Russia threatens NATO supply lines as the West braces for 'protracted' strife in Ukraine

Russia threatens NATO supply lines as the West braces for 'protracted' strife in Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin in December 2017, Wikimedia Commons

Russian President Vladimir Putin's military losses in Ukraine were dealt a significant blow on Thursday when his navy's Black Sea Fleet's flagship, the Moskva (Moscow, in Russian), sank while being towed back to port after Ukrainian resistance fighters struck it with anti-ship missiles.

The incident was a stunning and very public gut punch to Putin's armed forces and to his nation's dominance in the Baltic region of Eastern Europe. In the hours that followed the Moskva's dramatic demise, the Kremlin, which is already struggling to achieve strategic victories in Ukraine, began firing off new rounds of warnings to the West.

On Thursday afternoon, former Russian President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, now the deputy chairman of Russia's Security Council, said that if Finland and Sweden are admitted into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Russia will have no choice but to fortify its defensive lines along its Western flank with the alliance.

Medvedev claimed that would include the deployment of nuclear weapons.

“If Sweden and Finland join NATO, the length of the land borders of the alliance with the Russian Federation will more than double. Naturally, these boundaries will have to be strengthened,” Medvedev wrote on the encrypted app Telegram, according to The Washington Post. “There can be no more talk of any nuclear-free status for the Baltic — the balance must be restored."

Russia's renewed bluster continued into the evening.

According to a "formal diplomatic note" that was sent to the United States State Department on Tuesday and obtained by The Washington Post, Russia "may be preparing" to target the munitions supply lines flowing into Ukraine from NATO and the European Union.

Per the Post:

Russia accused the allies of violating 'rigorous principles' governing the transfer of weapons to conflict zones, and of being oblivious to 'the threat of high-precision weapons falling into the hands of radical nationalists, extremists and bandit forces in Ukraine.'
It accused NATO of trying to pressure Ukraine to 'abandon' sputtering, and so far unsuccessful, negotiations with Russia 'in order to continue the bloodshed.' Washington, it said, was pressuring other countries to stop any military and technical cooperation with Russia, and those with Soviet-era weapons to transfer them to Ukraine.

The missive, entitled, On Russia’s concerns in the context of massive supplies of weapons and military equipment to the Kyiv regime, also contained a familiar albeit cryptically unsettling demand nonetheless:

We call on the United States and its allies to stop the irresponsible militarization of Ukraine, which implies unpredictable consequences for regional and international security.

National security experts believe that Putin, who said as his invasion began on February 24th that the West would incur “consequences greater than any you have faced in history” if it got involved in Ukraine, is likely preparing to follow through.

Andrew Weiss, the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Post that Russia's notice signified “a very important escalatory move, first and foremost because it represents a threat to the West if they aren’t able to keep supplies flowing into Ukraine, which by extension might diminish Ukraine’s capacity for self-defense.”

Weiss emphasized that the prospects of Russia attacking NATO reinforcements – including the possibility of hostilities expanding into NATO member states themselves – “shouldn’t be downplayed."

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby noted that the US is aware of how quickly the situation on the ground can change.

“We don’t take any movement of weapons and systems going into Ukraine for granted,” he said. “Not on any given day.”

Meanwhile, other officials have expressed grim confidence that the war in Ukraine may slog on through at least the end of the year.

"Secretary of State Antony Blinken told European allies that the United States believes the Russian war in Ukraine could last through the end of 2022," CNN reported on Friday based on interviews with individuals familiar with internal discussions. "US and European officials have increasingly assessed that there is no short-term end in sight to the conflict."

Blinken "has discussed with his counterparts our concern that the conflict could be protracted, but all of his engagements have revolved around how best to bring it to a halt as quickly as possible," one State Department official revealed to CNN.

Similarly, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan predicted on Thursday that the conflict will be "protracted" and continue "for months or even longer."

Furthermore, director William Burns of the Central Intelligence Agency said in a speech at the Georgia Institute of Technology that Putin's "potential desperation" drastically ups the odds of him unleashing his atomic arsenal in Ukraine.

"Given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks that they've faced so far, militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons," Burns said in his address.

He added that he is "obviously very concerned" and that President Joe Biden "is deeply concerned about avoiding a third world war, about avoiding a threshold in which, you know, nuclear conflict becomes possible."

Burns stressed, however, that Russia's "rhetorical posturing" – stemming from Putin placing his nuclear deterrence units on a "special mode of combat duty" on February 27th – has not manifested into "a lot of practical evidence of the kind of deployments or military dispositions that would reinforce that concern.”

Nevertheless, conditions in war can evolve rapidly. And the stakes seem to be mushrooming every day.

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