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.
The fact Russia is serious about Ukraine appears to finally be kicking in for NATO, the EU and Western governments. Whether this will end up being a matter of ‘too little, too late’ remains to be seen. But for the moment, there are at least some decisions being made in Western capitals which will lead to prudent action in the near future. The Western media is also coming around to the idea that all of this might very well be real. The media is almost always at least 48 hours behind events though, and we’re seeing that in their reporting today.
-Wall Street is responding negatively to the worsening situation in Europe. The Dow Jones Industrial Average cratered this morning, dropping more than 1,000 points. The immediate reason for the drop was news that President Biden will be holding a video call with European leaders this afternoon to discuss Ukraine and Russia’s growing military buildup. There are other factors contributing to the Dow’s slide into correction territory, however, the realization that the Ukraine crisis is worsening appears to be the catalyst.
-The US is moving ahead with plans to withdraw dependents of embassy staff from Ukraine starting this week. The plan was announced on Friday but did not garner much media coverage until the official authorization was given. Apparently, the US State Department has also decided to remove non-essential staff from the Kiev embassy as well. Great Britain has also announced the planned withdrawal of family members of diplomats and other embassy staff. London has also indicated it will be reducing its embassy staff in Kiev along lines similar to what the US is doing with its people. The European Union, on the other hand, will not evacuate its diplomats from Ukraine for the moment.
-NATO is starting to reinforce its Eastern Flank, albeit in limited fashion. A number of alliance members have pledged to deploy additional fighter aircraft and warships to the region in the near future. Denmark is sending four F-16s to bolster the Baltic Air Policing mission in Lithuania as well as a frigate to the eastern Baltic Sea. The Netherlands has pledged two F-35s for Bulgarian air policing duties, yet they will not arrive until April. Spain, we discussed last week, has committed two warships and possibly fighter aircraft to Bulgaria. France has revealed it is open to deploying ground troops to Romania and Bulgaria under NATO command. The United States is considering reinforcing its own forces in Europe but no further details have yet been made available.
Several nations are ordering their non-essential embassy staff members and dependents out of Ethiopia as the forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) move closer to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. The United States has joined Israel, Saudi Arabia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark in removing non-essential personnel from Ethiopia. The order was given on Friday and the US State Department is also urging all US nationals to leave the country too. A number of other rebel groups have joined the TPLF, forming an anti-government alliance that looks to unseat Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed from power one year after he launched the offensive in Tigray that has ultimately led to this point. In November 2020 there were very few people who could even entertain the notion that Addis Ababa would be under TPLF threat twelve months later.
The government has declared a state of emergency that will allow conscription of any military-aged civilian with weapons. Veterans are also being asked to reenlist in the military. In Addis Ababa, police are searching houses to uncover potential Tigrayans who are connected, or sympathetic to the TPLF. How much good these measures will do with the enemy fast approaching the city remains to be seen.
Beyond Ethiopia’s borders there have been a number of diplomatic efforts aimed at bringing the conflict to an end. The Biden administration’s press for negotiations to end the fighting fell upon deaf ears, and so have the selective sanctions placed on some Ethiopian officials by the US government. The reluctance of both sides to turn to diplomacy has derailed efforts by the African Union to mediate an end to the fighting and bring about a cease-fire. Predictably, United Nation Security Council calls for on all parties to refrain “from inflammatory hate speech and incitement to violence and divisiveness” are being ignored. The Security Council is also concerned with how this conflict will affect the stability of the region. The Horn of Africa has long been a hotbed of volatility. The prospect of the fighting leading to a division of Ethiopia similar to Yugoslavia in the early 1990s is beginning to make diplomats around the world uneasy.
Europe is facing a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases continue to surge in many nations across the continent. Outbreaks are being reported in France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and areas of Spain and Italy among others. Governments have been deliberately selective with placing restrictions, and lockdowns on the general public, but the time may be nearing when more immoderate measures are put into play. Ireland is the only EU nation to reimpose a six-week long nationwide lockdown starting Thursday. Nonessential retail businesses will close, and residents are expected to stay within three miles of their homes, except for work and other essential activities. Police will set up road checkpoints to deter unnecessary travel.
On the continent, select regions in Spain and Italy are returning to lockdown conditions. A two week lockdown begins in the Spanish region of Navarre on Thursday. The measures being imposed on Navarre are more restrictive than those which have been placed on Madrid by Spain’s central government. In Italy, the southern region of Campania will be conducting an 11 PM- 5 AM curfew similar to one currently in place in the north. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said that this time around, unlike the March lockdown, he is giving towns and regions more freedom to decide what measures to put into place. In effect, Conte is giving towns and regions across Italy the ability to decide their own fate.
With a second wave of the pandemic now ramping up, travel restrictions which had been relaxed over the summer are starting to be reintroduced in some cases. Denmark has closed its borders again to a number of European nations that it considers to be high-risk. France is suggesting voluntary quarantines for people arriving from Britain and Spain. In the Netherlands and Belgium, the governments are trying to discourage non-essential travel across the shared border of the two nations.
All of these measures are relatively fair, and cannot be considered extreme. If case numbers do start to surge dramatically though, restrictions will become tighter and for the second time in a year the European Union could see its member-states closing its borders to essentially the rest of the continent.
Open internal border travel has been a foundation block of the European Union’s desire to create a European Superstate. The Schengen network was regarded as a crown jewel, heralding a new era of openness and unity at a dawn of what many hoped would be a ‘One Europe’ mindset. It braved a migrant crisis, as well as the wave of populist nationalism sweeping across the continent since 2016. However, Schengen may have met its match in the coronavirus pandemic. Europe’s freedom of movement is descending into chaos as a growing number of EU nation-states are opting to close their borders in order to stem the flow of the coronavirus. Many EU nation-states are imposing strict entry measures on their borders, or closing them entirely, defying warnings by Brussels to avoid blanket travel bans.
As the hours roll by, the situation at land borders across Europe continues to evolve. The continent has become new epicenter of the pandemic and this fact is driving the border closure actions in every case. Denmark, Poland, and the Czech Republic will close their respective borders almost entirely in the coming days. The most recent EU member to announce border restrictions is Germany. According to the German government, Germany’s borders with France, Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg, and Switzerland will be partially closed on Monday. Germany’s federal police chief Dieter Romann explained that his country will not be closing its borders, but controlling them. “We are not closing the borders, that is what they do in North Korea,” he told reporters. “We are controlling the border, that is something completely different.”
Romann’s comments came as the number of coronavirus cases in Germany rose by 1,000 from Saturday. There are now 4,838 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the Federal Republic and that number is most likely going to increased more in the coming days.