Is a broader European war with Russia becoming inevitable?

Both Nato and Moscow should beware of complacency and misguided wagers

Ukrainian fighters pay their respects at the grave of a soldier in Vinnytsia last month. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Europe finds itself at a perilous juncture, as a direct military confrontation between Russia and Nato appears likelier than ever. Britain and France recently sent out strong signals that Moscow must not be allowed to win the war in Ukraine, as such an outcome could threaten the rest of the continent.

The prevailing belief so far has been that Russia would refrain from launching tactical nuclear strikes on British or French soil, despite its threats to do so if Kyiv used western-made missiles to strike inside its territory. The reason for this, in their estimation, is that Moscow would not risk an existential crisis as a consequence of such a countermeasure on its part.

However, those familiar with the Russian leadership’s mindset contend that it might be willing to take such a risk. This is because, for the Kremlin, the Ukraine issue is existential and non-negotiable – and thus, Moscow cannot ignore provocations or back down from its red lines.

The next two weeks could, therefore, prove critical for Europe, beginning with the 80th anniversary celebrations of D-Day in Normandy on Thursday, and leading up to the G7 summit in Italy and the Ukraine peace conference in Switzerland in mid-June.

But how did we get here? There has been a notable shift in the stance on the war, adopted by some European countries, in that they have endorsed Ukraine’s right to use Nato-supplied weaponry to strike military targets inside Russian territory.

Initially, US President Joe Biden hesitated to support Britain, France, Denmark and Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on this issue, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken has since aligned with this view, thereby lifting a previously enforced ban on Ukraine’s use of western weapons in Russia.

Poland and Romania are key players, as they are set to receive F-16 aircraft bound for Ukraine

Of course, significant divisions persist within Europe and between Europe and the US, particularly over the transfer of frozen Russian funds to aid Ukraine’s defence amid Moscow’s new military offensive that could alter the dynamics of the war. These divisions also concern Ukraine’s Nato membership, with the US and Germany showing caution. Berlin also disagrees with London and Paris over the use of western missiles to hit Russia, considering it to be dangerously escalatory.

Britain has further provoked Russia by supplying Ukraine with Storm Shadow missiles. Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron is openly providing missiles and threatening further action, believing that the only way for Ukraine to halt Russia’s advance is by striking on its soil.

Mr Macron is expected to announce in Normandy that he will send 150 military advisers and trainers to the frontlines, seen by some as a precursor to Paris becoming embroiled in a direct war with Moscow – one that could even involve the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

Despite divisions among Nato members, some Baltic states are also ready to send in their forces. It’s worth noting here that individual Nato countries are allowed to act independently; it appears that Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic support this approach, while Hungary and Slovakia oppose it.

Poland and Romania are key players, as they are set to receive F-16 aircraft bound for Ukraine, with the Kremlin asserting the right to strike these aircraft. For its part, Poland has hinted at action against Kaliningrad, a Russian semi-exclave that houses nuclear facilities.

I am given to understand that there is internal pressure on Russia’s leadership to conduct a nuclear test in Novaya Zemlya, a site used by the erstwhile Soviet Union for atmospheric and underground nuclear tests. There are also popular calls for a test to demonstrate Moscow’s readiness to use nuclear weapons against Nato.

Curiously, I am told, Russia isn’t ready to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, but it is prepared to use them against western forces targeting Russian territory, viewing this as justified.

On the eve of the Ukraine peace conference, the European message to Moscow is clear: either de-escalate and sue for peace or prepare for missile strikes inside its territory. Russia is unlikely to agree to a ceasefire, at least right now, for that would amount to defeat in its eyes.

The peace conference will be noteworthy, especially as the G7 summit will reaffirm support for Ukraine at a time when the West is increasingly concerned about Russian breakthroughs on the military front (even though, as some point out, Moscow hasn’t even managed to “liberate” the Donbas yet).

Western provocations, as seen by Moscow, include not only military actions but also what the latter considers to be the illegal seizure of its frozen assets. Estonia, for instance, recently adopted a law to confiscate such assets, further heightening tensions.

All this indicates that a countdown to a new type of confrontation is on the horizon. If Russia retaliates militarily to strikes inside its territory, we are talking about the possible escalation of the war to a tactical nuclear level – one that would almost certainly involve the US – even though a number of military officials on both sides downplay the fears of such a war.

The pressures being exerted by the West on the Kremlin in recent weeks aim to deter its officials from entertaining such a scenario. However, there is no indication that coercion will succeed. Russia and Belarus have conducted joint exercises on nuclear weapons use in recent weeks. Russian President Vladimir Putin, moreover, has announced from Uzbekistan his serious determination to respond firmly to what he considers provocations.

Amid this war of words, it is clear that the West is betting on its ability to take advantage of possible Russian internal vulnerabilities. The problem is, a bet is not a strategy.

Published: June 02, 2024, 2:00 PM