West on a 'razor's edge' over response to Russian expansionism
France and Germany, which had brokered the Minsk accord last week, were yesterday trying to hold together the increasingly fragile ceasefire in Ukraine amid reports that fighting was spreading once again. Kremlin-backed separatists and Cossack fighters triumphantly paraded through the shattered town of Debaltseve, a strategic point they had captured in the past 48 hours.
Britain, which along with the EU will be strongly criticised by a House of Lords committee today for “sleep-walking into this crisis”, was drawn towards centre-stage after two Russian Bear bombers off the coast of Cornwall – but just outside UK airspace – were met by RAF jets scrambled from their base in Coningsby, Lincolnshire.
The apparent probe of British readiness came soon after the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, accused President Vladimir Putin of trying to extend his campaign of destabilisation to the Baltic countries. The Russian leader, he said, presented as much of a threat to Europe as Isis.
David Cameron said Moscow was trying to make “some sort of point” by its repeated deployment of planes close to British airspace, adding: “I don’t think we should dignify it with too much of a response.”
Weary Ukrainian servicemen leave the area around the besieged town of Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday after fierce combat with pro-Russian rebels (Reuters)
Russia reacted with fury at Mr Fallon’s remarks, however. Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Lukashevich declared that his comments were “already beyond diplomatic ethics”, adding: “The characterisation of Russia is completely intolerable. We will find a way to respond to the comments.”
But Mr Fallon received support at home and abroad for his warning on Moscow’s intentions. Valdis Dombrovskis, the vice-president of the European Commission, and a former Prime Minister of Latvia, said: “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is very worrying for Baltic states. It shows that Russia is looking to redraw Europe’s 21st-century borders by force, and it must be noted that Ukraine is not the first country to face Russian aggression.”
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said: “Russia is behaving aggressively now as we speak. I really do see threats to all countries, If we fail to act now to what’s happening in Ukraine, there will be a big temptation [for Russia] to further instigate situations elsewhere.”
Latvia’s Finance Minister, Janis Reirs, said that his country had already detected elements of “hybrid warfare” against his nation.
In London, Rory Stewart, the chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, said the West was on a “political razor-edge” over how to balance its response to Mr Putin, weighing the risk of allowing
Russian expansionism to go unchecked and triggering further conflicts.
He said: “There’s no doubt at all that probably the most vulnerable part of the Nato alliance at the moment is the Baltic states.”
Dark days ahead? The Freedom Monument in Riga during a partial eclipse of the Sun (EPA)
He urged all British political parties to write into their manifestoes a commitment to spend two per cent of GDP on defence – as required by Nato – to send a message to Mr Putin. He also asked them to prepare to deal with threats such as cyber-attacks, irregular troops, and propaganda.
The EU committee of the House of Lords also argued, in the findings of an inquiry to be published today, that Western Europe failed to detect the real character of the Kremlin. For too long, it said, the relationship had been based on the “optimistic premise” that Russia was on a trajectory to democracy.
The British Government, which is one of the guarantors of the territorial integrity of Ukraine in return for it giving up a nuclear arsenal, was heavily criticised for not being “as active or as visible as it could have been”.
“It [the committee] believes that the EU, and by implication the UK, was guilty of sleep-walking into this crisis,” said the committee chairman, Lord Tugendhat. “The lack of robust analytical capacity, in both the UK and the EU, effectively led to a catastrophic misreading of the mood in the run-up to the
Western governments stressed that continuing fighting risked the breakdown of the Minsk agreement, but the language was markedly muted. The US administration has put on hold a decision on whether or not to supply the Ukrainian government with heavy weaponry; White House spokesman Eric Schultz said: “What was agreed to last week was not a shopping list.”
Nato insists measures have already been taken to counter Russian aggression in the Baltic and eastern Europe, with bases in the area manned by Allied troops.
Kremlin officials have complained that the move breaches an agreement, made during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, that Nato would not set up military bases in former Warsaw Pact states close to Russia’s borders.
Douglas Lute, the US ambassador to Nato, said: “These bases are not permanent and, as far as we are concerned, they are fully within the agreement.”