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.
It has been a long day. I was hoping to get a second update posted in the afternoon, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Things are happening now and it appears the final stages of preparations before hostilities commence are either underway or about to be. We’ve discussed Russia’s movement of more troops and equipment into close proximity of the Ukrainian border. The arrival of Russian army units in Belarus has also been mentioned. Ostensibly they are there to conduct exercises with Belarussian forces. Thursday saw Russia announcing that major naval exercises will be held at the end of this month and in February across a large swath of the world’s oceans. The exercises will take place in parts of the North Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans, as well as the Mediterranean Sea. 140 warships and support vessels and 60 aircraft will be involved, along with an unknown number of submarines. This constitutes a considerable amount of the Russian Navy’s inventory. At first look, the primary purpose of the maneuvers seems to be to provide cover for potential naval movements into the Black Sea to coincide with operations against Ukraine. The worldwide scope of the maneuvers though, lead me to suspect there’s another element at work here. A projection of Russian sea and air power in areas where NATO and Russian navies operate in close proximity to each other. Intimidation tactics, for lack of a better term. Another possibility is that Ukraine is not the only area that Russia has plans for. Maybe the exercises are indeed cover, but for Moscow to strategically position its naval and air forces across the global gameboard. In the event NATO stands up militarily to Russian aggression in Ukraine, these forces could be utilized to cause serious damage to NATO naval forces and land installations in the first hours of hostilities. An improbable prospect, but a prospect, nonetheless.
Russia is not the only country that announced military moves today. Spanish Defense Minister Margarita Robles told reporters that her country will be deploying warships to support NATO forces in the Mediterranean and Black Sea. A minesweeper is moving east at present and a frigate is expected to sail within 3-4 days. The Spanish government is also close to a decision on sending warplanes to Bulgaria to help bolster NATO’s Southern flank as tensions with Russia continue to rise.
With COVID-19 infections rising considerably, the Spanish government has declared a national state of emergency and is moving to impose a nighttime curfew. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has said the curfew will run from 11:00 PM until 6:00 AM every night, and will start on Sunday evening. The emergency measures also coming into effect will include travel restrictions between districts and regions should regional leaders deem them to be necessary. Private and public gatherings will be limited to six people. These measures will be applied to all national region in Spain with the exception of the Canary Islands. This state of emergency, and the measures included in it are nearly identical to the one introduced during the first wave of the pandemic in April.
Meanwhile in Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has insisted there will not be a new nationwide lockdown even though COVID cases are rising significantly in his country. The government is adopting stricter measures. All bars and restaurants must close by 6 PM. Gyms, movie theaters, and swimming pools will close down and Conti urged Italians not to leave their immediate area unless for work, school, or health reasons.
Italy and Spain were hit hard by COVID-19 in the spring. The other day it appeared both countries, as well as others on the continent are moving towards stricter restrictions as the number of cases is rising. Over the past 24 hours the pace of those restrictions taking effect has sped up in Southern Europe, leaving one to wonder how long it will be until other parts of Europe follow suit.
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.
When all is said and done, the COVID-19 pandemic might very well wind up being regarded as the straw that broke the European Union’s back. The pandemic caught Europe flatfooted, so to speak and the EU response has been less than inspiring, or beneficial for that matter. Instead of demonstrating its strengths, events of the past month have instead put the EU’s deficiencies on full display, and highlighted the body’s failure to meet the needs of its member-states in the midst of a global emergency. There’s no leadership coming out of Brussels, and certainly no sense of responsibility among the wealthier EU members, or a humanitarian desire to hand out billions of euros to prevent nations such as Spain and Italy from collapsing under the strain of COVID-19. Loans and bailouts, on the other hand, are perfectly fine, as we’ve seen in the last week.
To be fair, the European Union is making an effort, yet it has resulted in far less than what some of its hardest-hit member states want or need. Individual EU governments are increasingly reluctant to come together and provide material goods, and funds. France is calling for unity, while looking to Germany, as is much of the EU, for a solution to Spain and Italy’s woes. Berlin has been reluctant to provide one, with many Germans viewing it as Europe expecting their country to pay the COVID-19 bill. Spain and Italy have requested aid to help boost their damaged economies after weeks of lockdown, including ‘coronabonds’ to fund the recoveries. Germany, and the Netherlands refused. German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted Spain and Italy apply to the European Stability Mechanism instead. Given that Southern European nations believe ESM is what helped caused so much economic hardship in Greece, its not likely that either Spain or Italy will apply.
The origins of the bad blood between Southern Europe and its neighbors to the north are found in the 2008/2009 fiscal crisis. The wounds inflicted there have never really been fully repaired. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has ripped them open again, and the bad blood between the southern and northern states is flowing once more.
Only this time, the feud carries the potential to burn the entire bloc to its foundation.