In the Russia-Nato confrontation, a point of no return may not be too far off

The increased intensity in their standoff underlines ineffectual mechanisms at play internationally

Germany's new Defence Minister Boris Pistorius (R) holds a joint press conference with Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg after talks on January 24, 2023 at the Defence Ministry in Berlin.  AFP
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On the global landscape today, there appears to be a lack of international mechanisms to deter reckless political and military decisions, making threats such as nuclear war a possibility. This is down to smaller scales, where certain regional actors engage in rogue behaviour, confident that the hands of justice will never touch them.

The theoretical mechanisms of the UN in New York, International Tribunals in the Hague, or human rights forums in Geneva are paralysed by political and bureaucratic calculations. As a result, there is no international mechanism for accountability left.

The developments of the Ukraine war suggest we are on the verge of entering a war without rules between Russia and the US-led Nato powers. The rules of conventional warfare will be suspended if we cross a point of no-return, now fast approaching.

The compounded military aid package approved this week by the Biden administration, Germany, Britain, Canada, Italy, France, and other Nato powers, plus contributions from non-Nato states, will go beyond the transfer of main battle tanks, though even this alone will mark a qualitative shift in the war.

Infantry soldiers of the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces, in front of a Puma infantry fighting vehicle, during a visit by German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius on January 26, near Moeckern, Germany. Getty

Dates in this context have importance, not just for the delivery of missiles, tanks, and ammunition to Ukraine, but also in terms of Russian and Ukrainian preparations for decisive offensives in the next two months.

March is set to be a focal month for the offensive strategies of Russia, Ukraine and Nato. A hot war could then replace the cold war because of the radical difference between a war on Ukraine, and a Nato war with Russia. The issue now goes beyond winning a round or a battle. It will be a war for survival between Russia and Nato, not just a war of victory or defeat between Russia and Ukraine.

Whose offensive will succeed then, come March? This is the heart of the race, amid the impossibility of launching any international initiatives for a political solution, and the de facto collapse of international mechanisms supposed to prevent such dangerous escalations. The UN and its agencies are, for all intents and purposes, ineffective and powerless to act. Even at the level of rhetoric, the UN has failed the tests of conscience and political influence.

Military experts familiar with Russian and western strategies in Ukraine anticipate the fighting will escalate relentlessly beginning in February. As the timeline for the delivery of western tanks and military aid to Ukraine approaches, there is an increased likelihood that the war between Russia and Ukraine becomes a direct war between Russia and Nato.

There are many possible triggers for such a terrifying scenario, including Poland. Poland is playing a crucial role as an indispensable gateway for the delivery of advanced weaponry from Nato to Ukraine. If Russia carries out a strike on Poland, it would effectively risk triggering a new world war. Under Article 5 of its charter, Nato is legally obligated to respond to any aggression against a Nato member state.

Estonia is another example of how the containment of Russia’s military capabilities is expanding. Estonia announced recently that it is considering the establishment of a contiguous zone regime in the Gulf of Finland, giving it the ability to close the waterway to Russia and isolate Saint Petersburg. Estonia is a Nato member and Finland is in the process of joining the alliance. With the help of other Nato states, the two countries would then have the ability to blockade the port in Saint Petersburg, the largest in Russia and the Baltic Sea. Russia expelled Estonia’s envoy this week, to protest the actions of the government of Estonia. Once part of the Soviet Union, Estonia has recently announced a 113 million euro military aid package to Ukraine, the largest in its history, and equivalent to 1 per cent of its GDP, according to an Estonian ambassador.

The Baltic Sea's coast in Tallinn, Estonia, on January 24. AP

There has been a crucial element in the equation of reducing conflict and building trust between the US and Russia known as the strategic arms reduction treaty or the Start Treaty for nuclear and other strategic arms reduction. But in late last November, Moscow indefinitely postponed a meeting with Washington to discuss the resumption of inspections under the New Start Treaty signed in 2010. Last week, three months after the postponement of that meeting, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that the current state of US-Russian relations did not allow for further talks, accusing the US of “provoking Russia”. At some stage, he added, Russia’s reaction will lead to a kind of collapse. The Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, had previously said that arms control talks cannot be separated from "geopolitical realities”.

The Start treaty was created in order to contain conflict during the Cold War. The collapse of the treaty today risks provoking a nuclear war between Washington and Moscow in a hot war that may not stop at the brink, as happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The expiry date for this agreement is February 2026, but there are nuclear concerns accompanying the Ukrainian war and Moscow's rejection of returning to these talks and of further inspections of its nuclear sites, to which the US is entitled to under the treaty.

US President Joe Biden has agreed to supply Ukraine with 31 Abrams battle tanks, to encourage Germany to donate Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv. Britain is training Ukrainian forces on using Challenger tanks, and Norway and others have made similar pledges, forming together what Ukraine has described as a grand "tank coalition".

The offensive weapons package includes in addition to tanks around 1100 missiles, drones, and other hardware. Non-Nato states are also chipping in. Italy, for example, has supplied both its own equipment and drones from Israel.

The West seems unconvinced about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats about nuclear weapons, given that this would lead to the destruction of Russia before the destruction of western powers

We are today seeing an Iranian-Israeli competition in drone warfare in Ukraine. Russia has come to rely in great measure on Iranian drones, which have overturned western-Iranian relations and adversely affected the Vienna talks that sought to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran.

The UN has made soft criticism of the entry of heavy tanks into the Ukraine war, while former US President Donald Trump expressed fierce opposition to the move, warning it could lead to nuclear war. But a question here is – why is the US not concerned about this possibility? More urgently, why are the European states not concerned by this either, given their proximity to what would be ground zero?

The West seems unconvinced about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats about nuclear weapons, given that this would lead to the destruction of Russia before the destruction of western powers. Russia’s strategic missiles would take 40 minutes to reach the US, according to one nuclear expert, while their US counterparts could hit Russia in 15 minutes. The West thus seems to be betting on Mr Putin’s fear of becoming the cause of Russia’s destruction. Further, the West also seems to be betting that the Russian military understands that the price Russia would pay in the event of nuclear war would be many times more what the West would incur, and thus would blink first.

One of the problems here, however, is that the Russian military and Mr Putin are convinced Russia can win a nuclear war with Nato, in keeping with their belief Russia can win the war in Ukraine. In other words, the political and military compass of the Nato powers and Russia seems to be broken, along with their instruments of self-restraint. Progressive military escalation appears to be unchecked and unfettered, with no international mechanisms to rein things in.

At a regional level, international mechanisms to keep chaos in check seem to be also suspended, either out of impotence or following narrow political calculations overshadowed by intimidation. Lebanon is a prime example. Neither has the UN sought to send a fact-finding mission into the Beirut Port explosion nor have the states with advanced satellite capabilities shared imagery of what happened on that fateful day in August 2020, each for different reasons.

There is also the crime of standing idly by the systematic assault led by Lebanon’s political class, foremost of which the "Shiite Duo" of Hezbollah and Amal, to stop the work of Tarek Bitar, the investigative judge in charge of the case. Ghassan Oweidat, a top prosecutor close to Hezbollah, even retaliated against Judge Bitar’s resumption of the investigation by spitefully releasing all those detained as part of the investigation and issuing counter charges against the investigative judge himself, slapping a travel ban on him and referring him to a judicial disciplinary body.

The supposed top law enforcing official in the land released all suspects in the case, betting on US support because one of the detainees is an American citizen, Mohammad Ziad Al Awf, whose lawyer said the US embassy in Beirut helped with travel arrangements for his client, taking him directly from prison to the airport. It appears the law of the jungle thus took over, amid a local-international farce, and international indifference to the suffering of the families of the victims of the blast.

Moral duty should have required a fact-finding mission at the time. It now requires holding accountable those who let the suspects escape. It is no achievement to smuggle out a citizen, even if he were innocent. The achievement needed is to conclude the investigation and ensure justice. It cannot be to empower the mutiny against it and enable those accused of involvement in the blast to cover up what happened. Such deals that encourage impunity are a disgrace, a stain on the record of everyone involved, be it local or international players, regardless of the justifications.

Published: January 29, 2023, 2:30 PM