(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)
LONDON, Jan 27 (Reuters) - As the United States and European countries struggled to find a unified approach to Russia and Ukraine this week, the Russian navy announced a multitude of new exercises, from deploying its Black Sea Fleet to missile drills off Ireland, and Belarus opposition hackers said they were behind a cyber attack disrupting Russian troop moves as more fighter jets arrived.
Just how close war might be is contested. The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine said a Russian invasion could happen “any day”, and Britain and Canada withdrew non-essential diplomatic staff. Ukrainian officials publicly dispute that the threat is quite so imminent, while lobbying furiously for international aid and weaponry -- Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Thursday that Russia was likely to remain on a diplomatic track with Kyiv and the West for at least two weeks.
Senior French officials have also expressed doubt that an invasion is imminent. “We see the same number of lorries, tanks and people,” one told Le Monde newspaper. “We observed the same manoeuvres, but cannot conclude an offensive is imminent.”
Germany’s top naval officer told an audience in India that all Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted was respect, and that he probably “deserved” it.
Those comments provoked widespread complaints both in Germany and beyond, prompting the resignation of Admiral Kay-Achim Schonbach. But they fuelled antagonism between Germany’s new government and its allies, with Berlin blocking the re-export of German arms from Estonia to Ukraine.
There are now an ever-growing number of moving parts to an increasingly complex confrontation.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden said the United States would deploy thousands of troops to eastern Europe if Russia continued its military buildup or invaded Ukraine, referring to a “sacred obligation” to protect Europe. French, German, Russian and Ukrainian officials met in Paris on Wednesday to try to restart stalled and largely bypassed “Normandy” group talks on the conflict between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.
While Russian officials say NATO states are in what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called a “militaristic frenzy”, Moscow is now also taking assertive military activity elsewhere, a move it partly blames on what it says are NATO actions in the Black Sea and Baltic.
On Wednesday, Russia’s TASS news agency announced the deployment of more than 20 warships of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet including frigates, missile corvettes and amphibious assault vessels, and what it said would be massive drills as thousands of marines and forces from Russia’s Caspian Sea Flotilla also went on alert.
While the focus remains on Ukraine, Russia is mobilising forces much more globally.
IRISH FISHERMEN, BELARUSIAN HACKERS
TASS quoted the Russian Navy as saying it was now undertaking a series of worldwide naval drills through January and February from the Mediterranean to the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific, bringing together more than 140 warships and 60 aircraft. Some of that activity has already prompted Sweden to send troops to its Baltic island of Gotland, and Ireland expressed concern after Russia announced missile drills in waters off its coast.
Ireland and Sweden are not NATO members, and some analysts noted that the Atlantic drills off Ireland were taking place in an area rich in undersea data cables. There have long been suggestions Russia that might try to cut those in any war. Norwegian officials say some cables in their waters linking to the Arctic Svalbard archipelago appear to have been interfered with and removed this year, but have avoided blaming any country for this.
For those who believe a Russian assault on Ukraine might be imminent, such moves may be seen as part of a concerted Putin strategy to intimidate and confuse. For those who worry about accidental escalation, they are a sign that the risk of miscalculation is on the rise. They might both be right.
While Ireland’s government said it could not prevent Russia carrying out the drills in the Atlantic in February, Irish fishermen’s organisations said they intended to peacefully disrupt them when they take place. In Belarus, opposition groups said they were conducting cyber attacks.
A group that calls itself the “cyber partisans” and opposes Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said it had used ransomware -- a form of malware designed to encrypt files on a device, rendering any files and the systems that rely on them unusable -- to disrupt Belarusian railway systems to slow the progress of Russian “occupying troops”.
Russian troops have been taking up positions in Belarus in recent weeks, making the former Soviet republic a potential springboard for an invasion of northern Ukraine.
On Wednesday, TASS announced the arrival of Russian SU-35 combat jets in Belarus, and Russia’s ruling United Russia party which is loyal to Putin said it wanted the Kremlin to increase military aid to the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk that have been partially controlled by pro-Russian separatists since 2014.
Last week, Ukraine blamed Russia for a series of cyber attacks that defaced government websites across the country with warnings to “expect the worst”. For now, the most likely scenario is widely seen as a limited Russian land grab along the border of the separatist regions, although some analysts expect a much larger invasion.
What the consequences will be remains unclear. After initially suggesting any invasion could provoke a response involving blocking the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany across the Baltic, authorities in Berlin have become less clear about their intentions over the pipeline, which has been completed but has not yet secured regulatory approval.
Some experts have suggested Russia could face a ban from the SWIFT international banking network if it attacks Ukraine, and some countries have raised the prospect of personal financial restrictions to target Putin and other senior Russian officials.
It’s a heady, complex matrix and what happens next will depend heavily on whether Russia is working to a solid, pre-existing plan that it now tries to implement. Even if it does so, there are now so many pieces in play that no one can truly know what that might set in motion.
*** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. (Editing by Timothy Heritage)
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