The White House was forced to walk back potentially explosive remarks made by President Biden during yesterday’s speech in Warsaw. In the speech, Biden called Vladimir Putin a ‘butcher’ who ‘cannot remain in power.’ The remarks were largely viewed as escalatory among America’s NATO allies with French President Emmanuel Macron remarking, “We want to stop the war that Russia has launched in Ukraine without escalation — that’s the objective.” Granted, Macron has his own more self-serving reasons for not wanting to escalate the situation with a presidential election on the horizon. Then there is Macron’s continued hope that the war provides the opportunity for France situate itself in a position to Europe in the post-Ukraine War era.
The head of Ukrainian military intelligence noted today that Russia’s new strategy appears to be dividing Ukraine into two separate states with one being controlled by Moscow. Since Russia’s failure to occupy the entire country so far appears to be permanent, the Kremlin is turning to an alternate plan containing more attainable political goals.
In the past twenty-four hours I have spoken to a handful of chemical and biological weapons experts who claim a consensus is growing in Western defense circles that Russia will use chemical weapons in the coming days. The subject has been lurking in the background for the past week as Russia’s advances in Ukraine have come to a halt, with little prospect of resuming anytime soon.
Finland has suspended rail services with Russia, terminating the rail link between the European Union and Russia. All passenger, commercial and cargo services have ended for the moment. Finland’s national railway operator announced the halt will start on Monday.
Accusations were made by the United States yesterday that Russia is preparing to stage an fabricated attack to use as a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine. Over the last twenty-four hours the news cycle has taken the story and run with it. Washington’s warning certainly stems from accurate intelligence data. Russian intelligence and military leaders would be foolish to not be planning a ‘false flag’ action right now to use as justification for a largescale military operation. Now that this plan has been exposed for the world to see, the US expects Vladimir Putin to not use it. Yet in all probability, Putin will likely push forward anyhow since the target audience for a staged attack will be domestic. To say there is an amount of bad blood between Ukrainians and Russians would be an understatement. There is already a high level of distrust and animosity between the two groups, heightened even more by the War in Donbass. Putin would be a fool not to attempt and exploit the divide even more. This will be the reason for a fabricated attack against Russian citizens in either eastern Ukraine or Russia.
French President Emmanuel Macron will be traveling to Moscow on Monday to discuss the crisis in Ukraine with Russian President Vladimir Putin. On the return trip, Macron will land in Kiev to hold talks with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The French leader has been supporting diplomatic efforts to bring the crisis to an end, even though France is currently deploying troops to Romania. There have been a series of phone calls between Macron and Putin over the past week and expectations are rising in Paris over the opportunity to bring the crisis to an end. The optimism negates the stark reality that even the prospect of diplomatic concessions has failed to sway Russia off its current path.
Today, Belarusian authorities cleared the largest migrant camps along its border with Poland. The intentions of the Minsk government are unclear at present, but the move is seen as a positive step by some international observers, perhaps even marking the start of a de-escalation in the migrant crisis that has blossomed into a East-West confrontation. In another possible sign of de-escalation, hundreds of Iraqis who spent weeks camped at the border are in the process of flying home. The rest of the migrants at the border will be moved to a processing center. Whether the move is permanent or not remains to be seen. For the short term though, the migrants will have shelter from the freezing temperatures and less-than-hospitable conditions on the border. As the migrant camps were being cleared, Polish security forces repelled a coordinated effort by a group of Middle Eastern migrants to cross the border. This attempt was smaller than the one made two days ago at the Kuznica border crossing point. Nine Polish police officers were injured in the melee that developed then.
Earlier this week diplomatic activity aimed at ending the crisis was ramped up. German Chancellor Angela Merkel held two telephone conversations with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. French President Emmanuel Macron also discussed the crisis with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. It’s unclear if these talks are responsible for Thursday’s dismantling of the camps, but today Putin called on Lukashenko to begin a dialogue with the European leaders. Germany and the European Union have also rejected a Belarusian request to take in thousands of migrants and asylum seekers now in Belarus.
The 2019 NATO Summit kicks off in London on 3 December, 2019. The alliance has a host of important discussion topics to choose from. Turkey’s pending veto of NATO defense plans for Poland and the Baltic States is likely the most urgent topic at the moment. The existing fears of US detachment from NATO through the remainder of the Trump presidency is another. It is only fair to point out, however, that those fears have thus far been unfounded. The United States has remained firmly committed to the alliance and engaged in it since 20 January, 2017.
Unfortunately, despite the position of the United States, the future of NATO is somewhat uncertain at the moment thanks in large part to its European members. Inside of NATO there is much debate about what direction the alliance needs to go in. The world in 2019 is markedly different from what it was in 1949 when NATO was founded. It was conceived as a defense against a threatening Soviet military force. The USSR is gone now, but the Russian Federation is now struggling to fill its predecessor’s shoes and challenge NATO militarily and politically. The Russian threat, which appeared so dangerous in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea has failed to materialize and it might never.
NATO has been seeking a mission beyond the boundaries of Europe for some time now, meeting limited success in Afghanistan, and even Syria. 21st Century missions outside of Europe have tested NATO unity and created bitter infighting among members though. With China’s rise, the Western Pacific could be ready for a NATO mission, but the same potential problems would arise.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing NATO’s future at the moment is the European Union. Once heralded as the logical successor to NATO, the EU has endured a rocky last ten years or so. The unity once championed by its supporters no longer exists. Britain is leaving the EU, and there are firm indications the populations of other European nations want to follow suit. The supra-national body is rudderless right now, suffering from a lack of effective leadership at the top. In the eyes of some European politicians the question is no longer: will the EU implode? The question now is: when?
More importantly, what will be the role for NATO if the EU breaks up? Will it acrimoniously dissolve as its members choose sides, or step in to fill the void?
This week in London, NATO’s leaders need to seriously consider what the future of Europe, and the world will be like in the next decade, and then determine what the alliance’s place in that world will be.
Emmanuel Macron’s veto on negotiations regarding North Macedonia’s path to EU membership has undermined the position of the European Union in the Balkans. The EU has in effect turned its back on the Balkan states, regarding it as little more than an insignificant backwater. Unfortunately for Brussels, the nation-states in this region are not going to wallow in self-pity, awaiting a day in the future when a new opportunity for EU membership presents itself. The EU has failed to grasp the consequences of Macron’s ill-advised veto. It has created a vacuum that could be filled by one of the EU’s main rivals, Russia and China.
Chinese influence and financial investment is on the rise in the Balkans. Beijing offers capital for infrastructure improvements, and large-scale national projects. Russia’s influence comes from its dominant position in Eastern Europe’s energy sector and markets, as well as its cultural ties to the area. The EU withdrawal will only embolden Chinese and Russian efforts. The offers being presented by them also come with fewer strings attached then does EU membership. Unless this changes, it will only be a matter of time before the nations of the region gravitate away from the pro-Western, democratic foundations created in the post-Yugoslavia political order since 1999.
There’s little prospect of the EU changing course. Enlargement is no longer a priority for the supra-national body. The fortunes, and aspirations of the nations seeking membership no longer matter as much as they once did. In its own view, the EU already has enough on its plate to contend with and the Balkans can wait. Hence the reason why there wasn’t more resistance to Macron’s veto.
This short-sighted view could come back to haunt Brussels in the future. Whether the EU chooses to recognize it or not, the balance of power in Europe is shifting eastward. The sixteen year old warnings by Donald Rumsfeld about the Old and New Europes are coming to fruition. As it stands now, the EU appears to be unapologetically ensconced in the old ways of the old Europe.