Will Nato strike Russian forces inside Ukraine?

Decisions to be made this month will determine the direction conflicts in Europe and the Middle East will take

Flags of Nato member countries flap in the wind outside the alliance headquarters in Brussels last week. AP Photo
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Between the Nato summit and US President Joe Biden’s visit to the Middle East, both in the next few weeks, key developments could overturn the balance in both the Russia-West and Israel-Iran equations. Breakthroughs on either front cannot be ruled out, but neither can serious setbacks.

Given Kyiv's stiff resistance inside Ukraine, Russia's originally stated strategic goals will have required its years-long occupation of the country that, in turn, could have led to an insurgency and a war of attrition. So, for now, Moscow will aim to conquer chunks of its territory, especially the Donbas region. The Kremlin’s wager is that Ukraine's European allies do not have the capability to thwart its strategy, and that Kyiv will suffer more losses than Moscow in the battle for the east. In its calculations, seizing vital territory no matter the cost constitutes a victory, as long as the West limits its intervention to supplying weapons, money and political support to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

But a surprise may come during the Nato summit on June 29 and 30 in Madrid. Preparations are under way to send a strong response to the Kremlin to prevent it from winning in Donbas, a victory that could tempt it once again to try to capture Kharkiv and even Kyiv. I am given to believe that Nato is thinking not about how to secure a victory for Ukraine but how to immediately abort Russia’s military operations.

A decision to launch these operations won't be an easy one for Nato to make

My sources say that Nato powers are preparing to “intervene” by launching “special military operations” in Ukraine that are in line with the UN Charter. The important feature of this strategy is that it would make a distinction between launching direct attacks on Russia and attacking invading Russian forces inside Ukraine. This would mark a major shift in the war and in the West’s standoff with Moscow.

The logic to this strategy is that there can be no further delay in stopping Russian advances. But were this to happen, the questions worth asking are, could this lead to the expansion of these "special operations" outside Ukraine; who would blink first; and when could such an escalation occur? Finally, who would pay a higher cost for it?

A direct Nato intervention could amount to a setback for Russia’s military plans, particularly because Nato aircraft are situated closer to Ukrainian military positions than Russian aircraft. In the western assessment, even if Russia were to deploy tactical nukes in Ukraine, the blame placed on Moscow as a result of such a move would increase Russia’s isolation in the world. Nato, after all, can say that Russia did it and that Russia is responsible.

A decision to launch these operations won't be an easy one for Nato to make. It could even prove costly for its leaders. However, the alliance has assessed that it will emerge a winner if it settles the military battle against Russian forces in Ukraine.

Having said this, the Kremlin retains some advantages. For one, it stands to benefit from French President Emmanuel Macron's recent proposal to mediate between Mr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin, particularly if the latter insists that the meeting be held on his terms. Moscow will also rely on Nato member Turkey to veto the alliance's plans; it has slowed Finland and Sweden's membership drive, to Moscow’s advantage.

Russia, meanwhile, still believes that escalation in Israel-Iran tensions would serve its interests. Despite its willingness to facilitate a breakthrough at the Vienna talks over a possible western nuclear-oil deal with Iran, it won't mind the collapse of these talks and a subsequent confrontation between the regional adversaries. This is as long as it adds to the US’s list of concerns that it will be forced to resolve.

The Vienna talks, between Iran and the five permanent UN Security Council members, plus Germany, aren't clinically dead yet. Tehran continues to seek the lifting of US-led sanctions against it. But it has yet to find a formulation to exit the crisis that it created for itself by insisting that Washington delist the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist entity. The crisis over the switching off of cameras installed by the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor Tehran's nuclear programme has amounted to a further setback in the broader talks.

As Mr Biden considers "Plan B", his upcoming visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia will be part of a broader effort that goes beyond the pressures of securing a nuclear deal with Iran. The trip will affirm the strategic alliance with Israel and address the administration’s missteps in its early assessment of US-Saudi and US-Gulf relations. Mr Biden’s Saudi stop is expected to be part of his strategic reset in this regard. It will also send a message to Iran that he has run out of patience with its leadership, and that its regional behaviour has now imposed itself on the nuclear talks.

This will drive the Iranian regime’s anxiety at a time of alleged Israeli activities against it both inside Iran and in war-torn Syria. Tehran is said to be planning to retaliate against Israel through its proxies. If it does engage in a direct confrontation with Israel, as has also been suggested, this would mark a sharp shift in their equation. A source close to the IRGC said it is preparing “something serious” this month. Israel's attack on the Damascus airport earlier in the month, supposedly aimed at Iranian positions, has already raised the alarm.

However, Mr Biden’s trip may curb this confrontation, if Israel decides that embarrassing the US President is not in its interest, and that thwarting a nuclear deal with Iran would implicate it militarily. Israel believes that the US administration’s move to help deepen Israeli relations with Arab states is crucial, and that nothing should endanger this.

For its part, Iran may decide that its interests are best served through strategic patience, where securing a nuclear deal and ending economic sanctions are more important than military retaliation against Israel, directly or through proxies.

The mercurial nature of this dance between threats and negotiations is not reassuring. One fears not only for Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen to continue paying the price for being proxy arenas for Iran, but also the prospect of an Israel-Iran war, despite its unlikelihood. Indeed, developments in both the Middle East and Europe continue to be terrifying.

And yet, one can also hope that the inner machinations that are undoubtedly under way will lead to the containment of ever-threatening confrontations.

Published: June 19, 2022, 2:01 PM