Ukraine crisis — Brinksmanship to blitzkrieg to . . . ?

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By John J. Metzler

Vladimir Putin has rolled the dice. And now he has moved militarily on Ukraine.

Significantly, shortly after the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Putin began his dismemberment of Ukraine in the Donbas then Crimea. Washington watched but did little.

It appears that the Russian despot is following the same script by supporting pro-Russian stooge regimes inside Ukraine’s territory; Donetsk and Luhansk “republics.”

Traffic jam for those leaving the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. / RFE-RL / Antonio Bronic / Reuters

As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned, “The decision by the Russian Federation to recognize the so called ‘independence’ of certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk is a violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.” He added, “It is time for restraint, reason and de-escalation.”

But during a late-night emergency meeting of the Security Council, Putin struck.

Jolted delegates faced the inevitable: A massive land war in Europe. Secretary General Guterres implored, “President Putin, stop your troops from attacking Ukraine, give peace a chance.”

Later U.S. President Joe Biden stated that Putin “has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering.”

In the meantime, President Biden has pugnaciously warned Putin about the consequences of an invasion and slammed an escalating series of economic sanctions on Russia which are aimed at deterring further aggression.

Equally among European states, most notable has been Germany’s suspension of the controversial Nordstream 2 pipeline which makes central Europe even more dependent on Russian energy supplies.

Russia is planning “the biggest war in Europe since 1945” warned British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. But will the attack be a massive armored blitzkrieg with flanking maneuvers heading for Kiev the capital, or an incremental piece by piece salami tactic the old Soviet often followed? In other words, seize some territory, stop, talk? The answer is unfolding before us.

The Kremlin arrogantly views a sovereign Ukraine as a “little brother” under the protection and direct control of Mother Russia. Putin doesn’t wish to devastate Ukraine but to destroy its sovereignty and turn the region into a compliant comrade as during Soviet times.

Since October there has been a steady drumbeat of threats and fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin would attack Ukraine, largely because that sovereign country wishes to join NATO at some point in the future.

Weeks of intense diplomacy saw Putin become the epicenter of global attention as French, British, German and other diplomats rushed to the Kremlin to talk peace. Putin reminds them with bemused contempt and a twinkling smirk, of their energy vulnerability and dependence on a spider web of Russian gas pipelines which bind them all together.

An information war has reached full spin cycle between Moscow and Washington. Claims, charges and counter-charges have created a chaos of confusion abetting Putin’s plans.

Theatrics aside, an American/Russian military clash through miscalculation is totally possible during this dangerous “grey zone conflict” posturing and wider conflict.

Fire is seen at a military installation near the airport in Mariupol.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequent collapse of the former Soviet East Bloc, the Atlantic Alliance was expanded to former members of Moscow’s Warsaw Pact. This was a bitter pill for Russia to accept. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined NATO in 1999 and the Baltic States in 2004.

Russia opposes any further NATO enlargement, especially on its frontiers. This conflict with the Kiev government has been simmering since 2014; Now the conflict has exploded.

Nonetheless neither NATO nor the U.S. are treaty bound to defend Ukraine as we are Poland or Lithuania. Still since 2014 the U.S. has provided more than $2.5 billion in military aid to Ukraine.

The UN General Assembly has met in urgent session to soundly condemn Moscow’s actions.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba issued a dire warning, “We are currently in the midst of the largest security crisis in Europe since the Second Word War. The crisis was created and is being escalated by one side unilaterally, by the Russian Federation.” He added, “The beginning of a large-scale war in Ukraine will be the end of the world order as we know it.”

U.S. Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield stated, “we stand at a crossroads in the history of this body.” (UN) She added, “Russia’s actions are an unprovoked violation of international law, of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The European Union Ambassador Olof Skoog stated, “Russia’s past and present actions against Ukraine are not a matter just for Ukraine or for Europe. They have severe global implications.”

“The world is calling for peace, but Russia is not listening,” United Kingdom Amb. Barbara Woodward stated. Clearly there’s no sane alternative for Europe.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]