The specter of a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is taking shape more and more: the proxy war of the Ukrainians against Moscow’s invasion might end up being fought without the show of having one hand tied behind one’s back. The escalation can be seen in words and in actions: the events suggest that the diplomatic route is being written off, at least in the short term.
On Tuesday, in Ramstein, NATO decided to send new heavy weapons (including German ones), and the British Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, James Heappey, explained that the allies are providing Ukraine with ranged weapons that will allow Kiev to strike on Russian territory, highlighting that the UK considers it “completely legitimate for Ukraine to be targeting in Russia’s depth in order to disrupt the logistics, that if they weren’t disrupted would directly contribute to death and carnage on Ukrainian soil.” This edges close to a declaration of war, as Heappey is basically saying they’re arming the Ukrainians to hit Russia at home.
Moscow’s reply came immediately: Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, replied on Facebook that Russia, using the same logic, can also consider it legitimate to strike “Ukrainian supply lines” on the territories of the countries that are transferring weapons to Kiev (one of which, she pointed out, is the UK). Thus, there is a tangible risk of a widening of the war front. Later on, Russian Defense Minister Shoigu issued a clarification, saying that while Russia wouldn’t attack the territory of NATO countries (which would trigger the mutual defense clause against the aggressor), it may deliver “retaliatory strikes” against Kiev’s “decision-making centers”, including if there are any “advisers from among the subjects of one of the Western countries” present there. So far, Moscow has hit Western convoys in Ukraine only after they have entered Kiev’s territory.
In addition to the rhetoric, the facts also weigh heavily. The Russians are accusing new attacks in the region of Belgorod, where they accuse the Ukrainians of having struck several times. In Transnistria, two radio antennas used to rebroadcast Russian radio have been destroyed. But the most prominent have been the images of the fire at the Aerospace Defense Institute in Tver, about 150 kilometers from Moscow. The center designed the Iskander and S-400 missiles, and it’s also where the Russian ICBMs have been designed. The origin of the fire remains questionable, but the conclusions published in Air Force Magazine still stand: namely that U.S. and NATO intelligence are providing tactical information to the Ukrainians, gathered with their satellites, Awacs planes flying over Poland and Romania and Sigonella drones. The cyber and hacking warfare against military facilities is also poised for a major escalation.
When the siege of the Mariupol steel plant ends, it is rather likely that there will be more (relative) surprises about the direct involvement of contractors and NATO troops. The Russians believe that there are hundreds of foreigners in the tunnels underneath Azovstal, including fighters of the Azov Battalion (founded with neo-Nazi ties) and British, French and American military advisers, whose capture would seriously embarrass the Western powers who claim they don’t have any troops on Ukrainian soil. A British source has claimed that there are 400 SAS troops, the British Special Forces, operating in the area.
Why are they mounting such a strenuous defense of this steel plant, one to which civilians have become hostages? Moscow believes that one of the alleged biological laboratories run by the United States in Ukraine can be found there. They point to the admission before Congress by Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland that Ukraine had “biological research facilities,” without specifying what kind of research she meant.
The more time goes by, the more we realize that during these years, Ukraine has become a sort of war matryoshka, with surprises coming up at every step.
The escalation between NATO and Russia is increasingly evident in the statements of the Americans. The objective is no longer only the defense of Ukraine but a direct hit against the power of Moscow, including Putin. The British Secretary of State for Defense, Ben Wallace, in a speech to the Commons, estimated that so far, the Russians have lost about 15,000 soldiers and between 20-30% of their military assets. The atmosphere is one of pushing forward towards victory, while the British themselves admit that the Russians are making advances in the Donbass.
At the Ramstein summit, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that “Russia is waging a war of choice to indulge the ambitions of one man,” adding that “we want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” Austin’s new, harsher language reflects the Biden administration’s decision to speak openly about a Kiev victory. The goal is to make it clear to Putin that the Russian military adventure is hopeless and not sustainable for him. The message of the Pentagon chief is thus intended to further strengthen the Ukrainians, providing them with military support to gain an advantage on the ground that could lead in the coming months to a ceasefire with Moscow on favorable terms.
But how to arrive at a truce without direct NATO involvement and without the eruption of a wider and more devastating conflict remains a dramatic dilemma – especially if the decision is made to strike Russia on its own territory. Austin’s words reinforce Putin’s belief that the war in Ukraine, which he started in a high-handed and bloody act, now has as its ultimate goal to destabilize his regime.
The risks are very high. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – who on Tuesday met with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, without any apparent progress – said that NATO is now “in essence engaged in war with Russia,” and that the risk of a third world war is “serious, it is real, you can’t underestimate it.” The Russians continue to speak of nothing more than a “special operation” in Ukraine, but by now that term has become stale propaganda.
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