AS WESTERN CONSENSUS concludes that Russia has now invaded Ukraine — with 1,000 of its troops crossing the border into the neighbouring, disputed region of that country — its President has for the first time made an explicit threat of nuclear retaliation against Western governments who intervene and engage Russia militarily in response. This ominous rhetoric, in likelihood, is posturing, but the possibility that it isn’t cannot be ignored.
I’m going to keep this brief as I have been up all night (it’s 6am in Melbourne as I start writing this) attending to my 18 month old son; the things you keep abreast of when the day is unfolding on the other side of the world can be remarkable, and so is this: for all the wrong reasons.
The incursion of about 1,000 Russian troops into the disputed part of Ukraine that has seen insurgent activity now for months — Russia calls them “separatists” — has been the subject of much discussion internationally, and it seems that the product of that process has been to conclude that after seemingly threatening to do so for months, the troop movement does in fact constitute “an invasion.”
In addition to the thousand or so troops that have already entered Ukraine, there are reports of tens of thousands more that are massed along the border between the two countries, and who could join the conflict at virtually a moment’s notice.
The issue of what to do about Russia and Putin — not least in the aftermath of the atrocity of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, blasted out of the sky by insurgents armed with Russian-supplied weaponry, for which Putin denies all responsibility — has proven fraught, with sanctions brought against Russia by various Western governments having no apparent effect other than to embolden the Russians to continue along the provocative course they seem to have embarked upon.
Indeed, our own Prime Minister Tony Abbott is weighing whether to bar Putin from entering Australia later this year to attend the G20 conference; my sense is that whilst it would send the right message to the international community, whether or not Putin attends a talkfest is largely immaterial in the bigger scheme of things.
Already, Putin is threatening to cut gas supplies to an EU that is surprisingly gung-ho in its intent to retaliate against Russia; this was blamed in advance on Ukraine siphoning supplies destined for the EU as a way of circumventing restrictions placed on its own supplies. And just last night, it was announced that Germany would weigh an even tougher sanctions regime against the Russians.
But perhaps mindful of the fact Western leaders (despite the distraction of ISIS in the Middle East) give every appearance of turning their collective minds to dealing with Russia punitively for its part in fomenting the destructive events and loss of life on its doorstep, Putin has sounded another — and far more ominous — warning.
Speaking yesterday to a pro-Kremlin youth camp, Putin raised the spectre of retaliating with nuclear weapons against any powers who chose to engage in “large-scale conflicts” with Russia: “it’s best not to mess with us,” he rather euphemistically told his audience.
It is highly likely that in raising the prospect of nuclear conflict, Putin is merely posturing, playing as much to domestic audiences at whom his strongman image is directed as to the US, the UK, and leading European countries like Germany.
Yet as the article from Britain’s Telegraph newspaper that I have linked this morning notes, even during the Cold War it was rare for Soviet leaders to openly reference the country’s nuclear arsenal, let alone rattle the nuclear sabre.
The comments echo a far more oblique threat of Russian nuclear retaliation a couple of years ago, when Putin’s Prime Minister, Dimitry Medvedev, suggested a nuclear conflict was not out of the question if the US attacked Iran, or later remarks by a Russian emissary who suggested a similar escalation could result from American attacks on insurgent positions in Syria.
Iran and Syria, of course, have long been Russian protectorates: as recent events in Syria at least have shown with the emergence of the ISIS menace, perhaps the Russian bluff ought to have been called on that occasion.
Putin’s remarks yesterday, however, make those earlier instances of nuclear posturing seem trivial.
Putin is no fool and no madman; he is fully aware that remarks of the kind he made yesterday will only be interpreted in Western circles as a clear and direct threat of a nuclear response.
The message is, very simply, that America and its allies should butt out of what is occurring in what Russia regards as its sphere of influence.
The great risk, of course, is that Russia uses the cover of what amounts to nuclear blackmail — on a calculation that the West, fearful of the consequences, will not intervene — to engage in a brutal slaughter designed to achieve its ambitions in Ukraine, in total disregard and contempt of any outcry or objection its actions provoke further afield.
And it goes without saying that even if Russia is permitted by an uneasy Western alliance to do what it pleases in Ukraine, the obvious question is who comes next: Putin is committed to his grand objective of reviving the Soviet Union, and like the advancing German menace in the late 1930s, appeasing Russia now — under the threat of existential consequences — will only encourage and embolden Putin to engage in more of the same behaviour as his expansionist agenda is pursued.
There is also the prospect that at some stage the Putin Soviet restoration project will advance into NATO territory; if and when it does, then all bets are off — threats of Russian nuclear strikes or not.
Whichever way you cut it, Putin has drastically escalated both the explosive situation in the disputed Ukraine region and the icy relations between Russia and the West it has created.
He has made it far more difficult for Western and NATO leaders to respond, and elevated the stakes insofar as a misstep by either side might trigger a wider conflict.
I’ll keep an eye on this and I encourage readers to do so as well. But just as Putin may be grandstanding, there is also the prospect that he isn’t.
And that — however probable or otherwise — means the situation on Europe’s eastern flank has just entered an apocalyptically dangerous new phase.