BBC - Russia-Ukraine crisis: Why Brussels fears Europe is 'closest to war' in decades

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Jan 23, 2022, 12:54:54 PMJan 23

Russia-Ukraine crisis: Why Brussels fears Europe is 'closest to war' in
By Katya Adler
Europe editor

Published5 days ago
Ukraine conflict
A militant of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People"s Republic (DNR) holds
a weapon at fighting positions on the line of separation from the
Ukrainian armed forces near the rebel-controlled settlement of Yasne
(Yasnoye) in Donetsk region, Ukraine January 14, 2022.
Image caption,
Pro-Russia militants are on the frontline in the contested Donbas region

"Europe is now closer to war than it has been since the break up of
former Yugoslavia."

Stark words of warning from the senior EU diplomat I've just been
speaking to off the record about current tensions with Moscow, over its
huge military build-up on the border with Ukraine.

The mood in Brussels is jumpy. There's a real fear that Europe could be
spiralling towards its worst security crisis in decades.

But angst isn't wholly focused on the prospect of a long, drawn-out
ground war with Russia over Ukraine.

Few here believe Moscow has the military might, never mind the money, or
popular support back home for that.

True: the EU warns the Kremlin of "extreme consequences" should it take
military action in neighbouring Ukraine. Germany's new Foreign Minister
Annalena Baerbock was in Kyiv and Moscow saying just that on Monday.

Sweden moved hundreds of troops over the weekend to its strategically
important Gotland island - which lies in the Baltic Sea. And Denmark
strengthened its presence in the region a few days before that.

The rising tensions have also re-ignited the debate in both Finland and
Sweden as to whether they should now join Nato.

But the overarching concern in the West - Washington, Nato, the UK and
the EU - is less the possibility of conventional warfare over Ukraine,
and far more, that Moscow is seeking to divide and destabilise Europe -
shaking up the balance of continental power in the Kremlin's favour.

Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told me late last year that
the West needed to "wake up from its geopolitical slumber" regarding
Moscow's intentions.

Media caption,
Poland's prime minister says Russia and its allies want to "disunite" the EU
Fellow EU countries would say they have now woken up and are smelling
very strong coffee.

But, as is so often the case when it comes to foreign policy, EU leaders
are far from united over which precise course of action to take.

Moscow denies - despite the massive build-up of troops on the border
with Ukraine - that it's planning a military invasion. But it has issued
Nato with a list of security demands. Loudly blaming the alliance for
"undermining regional security", Vladimir Putin insists, among other
things, that Nato bans Ukraine and other former Soviet states from ever
becoming members of the organisation.

Nato flatly refused and the three summits held over the last week or so,
between Russia and Western allies, have failed to find much common ground.

Is Russia preparing to invade Ukraine?
Russia and West talk all week but war risk remains
What Vladimir Putin plans to do next is unclear. But the West believes
the Kremlin has invested too much in its very public manoeuvres over
Ukraine to back down now, without something to show for it.

The Biden administration is waiting impatiently for a forceful EU
position on possible sanctions, depending on what course of action
Moscow takes: a military incursion into Ukraine, cyber attacks,
disinformation campaigns or - as is considered most likely - a mish-mash
of hybrid attacks.

EU optimists predict the bloc will agree a raft of possible sanctions by
24 January, at the next foreign ministers' meeting. But that's far from

A number of EU countries are umming and ahing about the cost of eventual
sanctions to their own economies. Brussels normally discusses
burden-sharing, but the outcome of those negotiations may well not
please everyone.

There's also widespread concern in EU countries about gas supplies from
Russia. Especially with prices already so high for European households
this winter.

Washington says it's looking into ways of softening the impact on energy

It wants to hurry the EU into agreeing a firm position on sanctions -
knowing all too well that, on foreign policy, approval needs to be
unanimous amongst member states.

Were post-Brexit relations easier between the UK and EU, you'd expect a
lot more shuttle diplomacy right now between London, Berlin and Paris to
compare and discuss ideas, maybe agreeing a common course of action.

Brussels diplomats slightly cattily describe the UK government as
"probably too wrapped up in domestic political scandals to have
geopolitics top of its in-tray right now", but they openly admit the UK
is fully engaged on the Russia-Ukraine issue within Nato.

On Monday, British defence secretary Ben Wallace announced Britain was
supplying Ukraine with short-range anti-tank missiles for self-defence.
He said a small team of British troops would also provide training.

Mr Wallace earlier warned Moscow that there would be "consequences" for
any Russian aggression towards Ukraine. Britain would "stand up to
bullies", he said, no matter how far away the conflict.

Washington insists there's no time to lose. It says the Kremlin is
considering a "false-flag" operation "laying the groundwork to have the
option of fabricating a pretext for invasion" - i.e. blaming Ukraine for
an attack that Russian operatives would carry out.

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds talks with U.S. President Joe
Biden via a video link in Sochi, Russia December 7, 2021
Image caption,
The Russian and US leaders have spoken via video link and over the phone
The Kremlin dismissed Washington's assertion as "unfounded".

But US officials say Moscow is preparing to repeat a pattern seen back
in 2014 when it accused Kyiv of abuses before Kremlin-backed forces
seized control of Ukraine's southern peninsula of Crimea.

The territory has a Russian-speaking majority. It then voted to join
Russia in a referendum that Ukraine and the West consider illegal.
Thousands then died in the conflict that ensued in eastern Ukraine.

The West is bracing for what might follow now.

More on this story
Is Russia preparing to invade Ukraine?
Published3 days ago
US warns of Russian 'false-flag' Ukraine operation
Published14 January
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