In the second half of last month, the diplomatic punitive measures between Russia and some NATO states literally overlapped and led to an actual exchange of blows. The whole thing is taking place against the background of a military build-up in the Black Sea region, which will continue into June with the implementation of the NATO exercise “Defender Europe 2021”. Added to this were heightened tensions on the frontline in eastern Ukraine. This raises the question of what this is all about and how far it can escalate.
It started in mid-April when US President Joe Biden announced that the US would expel ten Russian diplomats for alleged hacking. In December last year, it had become known that a massive hacker attack on US ministries, agencies and companies had taken place which remained undetected for months; embarrassing for the US intelligence services. The attackers had gained access to the networks via the maintenance software of the company SolarWinds, which is used in many places. The US security authorities suspect that Russia was behind the attack.1 Poland then expelled three more Russian diplomats out of “solidarity”; at least that was the official explanation. If Russian hackers did indeed interfere in the US election campaign, then the expulsion of diplomats would be a legitimate reaction of the US government. However, the US government has so far failed to provide conclusive evidence. Perhaps we will never see such evidence, because there is none. But nowadays it is enough to spread unproven allegations.
When Russian diplomats are declared undesirables and asked to leave the country, Russia respectively expels the same number of diplomats from the other side. Experience shows, however, that the Russian government thinks very carefully about whom it expels. We know this from the wave of expulsions following the Skripalaffair before the 2018 World Cup.2 At the time, Russia was careful not to expel any diplomats who were needed for cooperation around the World Cup. That Russia now expelled five rather than three Polish diplomats in return is unusual.3 Whether the diplomats in question actually abused their position to conduct intelligence is irrelevant on both sides. Every diplomat owes reports to his capital. What is decisive is how far the person concerned goes in his information gathering.
It is probably no coincidence that the Czech Republic almost simultaneously declared 18 Russian diplomats undesirables because of an alleged sabotage operation by the Russian military intelligence service GRU at the Vlachovice ammunition depot in 2014. Then a Czech army ammunition depot had exploded, killing two people. A large number of unexploded ordnances in the area remained, which had to be cleared in an elaborate operation. Bellingcat and other “investigative journalists” want to have identified the same employees of the Russian intelligence service GRU as the authors of the explosions in Vlachovice, who are also said to be responsible for the alleged attack on Sergei Skripal. It all seems almost grotesque.
An ammunition depot as a theme park
According to press reports from 2014, chaotic conditions prevailed at the Vlachovice camp: Car races, hunts and mushroom searches apparently took place among bullets, mines and grenades. Now it looks more as if the Czech Republic wants to blame Russia for its own sloppiness. We know enough of similar blame games from the Ukraine. Russian diplomats are usually in a post for three to four years. If an employee of the Russian embassy in Prague really did engage in such an act of sabotage, then he or she is hardly still working in the Czech Republic. The Czech justification seems lazy.
During the explosion in Vlachovice, anti-personnel mines of the Czech army are also said to have exploded or been hurled into the surrounding area.4 The Czech Republic became party to the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention (Ottawa Treaty) in 1997 and should not have procured any such mines thereafter. The mines in question were thus a good 20 years old. However, they probably dated back to the times of the Cold War, so they were at least 30 years old. The OSCE’s experience shows that decades-old explosives tend to decompose spontaneously and thus explode, especially if they are stored improperly. The OSCE has run extensive programmes for this reason. In this respect, too, the Czech justification seems somewhat thin. The fact that Russia then expelled 20 and not 18 Czech diplomats is also telling.5
Deployment on all sides
Finally, the question arises whether there is a connection with the events in the Donbass, where the Ukrainian army began systematically shooting at drones of the SMM observer mission in the days following the meeting of the OSCE Trilateral Contact Group on 14 April. Despite this obstruction, the OSCE observer mission observed a large number of heavy weapons at the railway stations near the front line in Donbass during those very days. However, it was not able to clarify whether these were reinforcements for the benefit of the Ukrainian government troops or troop transports as part of the replacement of troops at the front. In Donetsk and Luhansk, it is assumed as a precautionary measure that the former was the case. It is also possible that the Ukrainian army interfered with the GPS reception of the drones to such an extent that some of them could not take off at all and that one of them crashed.6 This is unusual, as GPS interference had previously been rather limited and distributed on both sides of the front. The Ukraine apparently tried to blind the OSCE observers.
At the same time, NATO conducted a large naval manoeuvre in the Black Sea. As a countermeasure against the massive Western naval presence, the Russian Ministry of Defense ordered additional warships off the Crimea. The Caspian Flotilla also moved Buyan-classcorvettes equipped with 3M-54 Kalibrguided missiles to the Black Sea, among other vessels. These weapons can be used over long distances against both sea targets and land targets. The West would be well advised to take these small ships seriously. Russia has now demonstrated that it can rapidly relocate these ships on its canals and rivers. The political message is clear: Russia is quite capable of defending itself in a pinch. At the height of tensions, the U.S. refrained from sending two more warships to the Black Sea.7
A few days earlier, information had been circulated about Russian troop movements on the border with Ukraine and in Crimea.8 Indeed, the Russian army moved airborne troops from the west of the country, from the Moscow area and from the Urals to Southern Russia and Crimea. Russia proved that it is not only NATO that can move large troop formations quickly, and showed that it will not be intimidated. The resulting clamour on the part of Ukraine is familiar from previous years. Russian snap-exercises in the past have always passed without the panicked threat scenarios of eastern NATO member states becoming reality.9 The Ukrainians should be reminded that it was their U.S. allies who weakened the instruments of verification in recent years, for example The Treaty on Open Skies, and who abused the Vienna Document. Now the Russians will make a return to the negotiating table pay with concessions.
And it is against this backdrop that the struggle for power in Belarus is taking place. The arrest of two potential coup plotters in Russia prevented a planned coup against Belarusian President Lukashenko, Russia’s President Putin recently announced.10 The assassination of Lukashenko and his family was also planned as part of this coup. Of course, such information cannot be independently verified. What is clear, however, is that the West has positioned a pretender to the throne in Vilnius in the person of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and will continue to finance her there for a long time to come. Tikhanovskaya’s political inexperience is to the West’s advantage, because Brussels and Washington are looking for a compliant, popular figure whom they can manipulate at will. In the past, Lukashenko believed he could do business with the West and Russia at the same time. The EU already thwarted a similar attempt in 2013 in the case of Ukraine, and it has become even more unrealistic with the EU’s anti-Russian sanctions.
How are these events to be assessed? If there is a connection between them, one plausible interpretation is that Ukraine's Eastern European friends were trying to inflame tensions in order to mobilise the USA, which so far has not offered the support that was hoped for.
It is not impossible that Ukraine is frustrated by what it sees as insufficient help from the Biden administration. For the time being, however, the latter is at best available for verbal and “logistical” help in the form of arms deliveries. Despite grandiose declarations, no US government has yet gone to war against Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine. The Biden administration will be no exception. Ukraine lacks international support and is de facto isolated. Its efforts to drag Europe into a war for the sake of Crimea and the Donbass have so far been fruitless.
The big agitators against Russia are located in Canada with the Ukrainian diaspora there, in Poland and in the Baltic States. The diplomats in these countries are particularly strident and outdo each other in their declarations of loyalty to Brussels and Washington. In Warsaw, Vilnius and Riga, there are enough people with an insatiable desire to pander to every US administration. In the US, on the other hand, there is a strong segment in politics that is tired of the eternal interventions across the world. These people elected Trump and will hopefully stop the US from further interventions in violation of international law in the years to come.
For years, the USA has been following a zigzag course in foreign policy. This has been the case for a long time, at least since the beginning of Trump’s presidency. The White House, the State Department and Congress each take their own line. At the same time, the Americans are trying to arrange a summit meeting between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin in Vienna, which is to take place next June. Whether this summit meeting will actually take place is still completely open at the moment. The US is no longer a reliable partner in international politics, and the EU vastly overestimates its influence in the world. Why would Putin want to see Biden or von der Leyen?
Germany has so far remained steadfast on the issue of Nord Stream 2. If the Americans want to sell their gas to Germany, they should offer it at more favourable conditions than Russia. Germany wants to be supplied from different sources. That is legitimate. As long as Alexei Navalny remains alive in the Russian penitentiary, Germany will probably stick to Nord Stream 2.
Under pressure from the nationalist right, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has manoeuvred himself into a difficult situation: Elected to bring about an end to the war in the Donbass and to relax relations with Russia, he went along with the sabre-rattling. Now his only choice is between a military disaster and a serious loss of prestige. That is why Zelensky is also trying to persuade Vladimir Putin to hold a summit meeting, in the hope that the latter will offer him a solution that will spare him a loss of face. Putin will make such a meeting pay with political concessions. In particular, he will maintain the old demand that the Ukrainian government first solve its problems in eastern Ukraine in direct negotiations with the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics. Before that, there is no reason for a new summit. The extreme nationalists in Ukraine will not allow Zelensky to hold direct talks with the breakaway republics in Donetsk and Luhansk.11 Thus, Zelensky remains under pressure for the time being.
Russia remained restrained in all this turbulence, but held out against it. Cries of imminent war and of a Russian threat to Europe can be taken calmly: NATO defence ministers feel the need to demonstrate that they are needed.•
1see, among others, https://www.n-tv.de/politik/USA-weisen-zehn-russische-Diplomaten-aus-article22492653.html
2see, among others, https://www.waz.de/politik/kommt-der-wm-boykott-so-straft-die-welt-russland-ab-id213856129.html ; https://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/sergej-skripal-islands-politiker-boykottieren-fussball-wm-in-russland-a-1200007.html
3see, among others, https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/russland-ausweisung-diplomaten-1.5267520
4See, among others, https://www.welt.de/politik/ausland/article230471697/Tschechien-weist-wegen-Explosion-18-russische-Botschaftsmitarbeiter-aus.html?cid=onsite.onsitesearch. On the conditions in the Vlachovice ammunition camp see https://www.welt.de/vermischtes/weltgeschehen/article135319344/Das-wohl-unsicherste-Munitionslager-Tschechiens.html
5See, among others, https://www.t-online.de/nachrichten/ausland/krisen/id_89868976/vergeltungsaktion-russland-weist-tschechische-diplomaten-aus.html
6cf. https://www.osce.org/files/2021-04-17%20Daily%20Report_.pdf?itok=80371; https://www.osce.org/files/2021-04-16%20Daily%20Report.pdf?itok=98877; https://www.osce.org/special-monitoring-mission-to-ukraine/483149and other Daily Reports of the SMM
7 https://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/ausland/kriegsschiffe-der-usa-fahren-doch-nicht-ins-schwarze-meer-17294349.html ; https://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/ausland/russland-schickt-15-kriegsschiffe-ins-schwarze-meer-17298421.html
8See, among others, https://www.dw.com/de/russische-truppen-an-der-grenze-zur-ukraine-machtdemonstration-oder-bevorstehende-invasion/a-57112211
9One such case had been the “ZAPAD-17” exercise in Belarus.
11Mercouris, Alexander. “Despite Russia’s Rebuff Desperate Zelensky Says Is ‘Arranging’ Summit With Putin”, in: The Duranof 27 April 2021; https://theduran.com/despite-russias-rebuff-desperate-zelensky-says-is-arranging-summit-with-putin/
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