was just violence in Ukraine. But it’s not. It’s symptomatic of renewed Russian pressure all along the frontier with Europe. Days after the cease-fire came into force (again, escaping doublespeak is impossible), Russian forces abducted an Estonian security service officer and spirited him away in a car into Russia. It’s not clear if he’s back.  A mystery submarine was near Stockholm, and on October 28thNATO fighters from several countries scrambled to intercept four groups of Russian aircraft conducting potential nuclear drills along the alliance’s periphery. 

Related: Ukraine Crisis Deepens After Rebel Vote in East 

The objective of this pressure is ostensibly to split NATO.  In the short run, according to Tsarov, the Russians and their rebels seem to be aiming at capturing enough of Ukraine’s coastline to create a land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, which is now accessible to them only by water.  But over the long run, Russia’s intent is to force the states along NATO’s periphery to react strongly; to react as if, per John Kerry, there is a 19th century threat.  

They will; and that reaction will be profoundly unsettling for many Western European nations, which make up the bulk of traditional NATO and often have the unfortunate diplomatic tic of acting puzzled by aggression, like somebody who violated the seating chart at dinner.  After the rebels’ November 2 elections, for example, the German government responded that the vote was unlawful because it was not in compliance with the Minsk agreement, Ukrainian law or the Ukrainian constitution.  Angela Merkel’s office said it could not understand how Russia could consider recognizing the elections.  

Related: Ukraine Peace Plan in Tatters 

But the periphery states understand. States like Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, and Sweden have to understand that the doubletalk is newspeak--that it’s almost meaningless, and they have to take the Russian threat seriously. Poland has responded to the ceasefire by realigning its entire force structure east, to fight the Russians in case of invasion.  Both Sweden and Finland are examining ways to deepen cooperation with NATO, and Moldova is edging towards changing its traditionally neutralist stance.  

In one form or another, these states are preparing for war.  Eventually, one or many – but most likely the Poles – are going to push back against Russian aggression in Ukraine, either surreptitiously with “volunteers” or overtly with some sort of joint units. And then there will be a crisis, because some NATO states will be in a war and others will back them up. 

So despite the doublespeak, despite the conferences, despite the de-escalatory frameworks and timetables, NATO is heading towards a crisis that could remake the face of Western security. The Senate Republicans might pass some landmark legislation over next few years, and even confirm a judge or two, but America will be shaped more by Sunday’s elections in Luhansk and Donetsk than Tuesday’s in Boulder and Louisville. 

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