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Ivan Timofeev: Russia and NATO are drifting towards a major war

It’s not impossible that the conflict could eventually lead to a nuclear conflict, in which there will be no winners

By Ivan Timofeev, programme director of the Valdai Club.

FILE PHOTO: Russian servicemen practise assault techniques on an enemy stronghold amid ’s military operation in Ukraine. ©  Sputnik / Evgeny Biyatov

Is it possible that NATO forces could become directly involved in the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine? Until recently, such a question seemed very hypothetical given the high risks of escalation of the military confrontation between the US-led bloc and Russia into a large-scale armed conflict. But this scenario should be taken seriously now.

The direct participation of individual NATO countries or the entire bloc in hostilities could gradually spiral out of control. Crossing red lines can lead to the belief that there will be no consequences for engaging in war. The result of such movements can manifest itself at an unexpected moment and lead to a much more dangerous situation than the current one.

Strictly speaking, NATO countries have long been involved in the conflict. This takes several forms.

First, Western countries provide Kiev with substantial financial and military assistance, including increasingly advanced and destructive weapons systems. As the stockpiles of Soviet-style kit in the arsenals of the USSR’s former allies in the Warsaw Treaty Organisation have been depleted, the Ukrainian army is receiving more Western systems and ammunition. So far, mass deliveries have been limited by the production capacity of the Western defence industry and size of existing stockpiles. But if hostilities are prolonged, industrial capacity has the potential to grow. Increasing supplies are also inevitable in the event of a peaceful pause, which would allow Ukraine to prepare for a new phase of hostilities. Russia can hardly hope that the West lacks the political will and resources to increase support for Kiev. Moscow appears to be preparing for the worst-case scenario, namely a steady increase in substantial and long-term military assistance to Ukraine. In addition to the supply of arms and ammunition, this aid includes the training of personnel, help with the development of military industry and infrastructure, and the reimbursement of expenses in other areas that allow Ukraine to focus its resources on the defence sector.

Read more Fyodor Lukyanov: Russia needs to explain its ‘red lines’ to the West

Second, Ukraine receives extensive Western support in the form of intelligence, including technical data from satellites, radars, reconnaissance aircraft, etc. The information received enables a wide range of operations, from scoping the theatre of operations to the identification of specific targets. Data providers can be selective in granting the Ukrainian side access. But its use in military operations against Russia is not in doubt. 

Third, military specialists who are citizens of NATO countries are involved in combat operations. Their role does not always appear to be official. They may be ‘volunteers’ or simply mercenaries, whose participation the authorities of their countries turn a blind eye to. Russian estimates put their number at around 2,000 in October 2023. Whether that is accurate or not, it’s clear that foreigners are fighting on Ukraine’s side, that their participation is systematic rather than accidental, and that at least some of them are citizens of Western countries.

Their involvement has not yet created an excessive risk of direct military confrontation between Russia and NATO. For Kiev’s Western partners, the sluggish pace of the conflict allows them to gradually improve the quality of their support for Ukraine. Cruise missile deliveries have long been commonplace. The arrival of US fighter jets is only a matter of time. The Russian army is “grinding down” the Western equipment that arrives. But foreign supplies to Ukraine also require a concentration of resources on the Russian side.

A significant escalation factor that would amplify the risk of a direct clash between Russia and NATO, could be the appearance of military contingents form bloc members on the territory of Ukraine. The prospect of such a scenario has already been mentioned by some Western politicians, although their view has not been supported by the US and isn’t an official NATO position. A number of the bloc’s leaders have distanced themselves from supporting the idea of sending troops to Ukraine.

What might trigger such a decision and how might it be implemented? The most likely factor for direct intervention by individual states or NATO as a whole would be a possible major military success by the Russian army. So far, the front has remained relatively stable. But the Moscow’s military has already achieved significant local victories, increased pressure, seized the initiative, extended the offensive front and possibly built up reserves for more decisive action.

There are no signs of a repeat of last year’s Ukrainian counteroffensive. Kiev is reportedly short of ammunition, although this shortfall could be filled in the future by external supplies. Periodic attacks on Russian territory with cruise missiles, drones and artillery cause damage and casualties, but do not disrupt the stability of the front.

Moreover, such strikes embolden Russia’s determination to create buffer zones, i.e. territories from which Kiev will not be able to attack targets in Russian regions.

A possible collapse of certain sections of the Ukrainian front and significant territorial advances of Russian forces towards the west is becoming more and more realistic scenario.

The fact that no deep advances and breakthroughs have occured for some time does not mean that there is no possibility in the future. On the contrary, thire probability is increasing due to the army’s experience in combat, the supply of the military-industrial complex to the front, losses on the Ukrainian side, delays in the delivery of Western equipment, and so on.

The Russian army’s ability to make such advances and breakthroughs is also increasing. A catastrophic scenario for individual Ukrainian groups is not predetermined, but it is probable. A major breakthrough of the Russian army towards Kharkov, Odessa or another major city could become a serious trigger for NATO countries to introduce the question of intervention in the conflict into practical terms. Several such breakthroughs, simultaneous or successive, will inevitably raise the issue.

Read more Dmitry Suslov: It’s time for Russia to think about a ‘demonstrative’ nuclear test

Here, individual countries and the bloc as a whole face a strategic fork in the road. The first option is not to intervene and to support Ukraine only with military equipment, money and ‘volunteers’. Perhaps to admit defeat and try to minimise the damage through negotiations, thereby preventing an even greater catastrophe. The second option is to radically change the approach to involvement in the conflict and allow direct intervention. 

Intervention can take a number of forms. It may involve the use of infrastructure, including airfields of NATO countries. It could mean the mass deployment of certain communications and engineering units and air defence systems, while avoiding their presence on the front line. An even more radical scenario is the deployment of a contingent of certain NATO countries on the border between Ukraine and Belarus. Finally, an even more radical option is the deployment of military contingents from NATO countries on the front line, which would probably be categorically unacceptable to the bloc. 

Each of these scenarios involves a direct clash between Russian and NATO forces. Such a situation would inevitably raise the question of deeper bloc involvement and, in the longer term, the transfer of military conflict to other areas of contact with Russia, including the Baltic region. At this stage, it will be even more difficult to stop the escalation. The more losses both sides suffer, the more the maelstrom of hostilities will grow and the closer they will come to the threshold of using nuclear weapons. And there will be no winners.

These are all hypothetical options. But they need to be considered now. After all, not so long ago such significant military deliveries to Ukraine seemed unlikely to anyone, as much as the conflict itself, three years ago. Now it is an everyday reality. The dangers of movement towards a major war between Russia and NATO should be taken seriously.

This article was first published by Valdai Discussion Club, translated and edited by the RT team.

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