“Our capacity to retaliate must be, and is, massive in order to deter all forms of aggression.” The words of John Foster Dulles, US Secretary of State under president Eisenhower, who concentrated on building and strengthening Cold War alliances, especially NATO. Different times, different measures perhaps, but the problem of aggression has not gone away. And the capacity to retaliate must extend beyond men and matérielbut also include the necessary will power. Thus, the question of how to deal with the latest Russian aggression against Ukraine which saw three Ukrainian naval vessels fired on and seized by Russia near the Kerch Strait, which links the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, and divides Crimea from Russia.
Polish deputy prime minister Piotr Gliński said: “We cannot allow any manifestations of aggression, especially from a country which has behaved aggressively before in recent years and a country that borders Poland.” And in a statement on its website, the Polish foreign ministry wrote: “We strongly condemn Russia’s aggressive actions and call on its authorities to respect international law. We urge both sides to show restraint in the current situation, which may pose a threat to the stability of European security.”
Mariusz Błaszczak, Poland’s defence minister, said on Monday that there are no signs that a naval stand-off between Ukraine and Russia does pose an increased threat to Poland. He also told a news conference that he had instructed military commanders and state agency chiefs “to monitor the situation on a continuing basis and to report continually on how it develops.” Since both Ukraine and Russia are Poland’s neighbours, Błaszczak said that “what is happening in eastern Ukraine also affects the situation in Poland”.
Ukrainian president Poroshenko has held telephone talks with Polish president Andrzej Duda about the crisis, according to Krzysztof Szczerski, the latter’s chief foreign policy adviser. “We believe that stepping up the sanctions regime against Russia should be considered and discussed with allies internationally,” he said, as quoted by public broadcaster Polish Radio’s IAR news agency.
Russia’s FSB security service said that the Ukrainian ships had entered Russian territorial waters illegally, and a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry has accused the Ukrainian authorities of “provocation.” This seems unlikely. The Ukrainian ships were entitled to be there, and a 2003 treaty guarantees the rights of both nations to use those waters.
So far, so typical. But to what end? The war between Russia and Ukraine continues in the background, albeit that few seem to remember, so it probably serves Putin to remind folk that the occupation of Crimea is not going to end soon. It may also be that it serves as a useful diversion from Russian domestic politics where there have been protests against the changes to the pension laws in Russia and a frustration with the lacklustre economy.
Above all, Putin probably did it simply because he can. The UK, a staunch supporter of sanctions against Russia, is distracted with the continuing negotiations over its withdrawal from the EU and the United States has also taken its eye off the ball, with president Trump potentially facing an investigation into his own past dealings with Russia. Poland managed to publish its official condemnation of Russian aggression long before the US reacted, with the US ambassador to the United Nations’ denunciation of Russia’s “outlaw actions” coming many hours after other statements, the US State Department still not by then having commented. A man with a plan, however weak he may be, will always beat a stronger opponent if the latter is disorganised. Putin presumably counts on this and, until Russia is faced with something rather more effective than ritual condemnation and angry tweets, this particular conflict is likely to rumble on for some time, alas.
Be that as it may, and although nobody is actually yet advocating military action against Russia, the incident does make one wonder whether an EU army would be any more of a deterrent. The answer must be a resounding no. Those siren voices advocating this seem blind to the dangers of a weakened NATO, whose strength lies largely in the massive US military contribution which, if turned his direction, is the one thing that would give Putin pause for thought. An EU army, without US capabilities, and representing countries, some of whom are neutral, is unlikely to deter Russia. Nordstream 2anybody?
Indeed, one imagines that Putin would be delighted to see NATO weakened in this way, a point not lost on Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki. “We would like Europe as a whole to strengthen its military potential,” Morawiecki said in a TVP Info interview from Brussels, “but at the same time today we emphasize that the only real guarantor of security in Europe, including the eastern flank of NATO, is the US.” He is not wrong.
And finally, on a separate note, this is my 300th blog post. When I started, I did not expect something I created for my own amusement to continue for so many years, but I am glad it has. Thank you to all those who are kind enough to say you like these pieces. Your encouragement means much.