NATO moving troops, gear eastward toward Russia

(Polish Armed Forces General Command/ via AP)

With the exception of Germany, European Union nations and NATO members appear to be building a united front against Russian aggression on the Ukraine border and elsewhere. One of the latest to try to draw a line in the sand is Ireland. Russia is now scheduled to hold naval war games off of Ireland’s southwest coast, a provocative move given all of the current tension, but Ireland has sent a message to Moscow saying that the naval exercises are “not welcome.” Whether or not that deters Vladimir Putin remains to be seen. (Associated Press)

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Monday that Russia plans to holds war games off his country’s coast, in a move that is not welcome given heightened tensions and uncertainty over whether Moscow plans to invade Ukraine.

Coveney told reporters that the exercises are due to take place 240 kilometers (150 miles) off Ireland’s southwest coast, in international waters but also within the country’s exclusive economic zone.

“We don’t have a power to prevent this happening but certainly I’ve made it clear to the Russian ambassador in Ireland that it’s not welcome,” Coveney said, as he arrived for talks focused on Russia and Ukraine with his EU counterparts in Brussels.

Ireland’s Foreign Minister freely admits that they don’t have the power or authority to prevent Russia from moving forward with the plan. The maneuvers are slated to be held in international waters, so they aren’t technically violating anyone’s territorial boundaries. But since that stretch of water is also inside of Ireland’s exclusive economic zone, the picture grows a bit more complicated.

Ireland’s warning puts Putin in an interesting position. If he cancels the war games he will be seen as having backed down to European and NATO interests. That likely won’t sit well with the former KBG boss because he places great value on projecting strength. But if he moves forward with the plan he will be seen as engaging in deliberately provocative actions at a time when western nations are moving troops closer to his borders and sending military aid to Ukraine.

In a nearly worst-case scenario, the United States and/or some NATO allies could declare that “two can play at that game,” and move their own naval forces into the same region for their own war games. Of course, that would be pretty much the opposite of deescalating tensions, the stated goal of all of the allies currently engaged in this problematic dance. I referred to this scenario as a “nearly worst-case” situation because the possibility always exists that two sets of war games in the same space have the potential to stop being “a game” at any moment.

Meanwhile, a group of European Union foreign ministers released a statement of “unprecedented unity” this morning, declaring that they are ready to do whatever is required to deter Russian aggression. They’re stopping short of suggesting military action, however, and still talking about a fresh round of sanctions on Russia as a nation and on Putin personally.

“All members of the European Union are united. We are showing unprecedented unity about the situation in Ukraine, with the strong coordination with the U.S.,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters in Brussels.

It’s a good pitch, but Borrell’s claim isn’t entirely accurate. Germany is still holding off on doing anything to aggravate Russia, mostly because of their reliance on Russian oil and natural gas. Also, when Borrell was asked if European countries would be following Joe Biden’s example and preparing to pull their diplomats out of Ukrainian embassies, he said that they would not be following that example, calling the decision “premature.”

I’m still not entirely convinced that we’re on the verge of a war in eastern Europe, or at least not yet. Putin seems unlikely to back down and admit defeat against a coalition of western allies and both the United States and NATO are still insisting that any response to a Russian invasion would be economic in nature rather than military. Putin may take that as a sign of weakness and move into Ukraine anyway. But if this situation winds up turning into a shooting war that expands beyond Ukraine, it’s going to be a bloody mess.