23rd May 2022

UK to help protect Europe from Russian aggression

  • Tallinn: Some 1,000 British soldiers heading to Estonia (Photo: Steve Jurvetson)
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The UK is sending more troops to eastern Europe and threatening to seize Russian money in London, as the world waits for Russian president Vladimir Putin's next move.

Britain is to send 1,000 troops and rocket systems to Estonia, two warships to the Black Sea, and airforce jets to Cyprus to reinforce Nato's flank in the event of a new Russian invasion of Ukraine, it announced on Saturday (29 January).

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It also threatened to sanction "Russian companies involved in propping up the Russian state".

"We will not tolerate their [Russia's] destabilising activity, and we will always stand with our Nato allies in the face of Russian hostility," British prime minister Boris Johnson said.

"There will be nowhere to hide for Putin's oligarchs," British foreign secretary Liz Truss told Sky News on Sunday.

The US voiced similar urgency.

Russia had amassed an invasion force against Ukraine and "all of it packaged together, if that was unleashed ... it would result in a significant amount of casualties," Mark Milley, a top US general, said in the Pentagon on Saturday.

"You can imagine what that might look like in dense urban areas ... horrific," he said.

"The threat is very real and imminent," John Sullivan, the US ambassador to Russia, also told media in Brussels on Friday.

Central and Eastern European states were on equally high alert.

The Czech Republic was shipping artillery rounds to Ukraine, its prime minister, Petr Fiala, said on Sunday.

"We must show that the West is strongly standing behind Ukraine," he said.

The Baltic states, Britain, Turkey, and the US have already sent other weapons to Ukraine.

But France and Germany have been more dovish, while, for his part, Putin was giving mixed messages when he spoke out.

The West had flat-out ignored Russia's "principal [security] concerns" in Europe in a recent exchange of documents, Putin complained to French president Emmanuel Macron by phone on Friday, according to a Kremlin readout of the call.

But "he [Putin] didn't want an escalation", he also said.

The French president was "the only one with whom he [Putin] could have such a deep discussion" on world affairs and he "really cared" about their dialogue, Putin added, according to French officials who briefed Reuters and Politico.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking in Kyiv on Saturday, told Western leaders not to "panic" about war.

"Destabilisation of the situation inside the country [Ukraine]", was the more likely scenario, Zelensky said.

And Russia had several non-military ways to hurt Ukraine, such as "cyberattacks, coups, sabotage ... they [Russia] have a wide number of intelligence operatives in Ukraine as we speak," Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg noted on Friday.

For some international relations commentators, Putin had boxed himself in by the "insane" nature of his Western security demands - for Nato to abandon some existing allies and forbid new members.

"Putin must either climb down ... or launch a military operation likely to lead to large-scale war in Europe," Carl Bildt, a former Swedish foreign minister, said in The Atlantic magazine.

But for others, such as Dmitri Trenin from the Carnegie Moscow Center think-tank in Russia, a military attack was "unlikely".

Even if Putin did nothing after the West had rejected his security demands, he would have "managed to get something out of it," Trenin said in an interview on Sunday.

The crisis would still have marked a new chapter in relations in which Russia was prepared to "demand respect for its national interests" in Europe after 30 years of geopolitical sleep, Trenin indicated.

And if Putin was temporarily accused of being a "bluffer" by having backed down this time around, then "it's no big deal overall ... we can live with this," Trenin said.

Putin's gun

Meanwhile, the man who hand-delivered America's rejection of Putin's demands last week - Sullivan, the US ambassador - also showed a lighter side in remarks to press.

"I delivered the US written response to the Russian foreign ministry Wednesday night here in Moscow.  And … if you're wondering what's going through the mind of an American diplomat in these tense moments and about to engage in complex diplomacy, it is: 'Geez, I hope I don't fall on my butt given the snow and ice here on the steps'," he said on Friday.

Russia-US diplomacy had been "diminished" and "severely impaired" by Russian cut-backs to US diplomatic personnel in Moscow, Sullivan noted, however.

And for all his sense of humour, the US ambassador portrayed Putin as a thug.

"It's the equivalent of if you and I were having a discussion or a negotiation, if I put a gun on the table and say that I come in peace, that's threatening. And that's what we see now," Sullivan said on Putin's foreign policy.  

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