In the last 24-36 hours there has been increased military activity in Russia as well as a number of NATO member-states. The failure of Monday’s talks between the French and Russian presidents to deescalate the crisis has prompted Denmark and the United Kingdom to begin preparing forces for movement east. The alliance is also preparing to hold military exercises in close proximity to the frontiers of Belarus and Russia to demonstrate NATO resolve in the face of growing Russian troop numbers. Simultaneously, Russia continues its military buildup, moving more assets and troops into Crimea, Belarus and along the Ukrainian border. Military exercises in Belarus and on the Black Sea will also begin to get underway later this week.
Denmark is moving decisively even as her larger fellow NATO member-state to the south Germany dithers. The Danish military will increase the readiness of a combat battalion that is earmarked for NATO operations. Preparations are underway for the battalion of 800 troops to be ready for a deployment east within five days instead of the thirty days generally needed. Additionally, the Royal Danish Air Force will be moving a flight of F-16 fighters to Bornholm in the Baltic, should the situation call for it.
Great Britain will be moving more troops and equipment to Poland. 350 Royal Marines from 45 Commando have been diverted from exercises in Norway and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he’s prepared to go further. Deployments of RAF Typhoons to Romania and Bulgaria, as well as moving warships to the Black Sea are all being considered by London right now.
For Russia, the final pieces of its pre-hostilities military deployment puzzle could be coming into place. Considerable attention is being paid to the Black Sea where a trio of Russian Navy amphibious assault ships and a Kilo class conventionally-powered submarine were expected to pass through the Bosphorus this morning. They will join three other amphibs that entered the Black Sea for naval exercises according to the Russian Ministry of Defense. Their arrival is raising concerns from Ankara to NATO headquarters in Belgium as leaders, diplomats and military leaders attempt to decipher whether their presence is a sign that Russian military operations will begin soon.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke publicly about elements of the growing crisis in Europe for the first time in weeks. Using a press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as a soap box, Putin accused the United States and NATO of using Ukraine as a tool to contain Russia, as well as deliberately ignoring its security concerns. “NATO refers to the right of countries to choose freely, but you cannot strengthen someone’s security at the expense of others,” Putin remarked, and in the process explained in simple terms the core of Russia’s security dilemma. He then repeated his nation’s primary demand that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO.
On this first day of February, the procession of diplomats and European leaders looking to contribute their power and influence towards a peaceful resolution of the crisis continues through Ukraine. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived in Ukraine today. At a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Johnson advised Putin to ‘step back’ from what could be a military disaster for Russia and the world. He also warned that Britain will apply significant sanctions to Russia “the moment the first Russian toecap crosses further into Ukrainian territory.”
With the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics set for this coming Friday, the probability of Putin beginning a major military effort this week is low. As the games go on, Russia will use the next two weeks to build its case for military action and make the final preparations for the military operations set to come. Russia would be smart not to initiate hostilities against Ukraine during the Olympics and considering that Putin is obviously playing the long game here, such a move is not expected. Putin was in a similar position back in February of 2014. A Euromaidan raged in Ukraine, the Winter Olympics that year were going on in Sochi, on the Black Sea. As host of the games, Russia and Putin had to sit there and watch powerless as a friendly government fell. Yet the moment the games ended, Putin took action.
Circumstances today are considerably different, but the Russian leader won’t risk the diplomatic and public relations wrath that would almost definitely come from an attack on Ukraine during the Olympic games.
This morning’s meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York resembled a boxing match more than a gathering of diplomats. As soon as the meeting began, Russia’s ambassador Vasily Nebenzia objected to the meeting even being held. He labeled US accusations as unfounded and claimed the Russian government had addressed and refuted them already. US warnings of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine were dismissed as theatrics and fear-mongering. The US response was more measured. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield defended the need for a Security Council meeting after a series of private discussions on the Russian military buildup between US and Russian diplomats failed to make progress. Through the course of the meeting, Thomas-Greenfield and Nebenzia traded blows as they laid out the positions of their respective governments, yet there is no real prospect of formal action being taken by the UN Security Council since Russia holds veto power.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to have a telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin today, twenty-four hours before Johnson is set to visit Ukraine. Great Britain is defuse the current crisis through both diplomacy and deterrence. Defensive weapons are already being supplied to Ukraine and London has offered to increase the number of troops and aircraft it already has deployed on NATO’s Eastern Flank. Concurrent to this offer, legislation is being prepared which will levy a wide range of economic sanctions on Russia should Moscow choose to launch an invasion of Ukraine. Johnson’s own political future remains in doubt as reports of the prime minister having thrown parties during the COVID-19 lockdown have led to a government investigation into those reports. The findings are set to be released on Tuesday.
Russia has announced it is prepared to target and engage foreign warships found to be violating its territorial waters following yesterday’s encounter between a Royal Navy warship and Russian air and naval units in the Black Sea. HMS Defender, a Type 45 destroyer sailed close to Crimea’s Cape Fiolent, using an internationally accepted sea lane. Russia regarded the maneuver as a deliberate attempt to challenge Russia’s annexation of Crimea and responded predictably, claiming it fired warning shots and swiftly drove Defender away from the area it was sailing in. Britain denied this version of events and insisted its warship was sailing in Ukrainian waters. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson supported Defender’s voyage, stating earlier today that “The important point is that we don’t recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, this is part of a sovereign Ukrainian territory.”
Despite the maneuvering of warships and slightly sharp rhetoric, neither side is looking to spark an armed confrontation. Moscow understands the purpose behind Defender’s maneuvering was to offer a symbolic challenge. London, on the other hand, clearly predicted the Russian reaction and subsequent warnings issued by Moscow. Each side went to bat and publicly tried to frame its actions in a positive light while simultaneously painting the other nation’s actions as overly aggressive. It has happened before, and this is simply another example of the discursive statesmanship which has become more prevalent in international politics over the last decade or so. By all indications, we will be seeing more cases of this in the future and likely stemming from similar encounters.
It took nearly four years to finally happen but Brexit is now reality. At 11:00 PM on 31 January (6 PM local time here in the eastern US) Great Britain formally left the European Union. Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the night as not an end, but a beginning. In Parliament Square, and across the British Isles Brexit supporters celebrated. Understandably, Pro-EU Britons were not in a celebratory mood. Vigils were held, as well as anti-Brexit demonstrations although the point of these is unclear since Brexit is now a done-deal.
Now Britain will contend with what comes next. The problem is, no one knows just what that will be. In the coming days and weeks Britons will not see any immediate changes. The transition period remains in effect until 31 December, 2020 keeping EU laws in force for the rest of the year. The next step for the British government will be to come to terms with the EU on a permanent trade agreement by then. That will not be an easy task as many European leaders have been warning.
The next year will undoubtedly be filled with the same sort of grim warnings from the continent about the difficulties Britain will face without the protection of the EU. Supporters of the European supranational body in the UK will likely be outspoken on the topic. However, the voters in Britain have spoken…multiple times, as the case has been, and the position of the majority is now etched in stone. There will be no going back now, or at any point in the future. For better or worse, Brexit has taken effect and the destiny of Great Britain now sits entirely in the hands of its citizens.