May 17, 2022 10:24 am

With the dialogue between Moscow and the West at an impasse, what can happen on the Russian-Ukrainian border?

BELGRADE, Serbia.- Fears of a possible Russian attack against Ukraine worsened after the failed negotiations in Europe to try to dissuade Moscow from escalating tensions and continuing to concentrate military forces on the Ukrainian border.

Russian authorities said last week’s talks failed. A senior official lamented the “dead end” of the current situation, saying there was no point in continuing after the United States and NATO flatly ruled out one of Russia’s main demands: that Ukraine, Georgia and other nations – including Sweden and Finland – do not join the Atlantic Alliance.

If Russia invades Ukraine, a country of 43 million people, NATO will be confronted with an inescapable reality: that not even a united front can prevent an autocratic government from violating established international rules. Moscow, for its part, denies planning an attack.

President Vladimir Putin now expects Washington and NATO to respond in writing to Russian demands on wide-ranging security issues, including his request that NATO withdraw its forces from Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.

These without the key points of the security crisis facing Europe.

Negotiations have already failed. And now that?

The failure of talks carries a heightened threat of war, military analysts say, citing recent movements by military logistics units and attack helicopters that indicate Russia is serious about a potential attack. Nearly eight years after its forceful annexation of Crimea, Russia insists it has no plans to invade Ukraine.

On Friday, the Russian military announced a flash check on the ability of military units stationed in the Far East to move quickly over long distances.

“From my point of view, the picture has gotten worse,” tweeted Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at the Center for Naval Analysis.

Russia’s warnings are unequivocal: It is prepared to use military force to protect its security interests, including its insistence that “Ukraine will never become a member of NATO”, according to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who described this demand as “non-negotiable.”

“Our patience has run out,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

A Ukrainian soldier walks in a trench at the line of separation with pro-Russian rebels in the Donetsk region.Andriy Dubchak – AP

What has Russia gained so far?

By concentrating forces near Ukraine and making far-reaching demands for security guarantees that he knows Washington and NATO will never accept, Putin succeeded in destabilizing Western leaders. Russia then threatened to end the talks if the Western alliance did not agree, all in a time window so tight it was practically unrealizable.

Putin managed to retain NATO’s attention. He obtained concessions from the United States, which offered to discuss the deployment and range of missiles in Europe at the negotiating table, restoring some aspects of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty, that Washington abandoned in 2019. But it did not reach .

“We have warned our interlocutors, especially the Americans, that it is not about a variety of options. It’s a package,” Lavrov said.

For Putin there was another unsatisfactory result: the new NATO unit. Former North American President Donald Trump mistrusted NATO and undertook to undermine the unity and purposes of the Atlantic alliance, even questioning one of its central principles, Article 5, which requires defending any of its members from any attack, for smaller than it is. In 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron lamented the “brain death of NATO”.

But Putin’s attempts to interfere with NATO membership and military deployments they revived the alliance’s commitment to its core principles, with key support from the Biden administration.

Is it all a pretext for Russia to go to war?

This is what many analysts fear. The Russian diplomatic position was strange: it did not use the usual strategy that usually prevails in long and closed-door negotiations on complex issues of security and arms control.

The publication of wide-ranging demands that had no chance of being accepted and his insistence that they be accepted immediately they set off the alarms and fueled the suspicion that Russia had done everything possible to make the talks fail and give it the excuse to initiate military action. Indeed, Russian officials raised doubts from day one about his continuing at the negotiating table.

The United States says Russia has a long history of “false flag operations” as a pretext to invade. “We already saw this script in 2014. They are repeating the same script,” said Jake Sullivan, White House national security adviser.

A White House official told reporters Friday that US intelligence had detected a group of operatives in eastern Ukraine who were in a position to mount a false flag operation against Russian-backed separatist forces. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and then began supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine.

On Saturday, in a statement addressed to the United States, the Russian embassy said that the Biden administration did not present “any evidence” of its accusations and that it was all part of the “incessant information pressure against our country.”

But there are other developments that could fuel Russian resentment against Ukraine. Russia has issued at least 600,000 passports to residents of breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, a possible pretext for military intervention. In December, Putin accused Ukraine of “genocide” there.

Last month, the Russian Federal Security Service arrested more than 100 members of an alleged Ukrainian extremist group, the MKU, which was allegedly planning terrorist attacks and mass murder. According to Russian media, MKU is the Ukrainian acronym for “Maniacs, Cult of Murder”.

A Ukrainian soldier takes up positions in a trench at the line of separation near the town of Yasne
A Ukrainian soldier takes up positions in a trench at the line of separation near the town of YasneAlexei Alexandrov – AP

How would the attack start?

The attack on Ukraine could start with cyberattacks and an information war. Analysts noted a recent increase in cyber intrusions against Ukraine, with Kiev on Friday reporting a “massive cyber attack” that temporarily blocked government websites.

On Wednesday, in a virtual presentation by the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, analyst Kofman predicted a joint forces operation, with massive use of artillery, multiple rocket launchers, air force and attack helicopters. Kofman believes that Russia – without necessarily taking the territory – could use overwhelming force to try to bring about a swift capitulation of Kiev.

Analysts raise other possibilities: Russia could take some territory in southern Ukraine and connect Crimea to Russia by land. Or, in the worst case, it could redraw the map forever, with a widespread multifrontal attack, aimed at dividing Ukraine in two and capturing all the territory east of the Dnieper River that flows through the center of the country.

What would a large-scale Russian attack mean for Europe?

The effects could last for years: punitive new sanctions designed to cut Russia out of the global financial system and hurt its economy; a complete severing of Washington’s relations with Moscow; and the likely demise of the $10.8 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany.

A major attack by Russia on Ukraine would imply a direct challenge to the international order that underpins European peace since the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, when the 1975 treaty was signed that affirmed that States were peers and equals and should not use threats or force.

If subjected to new sanctions, Russia has threatened to strike back at European security by stationing missiles near Europe. To this must be added the plans to deploy new hypersonic missiles and the drive to militarize the Arctic. On Thursday, Ryabkov did not rule out Russia deploying missiles in Cuba and Venezuela if tensions with Washington continue to rise.

An even greater escalation of tensions would increase the risk of misunderstandings unleashing a military conflict with catastrophic consequences.

With Europe dependent on Russia for 41% of the gas it consumes, Moscow could cut off its energy supply and look to other ways to exert pressure: cyberattacks, disinformation or possible orchestrated crises, such as a renewed flow of migrants into Europe.

(Translation by Jaime Arrambide)

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