In the past 24 hours, the city of Kharkov has been hit with over fifty Russian artillery and multiple-launch rocket fire strikes. The intensity of these attacks has increased dramatically as large convoys of Russian troops, equipment and vehicles continue their transit towards the Donbas region. The purpose of the artillery and rocket attacks is militarily sound; keep the Ukrainian forces in and around Kharkov from interfering with the movement of Russian forces into the east. Unfortunately, while these strikes are logical in the military sense, they are causing considerable amounts of collateral damage.
According to a report from the Svenska Dagbladet, a daily Swedish newspaper, Sweden intends to submit its application for NATO membership in late June according to sources. Part of the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a shift in security priorities by Stockholm and Helsinki. If either, or both, countries decide to join NATO it will bring about a dramatic change in the security and foreign policy pictures for Northeastern Europe.
The Russian Defense Ministry claims the last units of Ukrainian Marines still fighting in Mariupol have surrendered. There has yet been no confirmation that this news is accurate. If it turns out to be true though, Mariupol will become the first major Ukrainian city to fall since the start of Russia’s invasion in late February.
The national leaders of Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia are on their way to Kiev to tour the city and meet with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy later today. Estonian President Alar Karis said in a Twitter post that the purpose of the visit is to show “strong support” to the people of Ukraine and meet with their Ukrainian counterpart.
Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy is addressing the United Nations Security Council this morning for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine. The appearance, via video link, comes after Zelenskiy visited Bucha on Monday. Bucha is a town where the bodies of many Ukrainian citizens were discovered. Zelenskiy accuses Russia of committing war crimes. Zelenskiy was also critical of UN failures to defend the peace and security.
Latvia has ordered the closure of two Russian consulates and told the staffs to leave the country. This action comes on the heels of Lithuania having downgraded diplomatic ties with Russia and expelling Moscow’s ambassador. These actions were made following revelation of atrocities committed against Ukrainian civilians by Russian troops.
Conflicting reports on the status of Ukrainian forces in Mariupol continue to filter out of the region. Reports that the Ukrainian Marine units inside the besieged city have surrendered were contradicted this morning by the Ukrainian military, which claims the 503rd Marine Battalion has not surrendered en masse and continues to fight.
With the horrors of Bucha now coming to light there are many other reported atrocities being reported in other Ukrainian towns that have been occupied by Russian troops for some time. How accurate these reports are remain to be seen. Yet given what has been discovered in Bucha, there is likely some truth to these latest reports. France has even reportedly launched an investigation into war crimes committed against French citizens in Ukraine.
The current crisis in Ukraine has revealed glaring holes in NATO’s readiness and strategic planning, especially with regards to its Eastern Flank. If anything, the events of the last two months should serve as a catalyst for renewed efforts to prepare the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria to be the vanguard against future Russian designs on Eastern Europe. The growing importance of the Eastern Flank is not up for debate. The bone of contention is in the lack of commitment to build the infrastructure for a sizeable and permanent military presence on the Eastern Flank.
Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the alliance realized how exposed it truly was in the east. Plans for a permanent military presence in Poland, the Baltics and Romania were drawn up. The United States developed Atlantic Resolve, a series of military activities aimed at enhancing NATO military capabilities in Europe. NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence was also developed along similar lines and guaranteed a semi-permanent alliance military presence in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. Unfortunately, as time went on, the importance initially attached to the Eastern Flank missions waned. Ukraine cooled down to an extent and Russia’s Crimean Anschluss was tacitly accepted. Although Atlantic Resolve and Enhanced Forward Presence continued on through the years, NATO’s attention turned to other areas.
I believe it is imperative for NATO to begin thinking about what it will take to establish a large and permanent military presence on its Eastern Flank for an extended period of time. During the Cold War, the Inner-German Border served as both the physical and psychological frontier between East and West. Central Europe became an armed camp with hundreds of thousands of troops stationed on either side of the border. When the Cold War ended, there was no need for NATO to sustain such a large force. The Soviet threat was gone and governments from Bonn to Washington were eager to reap the benefits of the peace dividends. Now, NATO finds itself needing to make up for lost time, so to speak. The Eastern Flank now requires the necessary military command structure and framework to sustain a multi-division force on the ground. A structure similar to what NATO had in West Germany through much of the Cold War. Specifically, an army group set up along the lines of NORTHAG and CENTAG back in the 1980s.
This morning, I began writing the first of what will be a series of posts on the strategic considerations NATO is now forced to look at carefully in light of what’s happening in eastern Ukraine. After the events earlier today, I planned to set it aside, but decided to post at least the first entry. Provided things quiet down a bit in Ukraine through the rest of the week, I’ll post the second one around Friday. Between now and then, the focus will be on Russia and Ukraine.
With the migrant situation on its eastern border showing no signs of easing, the Polish government is looking for NATO to play a more prominent role in the crisis. Today, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki let it be known that Poland, Latvia and Lithuania are considering placing a request for consultations under Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Article 4 allows member-nations to request a consultation when their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened. Invoking this particular article does not signal that an escalation is imminent, though it does indicate how critical the three nations consider the situation on their borders to be. NATO involvement in the crisis has so far been minimal. The security threat to Poland and the Baltic States, stemming from thousands of migrants pressed up against their frontiers, is not yet evident. The European Union has been the primary supra-national body involved in the dispute.
The EU is set to expand the sanctions against Belarus on Monday to include airlines and private businesses involved in bringing migrants to the Poland-Belarus border. Sanctions against the Minsk National Airport are also under consideration, according to a number of sources in Brussels. Tomorrow, EU foreign ministers are scheduled to meet and finalize the new sanctions.
The European Union wasted no time in reacting to the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk after an alleged bomb threat. Dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, a passenger on the flight, was removed by Belarusian authorities and taken into custody. Since the incident there have been waves of fiery condemnation and calls of further sanctions coming from Brussels and the capital cities of many EU nation-states. European leaders are calling for a ban on Belarusian airlines flying over EU territory and are urging EU-based airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace. This would have a consequential effect on the economy of Belarus, however it is not likely to act as an instrument to bring about the desired political change in that country. For the moment, the EU has agreed to lay targeted economic sanctions on Belarus. This type of sanction will be applied selectively against specific Belarusian business entities and individuals.
On the diplomatic front, aside from rhetoric there has been minimal activity. The exception is Latvia, which expelled its diplomats from Belarus on Monday following a similar act by Minsk earlier in the day. The Ryanair incident prompted Latvian officials to replace the Belarusian state flag with the traditional red and white flag, now a symbol of the opposition movement, at an ice hockey tournament.
It is improbable that the expected EU economic sanctions will help bring about the end of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime or change the domestic situation there. The EU’s action will simply push Lukashenko and his country closer to Russia, perhaps inextricably placing it back in the Russian sphere of influence. Lukashenko has been leaning heavily on Russian President Vladimir Putin since the Belarusian presidential election in August, 2020. It is mainly an alliance of necessity at this point. Putin and Russia need a stable and compliant neighbor now, especially with Ukraine remaining as defiant and pro-West as ever.