NATO allies split over how to avoid ‘World War III’ with Russia
This photo provided by the French Army, soldiers taking part of the projection operation towards Estonia named Operation Thunder Lynx jump over Estonina territory as part of NATO missions in Estonia, Wednesday June 22, 2022. About a hundred paratroopers from the French 11th Airborne Brigade were deployed above the Estonian territory. (French Army via AP) AP
NATO allies split over how to avoid ‘World War III’ with Russia
Joel Gehrke June 24, 06:00 AMJune 24, 06:00 AM Video Embed
Russian forces have pummeled Ukrainian defensive positions over the past several weeks in a desperate bid to salvage a victory in eastern Ukraine following their defeat around Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. Western officials are finalizing a plan to upgrade NATO defenses against a hypothetical Russian attack despite persistent disagreements about how to prevent the war in Ukraine from giving rise to a nuclear-fired clash with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“If the West does not support Ukraine sufficiently to allow Ukraine to have what is, in effect, a local victory, then he will be back. He will continue,” Latvian national security adviser Janis Kazocins told the Washington Examiner. “They will rearm and they will have another go — and they may, this time, not have another go in Donbas but have another go in the Baltics.”
That assessment reflects a fundamental dispute within the trans-Atlantic alliance about how to prevent Europe’s worst conflict in decades from spreading westward. Russia’s uneven progress in eastern Ukraine has been powered by its artillery and air defenses, while Western officials have debated whether the provision of equivalent weaponry to Ukraine would provoke Putin to retaliate. President Joe Biden has stated flatly that the United States “will not fight the third world war in Ukraine,” while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has made clear that the memory of the First World War shapes his calculations.
“I’m not as stupid as Kaiser Wilhelm II,” Scholz has said to explain his hesitance to equip Ukrainian forces with German tanks. That invocation of the militarist emperor often blamed for the start of the First World War underscores how some allies, at least, perceive support for Ukraine as a risky policy choice. Yet Kazocins, without mentioning Scholz or Wilhelm by name, implied that such a habit of mind reveals a failure to learn a different lesson from history.
“We have always considered that Putin and his political vertical are very dangerous, and Germany and other Western European countries further west do not see, do not feel that level of danger,” he said during an interview on the sidelines of the EU-U.S. Defense & Future Forum. “It is slightly similar … to the way that people felt in Europe before the start of the First World War — that a really big war has not taken place since 1815 and therefore nobody really thought that something horrendous was likely to happen. And that’s how Western Europeans think because there’s nobody around who was living at the time of the last world war.”
Russian officials have reinforced the misgivings of Scholz and like-minded officials over the past several weeks as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his team pleaded for an influx of longer-range Western artillery.
“We have clearly laid out Russia’s stance: If the Russian Federation is attacked with these long-range systems, the response against the decision-making centers will be immediate,” Konstantin Gavrilov, who leads the Russian delegation to Negotiations on Military Security and Arms Control in Vienna, told state media earlier this month.
Biden has authorized the Pentagon to send High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, to Ukraine, though the first delivery of HIMARS featured just four American systems without the longest-range munitions that the systems can fire. Germany and the United Kingdom each pledged to provide three similar weapons systems from their own stockpiles, and the Pentagon could soon ship another quartet. Ukrainian officials have pushed for a larger number of the artillery systems, but Kyiv celebrated the arrival of “these powerful tools” nonetheless.
“HIMARS have arrived to Ukraine,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov tweeted Thursday. “Thank you to my colleague and friend @SecDef Lloyd J. Austin III for these powerful tools! Summer will be hot for Russian occupiers. And the last one for some of them.”
The eruption of state-on-state violence in Ukraine forced the U.S. and the rest of the alliance to revise their priorities for next week’s NATO summit in Madrid, where the trans-Atlantic allies will unveil a new “Strategic Concept,” a document formulated every 10 years, and also produce a new plan for how to deploy military forces to manage any future aggression from Russia.
“The president has been very clear in the context of the Ukraine crisis that NATO would defend every inch of NATO territory,” a senior administration official said Thursday. “The United States was very quick to surge additional forces to NATO to reassure our allies, especially those on the eastern flank. A number of other countries have also made force posture adjustments. And at the summit, the United States will be announcing steps to strengthen European security alongside expected major new contributions from allies.”
Berlin has proven more aligned with the Baltic members of NATO in that discussion, with Scholz announcing earlier this month that Germany will increase its military presence in Lithuania. And while French President Emmanuel Macron has irritated Ukrainian officials and eastern flank members of NATO with his insistence that the West not “humiliate Russia,” France does receive credit from across the alliance for maintaining a troop presence in Romania and Estonia, where 100 French paratroopers staged a snap exercise this week.
“The airborne operation illustrates the ability of the French Armed Forces to intervene, in emergency, and support an allied country,” the French defense ministry said Wednesday.
Such reinforcements are important, Baltic officials believe, to ensure that Putin does not conclude that Russian forces might be able to win a quick-strike military campaign against one of the smaller NATO members before the U.S. has time to respond.
“And then, as the Russians have trained several times in Zapad exercises … the end of the exercise tends to be with a nuclear strike,” recalled Kazocins, the Latvian official. “And the idea is you escalate to de-escalate. In other words: ‘We will hit Warsaw if you try and take back the Baltic states. And are you NATO, prepared to start a nuclear war for the sake of the Baltic states?’ And that is a question which none of us wants to have to answer.”
It would be a dangerous question for Putin to pose, no doubt. Yet Kazocins suggested that it is a risk he might be willing to take because it is the only plausible option for Russia to fracture the unity of a trans-Atlantic alliance that far surpasses Russian power by most metrics.
“Well, I think that while Russia goes through its colonial death throes, then we might see more [risk of war],” he said. “And it’s not as if we expect Russia suddenly to throw its hand in Ukraine and have a go at Latvia — it’s not going to happen like that. We do have a little bit of breathing time, but we have to use it.”
© 2022 Washington Examiner