NATO chief demands Cold War-style hotline as fighting escalates with Russian-backed rebels
You can ascertain tension has escalated to a very serious state of jitters when NATO believes the need for Cold War-style hotlines with Moscow to avert abrupt, armed clashes in eastern Europe.
This is no routine diplomatic warning. Hotlines are set up when parties fear there is a real possibility one side or the other might accidentally push a tense crisis into an armed clash capable of triggering actual war.
The first one, famously, was set up between Washington and Moscow after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis pushed the 2 superpowers to the brink of thermonuclear war, and was kept in readiness all through the long Cold War.
We’re not near that level of danger currently. But relations between Russia and the Western allies are bad enough to trigger official alarm given the increasing security issues and steady growth of forces – from the Baltic region to the Black Sea, on both sides of the Russian border.
Moscow and the West fault each other for the antagonism, and on April 20 the first meeting in two years between Moscow and NATO to try to relieve the standoff over Ukraine ended with neither hint of advancement nor any feeling there’ll be an easing of the current military escalation in central and eastern Europe.
That is when conversation of hotlines came up. NATO is especially worried with a renewal of clashes in eastern Ukraine along with what it views as large-scale snap Russian military manoeuvres near the border regions of eastern Europe.
Those manoeuvres are “clearly destabilizing,” a NATO diplomat informed Reuters.
With both sides operating in ground exercises, along with naval and air surveillance, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called for hotlines to prevent inadvertent clashes that might dive the whole region into combat.
“We have to use our lines of communications,” he was adamant after the April 20 meeting, forewarning that NATO-Russia relations have at this point descended into “profound disagreements.”
Stoltenberg may even have understated matters, given that the Russians talked of a complete breakdown in joint NATO-Russia working preparations.
“All co-operation projects that were important for the security of Russian and the NATO member countries has been discontinued,” was the frank comment of Alexander Grushko, Russia’s ambassador to NATO.
He gave no sign hotlines would be agreed to by Moscow.
The timing of such a break in communications could scarcely be worse.
April saw the sharpest escalation in fighting in months between Russia-sponsored separatist rebels and Ukrainian security forces along a 200-kilometre front in eastern Ukraine, based on international observers, who pointed to mounting civilian and military fatalities.
Ceasefire not stable
After a bitter war that cost 9,000 lives and displaced 1.2 million individuals, a ceasefire in the region has held shakily since Russia, Ukraine and NATO members signed the Minsk peace agreement in February last year.
But European observers currently alert of growing utilization of mortars and heavy artillery on both sides, along with increasing provocations against peace monitors.
European nations have been mainly worried of late with threats of terrorism and handling the refugee crisis – and are just coming to terms with the new crisis levels flaring in the east. Last week the most well known leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel cautioned that the ceasefire is no longer stable.
The Ukrainian government, in the meantime, has called up another 10,000 soldiers to add to the 250,000 now under arms and seems concerned the Russian-backed rebel armies are organizing for a major summer offensive.
That perspective is not only shared but expanded upon by Poland, Ukraine’s neighbour, which demands Moscow also has hostile intent against itself as well as other NATO members in the Baltic region.
“It’s time to talk about it openly,” Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz informed Polish media fairly recently, “So far, all Russian behaviour attests to systematic preparation for aggressive action.”
He later expanded on his warning in an interview with German Deutsche Welle TV by suggesting Russia is provoking Poland militarily and trying to change the whole security architecture of Europe.
Poland girds forces
To respond, Poland has announced a 50 % buildup of its own forces while demanding more assistance from NATO members. It has also produced new military partnerships with Ukraine and Romania as part of an increasing attempt to deter Russia.
This forging of new regional military ties underscores how fear over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions is expanding the range of military buildups. Ukraine has currently launched naval exercises with Turkey in the Black Sea, where much of the Russian navy is based.
Turkey, which has been engaged in a deepening feud with Putin since it shot down a Russian warplane suspected of entering its airspace, also announced an agreement to expand joint arms manufacturing projects with Ukraine, a move predicted to rile Moscow further.
As it is, Moscow has lamented repeatedly of the buildup of foreign forces along its western border, the very region its former Soviet Union controlled from the Baltic to the Black Sea as its natural “zone of influence” during the Cold War.
Since Russia’s takeover of the Crimea 2 years ago and the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine, Russian resentment and Western worry over Putin’s real intentions have fed response and counter-response buildups of forces, as well as some dangerous close encounters.
Buzzed by warplanes
In March the U.S. announced deployment to Europe of a new full combat armoured brigade of 4,500 troops with tanks and heavy equipment, intended to strengthen eastern defences. It has also enhanced naval exercises to assist the weak Baltic NATO members Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
In response, 2 weeks ago, 2 Russian fighters buzzed at very low altitude U.S. guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook 11 times as it conducted drills only 70 kilometres off Russian territory. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the intercepts so aggressive U.S. sailors would have been justified shooting the Russian SU-24s down.
Russia shrugged off the issues and, a few days later, the Americans lamented a U.S. reconnaissance plane was also buzzed by a Russian jet, suggesting more occurrences may follow.
Close interceptions in the air, growing military manoeuvres at sea and exercises on the ground, and renewed clashes in eastern Ukraine as the fighting season approaches all indicate it’s well past time for a new hotline to go up.
The need for one is terrible news. The fact there is not even an agreement in place for so basic a security step looks even rather more serious.