Ukrainian storm front threatens comfort zone of Western Europe

Special to

By John J. Metzler, March 5, 2024

LONDON — A stormy geopolitical weather front is converging on Western Europe as the Ukrainian war in the East has entered its third year with no end in sight.

Though the conflict remains largely frozen in military stalemate, its political reverberations throughout Europe, not to mention the United States, refocus on supplying necessary military aid to Kyiv as Spring approaches.

There’s more than a hint of hand wringing and political angst in European capitals over Ukraine’s fate which may soon unravel as an under-supplied Ukrainian military faces Russia’s unrelenting battering.

NATO nations, especially the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Poland have already supplied considerable military hardware, but supplies have dwindled.

Let’s face it, the fighting has severely depleted munitions stocks in NATO countries including the U.S.  Now Ukraine needs the artillery shells it was promised.  European Union countries pledged to send one million shells last year; in fact, they delivered about a third.  Ukraine has about 300 155mm big guns; but they blast through limited ammo supplies.

Ukrainian refugees queue to cross over into Poland via the Medyka border crossing in Shehyni, Ukraine. / Bloomberg

French President Emmanuel Macron pompously grandstanded that NATO troops could be sent to Ukraine to train to assist the beleaguered defenders.  Mon Dieu!   Macron’s comments sent capitals from London, Berlin and Washington to issue a resounding, No thanks!  (But let’s be frank British special forces units and trainers and probably Americans too are already inside Ukraine).

The Russian President speaking in a State of the Nation address warned, “The consequences for possible interventionists will be… tragic.”

Having spent a week in Britain, there’s a surreal sense of not only the Ukrainian war coming to a climax, but the very real threat of its politico/military effects spilling over into comfortable Western Europe.

Speaking in Paris, French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné told  France Inter Radio, “First of all there is a risk of Ukraine collapsing and there are consequences to this risk.”  I’m not talking about over five million Ukrainian refugees currently spread throughout Europe; The Minister claims that a collapse could send ten million refugees!

Then there’s the recurring fear that Russia may or will use nuclear weapons in the conflict.  War talk in the British newspapers, even without the colorful hyperbole of the popular tabloids, has become an uncomfortable staple; It has an eerie tone echoing what it must have been back in 1938-39 when threat emotions were oft changing as fast as London’s weather.

While renewed talk of Putin’s Russia probing NATO’s weak frontiers in the Baltic states is nothing new, has the time arrived for Putin to play his nuclear cards, tactical ones first?  It’s still not likely…but.

Putin warned, “We also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory,” adding, “All this really threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons and the destruction of civilization. Don’t they get that?”

Is this classic Kremlin blackmail or bluffing?

Clearly a “cornered Russia,” the perennial illusion/theme of Putinism and especially now in the aftermath of the Kremlin’s embarrassment after the regime orchestrated death of Russian pro-democracy leader Alexei Navalny, could change Putin’s political calculus!

All this comes to the backdrop of Defense cuts in the UK budget. While Britain has been among a select handful of NATO states to contribute over 2 percent of GDP to defense, the fact remains that Boris Johnson’s government opened the spigot of massive munitions to Ukraine at the expense of British security causing munitions shortfalls and overstretched commitments.

The current UK defense budget stands at 2.2 percent of GDP; Defense Secretary Grant Shapps is pressing to expand the spending to a more realistic budget of 2.5 percent this year with a $11.4 billion jump. An increase in military spending “will resonate with our allies and adversaries,”  he affirms.

All of this aims to stiffen the underlying message which is “we need to help Ukraine more.”

Speaking in Paris, French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné told  France Inter Radio, “First of all there is a risk of Ukraine collapsing and there are consequences to this risk.”

Outside of massive American military and economic aid already provided to Ukraine during both the Trump and Biden Administrations, there’s the promise to send yet another $60 billion if the administration can get its wider $95 billion Bill past an intransigent Republican Congress rightly concerned over Biden’s blank check policies to Kyiv.

Thus the additional $60 billion for Ukraine lingering in Congress should be linked to a verifiable ceasefire and truce negotiations.  Neither Ukraine nor Russia are going to clearly “win” this war; The long suffering Ukrainian people are living in the twilight of fear.

The Ukraine war, since Crimea’s occupation, has been going on for a decade. Now its spillover threatens Western Europe which stands on the brink.

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]