A war of nerves on the Ukrainian frontier

As winter falls over Europe, Western officials and observers are pointing at multiple signals indicating that a Russian military incursion into Ukrainian territory may be imminent. It is the second time this year that Moscow has flexed military muscles on the Ukraine-Russia border. But what the Kremlin really wants is Washington’s attention.
Analysts see the military build-up on Ukraine’s border as an attention-grabbing message directed primarily toward the United States in an attempt to bring President Joe Biden to the negotiating table. “Putin believes that the keys to solving the conflict are in Biden’s hands,” said one expert quoted in a recent article published by Asia Times.
Its author, Russia-based reporter Oleg Smirnov, writes that Moscow sees the possibility of Kiev launching a full-fledged attack on eastern breakaway republics as a serious threat, and that for now, its actions are best interpreted as a form of deterrence. He shared his perspectives on the risk of a wider conflict in a Q&A exclusive to War Drums’ subscribers.
Is the thought of war keeping Russians up at night?
The media here in Russia, which has a very powerful influence, have been pushing forward this narrative of NATO and the West in general trying to build up hysteria about a possible Russian invasion. So they are preparing people for a possible escalation, and framing it as the West’s fault. But to be honest I would not say there is a situation of collective alarm – at least not yet.
Who in this situation – Ukraine, Russia, NATO – appears to be the villain?
It is not helpful to frame this in this kind of black and white kind of way. As far as I can see the situation is that each side is kind of trapped in a sort of very different situation. Each side does not see a way to de-escalate the situation. On the NATO side they have a commitment to help and support Ukraine militarily: If they stop arming Ukraine, it would be abandoning Ukraine to the mercy of Russia.

On the other side, Russia is very worried – as I wrote – that this is a creeping incursion of NATO into Ukraine though there are no formal commitments. And Ukraine is becoming more and more daring in their handling of this frozen conflict in the east. Russia is afraid to lose control of the situation if they let this process go too far – they are afraid it will come to a point where the Ukrainians will try a serious incursion and take the rebel republics by force.
Since the fall of the USSR, has NATO pushed Russia too far with its expansion to the east?
Russians believe NATO is a concrete threat to their Western borders. We have a Russian elite which is made up of people who were KGB and security officers during the USSR and they still think with this old fashioned way. They still see NATO as a threat. But it is not entirely wrong. There is a risk – any Russian president would see Ukraine’s entry into NATO as unacceptable. The average Russian who watches TV sees NATO as the main enemy of Russia, and everything that is going on in Ukraine is perceived as secretly masterminded by NATO – mainly the US.
Regarding the expansion of NATO, my view is that some sort of promises were made that NATO would not expand further to the east right after the Soviet Union collapsed but those were non-binding statements. And basically it was a mistake from the West too, they underestimated Russia. If they were wise enough they would not have taken the issue of expanding NATO so lightly. Back then, NATO probably saw Russia as a declining power not a threat, that was at a time when Russia was on its knees. Nobody took Russia seriously then. They were a bit short sighted. On the other hand, from the perspective of states in Eastern Europe it is pretty normal that they would feel secure and safe within NATO because of their pasts. And there were no alternative military alliances they could belong to, NATO was their only offer. I guess I understand that point of view too.
In many countries, Russia is seen as a macho nation that has in the past conducted multiple interventions. Given that, your statement that a conflict in Ukraine would not be popular among Russians may surprise many.
There is an independent polling center, the Levada Center, it is the only one seen as independent in Russia. Their poll found that in the case of open war with Ukraine, only a minority of Russians would see it as a positive. Crimea  was fast and practically bloodless, but an intervention in Donbass would be much more risky in terms of human and economic losses. The Ukrainian army is far more prepared than in 2014, and it is better equipped and trained by NATO – according to military experts, it is a totally different army. Russia would probably not seize it in a quick and clean way.

And people are not caught up in the patriotic wave of 2014 – that has passed. Now Russians have different kinds of concerns; there is the stagnating economy, people are more concerned about internal domestic issues to solve. So they would not respond well to another military adventure. Though we would not expect big protests, the Russian people are mainly politically passive.  That is one of the reasons why it is difficult to change the status quo in Russia. It is difficult to mobilize them – either along pro- or anti-government lines.
All the above having been said, what is the worst-case scenario?  
The worst would be an accident on the front line, and one of the two sides would attack and that would trigger a full-scale war. This scenario is a real one. And it would not be like the 2020 Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, that area is very scarcely populated so the Azeris took it over with minimal civilian casualties. But Donbass is by comparison very densely populated, and so a conflict in that area would be a humanitarian catastrophe.

Moscow test-fires a hypersonic missile in the White Sea
Russia’s defence ministry said it carried out a test-launch of a prospective hypersonic missile known as the Zircon cruise missile from a frigate in the White Sea on November 29 hitting a practice target 215 nautical miles away, according to DefenseNews. The launch was the latest in a series of tests of Zircon, which is set to enter service next year. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Zircon would be capable of flying at nine times the speed of sound and have a range of 620 miles or 1,000 kilometers. Putin has emphasized that its deployment will significantly boost the capability of Russia’s military. Zircon is intended to arm Russian cruisers, frigates and submarines.
Four-star US general to lead deadly Syria airstrike probe
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered a new investigation into a 2019 US airstrike in Syria that killed dozens of women and children, the Pentagon said on November 29. The investigation will be conducted by General Michael Garrett, the head of Army Forces Command, who will review investigations already conducted on the incident and “conduct further inquiry into the facts and circumstances related to it.” The new inquiry will include an assessment of the civilian casualties that resulted from the mistaken strike, whether officials complied with the law of war, and whether recommendations from earlier reviews meant to prevent such a strike were used.
FBI says probe into Havana Syndrome a top priority
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) called the issue of “anomalous health incidents” – widely known as Havana Syndrome – a top priority on November 24 and said  that it will keep investigating the cause of such incidents and “determine how we can best protect our personnel.” To lead an agency task force on Havana Syndrome, Reuters reported that CIA Director William Burns recently chose a career undercover spy who participated in the search that led to the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Citing a US government source, the publication said agencies do not currently have a solid view of the syndrome’s cause.


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