The Kremlin could find itself on the verge of escalating Russia’s war with Ukraine in the Donbas region, even as it weighs its options over how to respond to the likelihood of Sweden and Finland joining Nato after decades of maintaining neutrality.
Moscow likes to mark historical events, so there are two important dates to keep in mind.
On June 12, Russia will celebrate its National Day. By then, it will look to achieve some sort of a breakthrough in what is effectively a shadow war between itself and Nato inside Ukraine. December 28 marks another important occasion – the 100th anniversary of the erstwhile Soviet Union’s foundation. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin considers the USSR’s collapse three decades ago to be the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, he will be hoping for a substantive victory by the end of the year.
Nato, meanwhile, is scheduled to hold its annual summit in Madrid on June 29 and 30 to consider how much more involved it needs to be in the war.
There are whispers in the West that the alliance may be keener than it was two months ago to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Many member states, including the US and Germany, have so far resisted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s request to create one. There is a genuine concern that if Nato changes its position, the prospect of a direct aerial combat is almost certain, which could pave the way for a major war involving the rest of Europe.
Another development that will almost certainly trigger major tensions in Eastern Europe is if Poland decides to allow the US to deploy nuclear weapons on its soil. This will force Moscow to do the same in Kaliningrad, the tiny exclave it controls just north of Poland. Warsaw has yet to decide whether to give the US, a fellow Nato member, the green signal.
Moscow seems resigned to the prospect of Sweden and Finland joining Nato. It has avoided making direct threats against the two countries in recent weeks, even though their joining the alliance will effectively convert the Baltic Sea into “a Nato lake”, as one expert who did not wish to be named put it to me. Indeed, this would give Nato the ability to control the waters around Kaliningrad, which provides Russia’s only base in the Baltics.
The major hurdle for Nato right now is the objection that one of its members – Turkey – has sounded to allowing Sweden and Finland in. It has pointed to Sweden’s refusal to disavow its support of the Syrian Democratic Forces, considered an offshoot of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party. Ankara, though, may be willing to strike a deal with the West in return for dropping its veto, which could include EU aid necessary for Turkey to continue housing Syrian refugees within its borders, and US approval to readmit Turkey into its F-35 fighter jet programme.
Ankara’s possible acquiescence will come as a blow for Moscow. But Nato’s continued revival is not the only challenge Russia faces. Its strategic foothold in the Middle East where, it has built valuable relationships over the years, is also in danger of loosening.
Its much-vaunted achievements in Syria, for instance, have become secondary to its objective of returning Ukraine to its sphere of influence. But such has been Moscow’s focus on Ukraine that the war there could well determine its presence inside Syria, where it is aligned to the Assad regime.
The thinking in Russia today is less strategic, but more tactical. This applies especially to Moscow’s equations with Israel, Iran and Hezbollah.
Russian-Israeli relations have soured in recent weeks for a number of reasons, including the latter’s belated criticism of the Ukraine war. Whether this drifting of sorts means that Iran, an ally of Russia, will be tempted to provoke Israel into another proxy conflict in the region – without Russia’s willingness to restrain Tehran – remains to be seen. The jury is also out on whether Hezbollah will attempt to create tensions on Lebanon’s border with Israel, forcing the latter to seek Moscow’s help to rein in the group.
The important thing to note, however, is that just months ago, Russia was an important actor shaping major international decisions. Today, its global influence is limited to its UN Security Council veto power through which it can at best paralyse the international body. It has little assistance to provide to Iran and is undecided on what role to play in the discussions to revive the nuclear deal between Tehran and the Security Council members, plus Germany.
This receding of Russian influence has benefited Washington.
US President Joe Biden’s leadership is now being taken seriously – not just in Europe, where he has brought Nato members together, but in the Middle East also, where he has used his administration’s strong ties with Israel to persuade it to shed its previously neutral stance on the war. Moreover, he has overcome the notorious partisan divide in Washington to sign a $40 billion aid package to Ukraine. What merits close attention is his ongoing charm offensive with the Arab nations, which could also have important implications for the world at large.
With fewer allies in its corner, the pressure is weighing even more heavily on the leadership in Moscow. Which way the wind blows, in a manner of speaking, in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk over the coming weeks could well determine whether Russia can gain some of the ground it has lost since the war began in February.