The risk of the spread of the Ukrainian war in Europe lies with the unknown

WASHINGTON – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be devastating, and a wider European war would be even worse. Whether a larger-scale war will take place will depend in part on President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions, in part on the West’s military response, and in part on mere luck.

Although US and European officials have been saying for days that a Russian invasion seems imminent, on Tuesday the Putin government publicly welcomed further talks with the West on security. He also announced that some of his forces entering Ukraine would return to their regular bases, although US and other Western officials said it was too early to say whether the threat of invasion had receded.

The war is inherently unpredictable, and the stakes are high, not only for victorious Ukraine but also for Europe and the United States. Perhaps the threat to the European security order established after World War II and then peacefully changed after the unification of Germany, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union and NATO enlargement.

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President Joe Biden has said he will not fight Russia in Ukraine, like America’s NATO allies. Thus, the Russian invasion will not automatically provoke a wider war. But if Putin leads his offensive outside Ukraine into NATO territory, the United States could be involved. This is because the North Atlantic Treaty obliges Washington to protect its allies, some of whom fear they are targets of Russia.

“Make no mistake. The United States will defend every inch of NATO territory with all the strength of American power, “Biden said Tuesday. “An attack on one NATO country is an attack on all of us.”

Biden also said that if any of the Americans in Ukraine became Russia’s target, “we will respond by force.”

Aside from the seemingly unlikely scenario where Putin deliberately expands the invasion beyond Ukraine, there is a risk that even a limited war could spread as a result of an accident, miscalculation or misunderstanding. Once a fight has started, failure can lead to more conflict.

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Even if Putin retreats in the coming days and follows a coordinated path to his security goals, the enormous tensions created by his build-up on Ukraine’s borders could have a lasting impact in other European countries. US allies on NATO’s eastern front, in particular the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which were once part of the Soviet Union, can insist on a greater and more permanent US military presence.

On Wednesday, when US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin joins a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, a full range of scenarios will be presented to end the crisis in Ukraine and resolve relations with Russia. Austin is also expected to meet with counterparts from the three Baltic states.

Biden has ordered the deployment of about 5,000 additional troops, including a senior army general, to Europe to demonstrate U.S. commitment to allies on the eastern flank, such as Poland and Romania, which border Ukraine. Some of these additional troops include elements of an infantry combat brigade in southern Poland, near the Ukrainian border, who are preparing to be temporarily deployed and help civilians fleeing Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion.

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In addition to the risk of an unintentional or unexpected incident along Ukraine’s western borders, Russia’s scale of military expansion and its options for disrupting Ukrainian and Western communications open up opportunities for an escalation that could attract the United States.

James Stavridis, a former NATO commander in Europe and a retired naval admiral, says the two wild cards in the Ukrainian crisis are the prospect of escalating to cyberwarfare and the possibility of unintentional escalation in the Black Sea, where Ukraine’s small navy is among Ukraine’s largest fleets. -marine forces of Russia and NATO countries.

“A missile that strays from the path and hits a non-combatant, say, an American destroyer, can be explosive,” Stavridis said.

He believes cyberwarfare will be a central feature of any Russian attack on Ukraine as the United States and its allies try to protect the ability of the Ukrainian military to communicate with and control forces on the ground, as well as preserve electricity and other civilian infrastructure.

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“This could easily lead to a Russian response in the cyberspace, quickly and dangerously escalating the conflict,” Stavridis said.

Biden cited a similar unconventional danger. “If Russia attacks the United States or our allies with asymmetric means, such as destructive cyber attacks against our companies or critical infrastructure, we are ready to respond,” he said.

Jim Townsend, a senior Pentagon official on European and NATO policy throughout the Obama administration, said he saw little chance that Putin would deliberately expand the offensive outside Ukraine if he did not believe Biden would not want to go to war. to protect NATO allies. According to him, an unintentional scenario is more probable, for example, a Western military plane that will be shot down along the border.

“I’m very afraid we’re going down a slippery slope that no one wants,” he said.

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