NATO’s ‘war against Russia’ inches ‘closer to direct conflict’

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Since the first week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron has repeated a mantra on behalf of his NATO partners: “We are not at war with Russia.”

Nearly one year in, that notion has officially been dispelled.

“We are fighting a war against Russia,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said this week.

Baerbock was trying to assuage NATO allies’ frustration over German reluctance to send Leopard 2 tanks into Ukraine. She can now claim vindication. In a reversal of its initial position, the German government has announced it that will deliver Leopard 2 tanks to the Ukrainian army.

To overcome German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s jitters, the White House engaged in an about-face of its own, approving the shipment of 31 US-made M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine. Scholz had insisted on conditioning any German tanks to a similar US commitment. Up until this week, Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin was “dead set against providing” the M1s, and declared there to be “no linkage between providing M1s and providing Leopards.” Austin had argued that the M1s are too cumbersome for Ukraine, requiring costly jet fuel, heavy maintenance, and lengthy training.

Just last month, a senior US defense official declared that “even one M1 was out of the question,” according to the Washington Post. When used by US troops in Iraq, the M1s were “hard for us to sustain and maintain,” the official noted. For Ukraine, “it would be impossible.” Even last week, senior Pentagon official Colin Kahl dismissed the prospect of sending the “very complicated” M1, because “we should not be providing the Ukrainians systems they can’t repair, they can’t sustain, and that they, over the long term, can’t afford.”

As Gen. Mark Milley learned when he came out in favor of diplomacy with Russia to end the fighting, the Pentagon’s outlook is no match for Washington’s proxy war fever. The White House reversed course, Politico notes, after “a parade of Democrats and Republicans” in Congress “pressured the Biden administration to grant Berlin’s request to send U.S. tanks first.” What the Pentagon “was not taking into enough account,” the New York Times reports, citing a US official, “was the intense fear among European governments of doing anything to provoke Russia without having the cover of the United States doing the same thing first.” When it comes to provoking Russia, the US is undoubtedly first.

When President Biden overruled the Pentagon and unveiled the M1 approval, Austin stood by his side. “These tanks are further evidence of our enduring, unflagging commitment to Ukraine and our confidence in the skill of Ukrainian forces,” Biden declared.

Yet the publicly trumpeted US tank shipment comes with a quietly disclosed delay.

The M1s are “probably not for the near fight,” and in fact “are not likely to arrive for many months, if not years,” a US official told the Washington Post. The M1 tanks’ slow journey, the Post explains, results from plans to have them “ordered from manufacturers, rather than transferred from existing U.S. stocks.” The administration’s bespoke tank orders are undoubtedly a new boon for the already booming US weapons industry, to the detriment of a Ukrainian military that would prefer an expedited delivery.

At this stage, NATO has pledged at least 105 tanks for Ukraine, well short of the 300 tanks that the head of Ukraine’s armed forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, has said are “urgent needs” to turn the tide. Germany aims to have the tanks deployed in Ukraine by the end of March, around the time of an expected Russian spring offensive. But whether the tanks “will arrive in Ukraine for the next phase of the war is uncertain,” the Wall Street Journal notes.

If the tanks’ likely impact on the battlefield is unclear, they do guarantee another ascent up the proxy war’s ever-growing escalation ladder. As Branko Marcetic observes, “the United States and its NATO allies have serially blown past their own self-imposed lines over arms transfers,” which “have now escalated well beyond what governments had worried just months ago could draw the alliance into direct war with Russia.” In an October 2022 interview, Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, predicted:

“When I was in D.C. in November [2021], before the invasion, and asked for Stingers, they told me it was impossible. Now it’s possible. When I asked for 155-millimeter guns, the answer was no. HIMARS, no. HARM, no. Now all of that is a yes. Therefore, I’m certain that tomorrow there will be tanks and ATACMS and F-16s.”

Reznikov’s prescience on the tanks could well continue. Just hours after the US and Germany committed tanks, the Ukrainian government began calling for F-16 fighter jets.

The F-16’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, is happy to oblige. Lockheed will be “ramping production on F-16s… to get to the place where we will be able to backfill pretty capably any countries that choose to do third party transfers to help with the current conflict,” Frank St. John, the military giant’s chief contracting officer, told the Financial Times. According to European officials, talks on such transfers are at an “early stage.”

Just as the prospect of diplomacy with Moscow is off-limits to Western policymakers, so is serious consideration of Russia’s response. The more advanced NATO weaponry pours in, the more that Russia will play its part in “permanent escalation”, as Russia’s Berlin embassy described the new tank deliveries. “While it is unclear whether” the German tanks “will make a decisive difference in the spring offensive” planned by Ukraine, the New York Times notes, “it is the latest in a series of gradual escalations that has inched the United States and its NATO allies closer to direct conflict with Russia.”

Whatever the impact of the German tank shipments on the battlefield, their utility is not strictly military. By convincing Germany to send tanks for battle with Russian forces, the White House is advancing a goal that long predates the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine: undermine ties between Germany, Western Europe’s biggest power, and neighboring Russia, the United States’ biggest adversary.

“Germany built its postwar economy on cheap Russian energy,” the New York Times notes. The US-forced cancellation and then US-welcomed (if not planned) bombing of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline took care of Germany’s cheap energy supply from Russia. The new German tank shipment further buries the chance of any possible reconciliation.

“Russia does not threaten America’s global position, but the mere possibility that it might collaborate with Europe and particularly Germany opens up the most significant threat in the decade, a long-term threat that needs to be nipped in the bud,” George Friedman, founder of the private US intelligence firm Stratfor, explained in a 2010 book. Therefore, he concluded, “maintaining a powerful wedge between Germany and Russia is of overwhelming interest to the United States.”

For the US, Friedman added in 2015, “the primordial fear” is “German technology and German capital” combining with “Russian natural resources and Russian manpower” to form “the only combination that has for centuries scared the hell out of the United States.” In this showdown, the US aims to control “the line from the Baltics to the Black Sea.” Russia, by contrast, “must have at least a neutral Ukraine, not a pro-western Ukraine.” Because a neutral Ukraine would impede the primordial US goal of a Russia-German fissure, the US has opted for a proxy war instead.

 

Before Scholz caved to their pressure campaign, US officials noted that the German Chancellor “does not believe the world is ready to see German tanks near the borders of Russia, a reminder of the Nazi invasion in World War II,” according to the New York Times. Although the Times no longer allows itself to acknowledge it, there is another fraught historical irony: Germany is now sending tanks to a Ukrainian military that has formally incorporated what the Paper of Record once described as the “openly neo-Nazi” Azov Battalion.

One inconvenience acknowledged by the Times is opinion polling showing that “half of Germans do not want to send tanks,” with their country “profoundly divided about being a military leader and risking a direct confrontation with Russia.” According to German officials, Scholz was also “concerned about ending up with a fleet of almost exclusively German-made tanks being used to fight the Russians in Ukraine, a scenario that could single his country out as a party to the conflict,” the Wall Street Journal adds.

In seeking to force Germany to send its tanks into battle with Russia, the US wants Germany “to draw Russia’s counterfire,” German parliamentarian Sevim Dağdelen writes. “One cannot escape the impression that it is hoped a possible counterstrike would hit Berlin first and foremost. The United States would thus have achieved one of its long-term strategic objectives, namely to prevent cooperation between Germany and Russia for ever.” US officials, Dağdelen warns, are “forcing their ally, like a vassal, to sacrifice itself.”

Dağdelen’s characterization of the US use of Germany applies to Ukraine as well. According to Der Spiegel, Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) is “alarmed by the high losses of the Ukrainian army in the battle for the strategically important city of Bakhmut,” where a “three-digit number” of Ukrainian soldiers are losing their lives daily. Russia’s capture of Bakhmut, the BND warns, “would have significant consequences, as it would allow Russia to make further forays into the interior of the country.” Russian advances on Bakhmut follow a 300,000-plus troop mobilization that has “appeared to tilt the calculus of attrition in Moscow’s favor,” the Wall Street Journal notes.

Perhaps the coming influx of NATO tanks will reverse that trend. If not, the proxy war’s NATO architects can point to other victories: Russian forces depleted, Berlin-Moscow ties severed, and US dominance of NATO strengthened. After all, it is mainly Ukrainians paying the price of the “war against Russia” fueled from afar.

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