Like a transmission belt, a series of strategic hot spots fuel tension in Eastern Europe, a region in which Russia tries at all costs to maintain its influence. The concentration of 114,000 Russian military personnel with heavy weapons near Ukraine’s borders has further raised the alert in Kiev and triggered the alarm of the United States and other NATO countries, who believe that the Kremlin could pursue a new military conflict. . Meanwhile, the pressure remains on another flank of the Kremlin’s geopolitical board, with the humanitarian and migration crisis on the Belarusian border with Poland and Lithuania, in what Brussels considers a “hybrid war” by Minsk, an ally of Moscow, whom They accuse of using migrants, vulnerable and desperate to reach the EU, as a “weapon”. And all at the gates of cold winter, in the midst of a global energy crisis and when Russian President Vladimir Putin has the key to gas, of which Russia is the largest supplier to the EU.
“Indivisible” elements, says the analyst María Avdeeva, with which the Kremlin tries to combine different formulas of destabilization and threats, exploiting vulnerabilities – such as the migration issue, unresolved and very divisive within the EU, or energy – to pursue your goals and interests. Such as the approval of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which will bring Russian gas directly to Germany through the Baltic Sea without going through Ukraine and Poland, and whose certification the German regulator suspended this week, an administrative stoppage that, although it has not yet alluded to hide political motivations, heats the spirits of Moscow. “Russia is also trying to gain more power and influence, to show by bravado that it is a powerful country with which you have to sit down and negotiate,” says Avdeeva, an expert in security and disinformation at the think tank Ukrainian European Expert Association.
In recent days, the alert in Ukraine has risen to its highest level since 2014, when Russia – which saw the country that had kept under its umbrella of influence moving further and further towards a pro-Western stance after the mobilizations Europeanists and against corruption who turn eight this Sunday – the Crimean peninsula was annexed with a referendum considered illegal by the international community, also held with Russian forces on the ground. The Russian military concentration this month, the United States has warned, recalls that prelude to annexation and the start of the Donbas war, the last war in Europe, where the conflict with pro-Russian separatists supported politically and militarily by the Kremlin it has already claimed some 14,000 lives.
Already in spring, Russian troop movements near Ukraine – a strategic country for the West – triggered the alarm of NATO and the EU. This time, however, it may be different, the United States has warned. The concentration of troops is greater and more extensive along the Russian borders with Ukraine and Belarus, it includes the heavy weapons that the Russian Army left on the ground in spring, when Moscow announced a demobilization that was never completed, and also defense material more sophisticated, Western intelligence agencies warn. The Kremlin assures that it does not have to give any justification to move its troops within its territory and accuses NATO of destabilizing maneuvers and of provoking its reaction with a greater proximity to Ukraine.
The outlook, warns Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who has met with senior officials from the US, the EU and NATO to discuss the situation, is “extremely worrying.” “What we have now is not just troops doing military maneuvers. It is a more extensive mobilization, with camps, reserves, tanks, artillery, radio interference systems. A complete military infrastructure deployed along our border that creates military pressure on Ukraine, ”Kuleba details in an interview at the ministry’s headquarters in Kiev. “The situation is constantly changing and Russia can increase its forces and act in the blink of an eye,” insists the minister, who believes that at the same time that it exploits the military route, Moscow is forcing all kinds of keys and “squandering” the route. diplomat.
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The objective of the Moscow mobilization is still uncertain. Washington and London believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is considering military action to seize control of a larger piece of Ukraine’s land or is trying to drive the country into extreme tension with the aim of destabilizing and overthrowing it. to the Government of Volodymir Zelensky, a former comedian who came to the presidency in 2019 and who could once be perceived as weaker when it comes to taking on veteran Putin, who has moved to strengthen his alliances with the West and maintains a position of hawk in defense.
The Kremlin, Western intelligence official warns, is shaking or taking advantage of different destabilizing crises like dominoes, which could see this as the most ideal time to shake the board and undertake some kind of aggression. Especially with many eyes on the humanitarian and immigration crisis. Veteran Ukrainian analyst Volodymyr Fesenko doubts that Russia is considering new military operations against Ukraine on a large scale. There would be no short-term benefit from it, says the expert, who however does not rule out local military operations.
It is also possible, says Fesenko, that Russia tries to provoke an acute political crisis in Ukraine with a change of power through the energy crisis in which the eastern country is plunged – which in addition to electricity and coal supply problems runs the risk of losing an important revenue channel in the form of transit rights with the approval of Nord Stream 2—. “If, as a result of that crisis, the Administration weakens and the political situation worsens, a scenario like that of 2014 could be repeated: Russian special services could provoke unrest in pro-Russian regions and the Kremlin could refer to that as a reason. to introduce troops into certain Russian-speaking regions in southeastern Ukraine, ”Fesenko abounds. “That is the main risk, not so much a great war as a new hybrid scenario,” he says.
The defense of the Russians has been one of the favorite intervention arguments of the Kremlin’s playbook, which has distributed more than 600,000 Russian passports in the last few years in the separatist regions of eastern Ukraine of Donetsk and Luhansk. This week, President Putin signed a decree that dictates that “humanitarian support” must be provided to residents of certain districts of those two regions, to “avoid a further worsening of living conditions amid the continuing economic blockade and deterioration of the situation of the coronavirus ”. Putin also ordered the government to facilitate the access of Donetsk and Lugansk products to Russian markets and participation in state procurement and tenders.
And above all this looms the shadow of a 5,000-word article that Putin wrote in July on the “historical unity” of Russia and Ukraine, covering centuries of imperial and cultural ties and in which he criticized the borders of Kiev and said never it would allow it to become “anti-Russia.” In a speech to members of the Russian diplomatic corps in Moscow on Thursday, Putin, who has a growing appetite to restore Russia to the position of strength of the imperial era, stressed that Moscow is using its military to force the West to respect Moscow’s interests in the region. Faced with the warning calls from NATO and the EU, the Russian leader assured that Western countries are finally recognizing the importance for Russia of defending its “red lines”: the proximity of forces from the Atlantic Alliance.
Analysts close to the Kremlin and Russian state television do not tire of reeling off the NATO threat, describing Ukraine as an Alliance playground, and speak of “imminent provocations.” The Russian political scientist Aslan Rubaev, does not hesitate to foresee that in a few weeks the conflict will break out. The analyst also speaks of “provocations” by the West and assures that Moscow is being “dragged” into another war in the post-Soviet space. “NATO will not openly clash with Russia, it will push Russia against Ukraine as it is doing now,” says Rubaev.
As fears grow over the Russian mobilization, Ukraine, which is already cooperating by exchanging information with its allies and has received an aid package from the United States to deal with the war in the East, speaks of the importance of a coordinated response. “Russia should feel that the West will not allow it to organize another bloodshed,” says Minister Kuleba. “We do not count on foreign troops to come and defend us. We will fight for ourselves, but NATO’s political messages are very important, “says the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, who refers to a” deterrence package “in the form of sanctions that the EU could take if the Kremlin acts aggressively.
The energy crisis, however, which has made Europe even more dependent on Russian gas – especially some countries for which it accounts for more than 70% of its source – has elevated Moscow to a position of strength and fear of Problems with access to energy supply on the eve of winter could lighten the response of some EU members and limit support for more sanctions. The landscape, with more and more open fronts, threatens to heat up the cold winter.
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