As the war in Syria enters its fifth year with no end in site, it’s easy to forget about the world’s “other” proxy conflict, that which is still unfolding in Ukraine.
You might remember Ukraine as yet another example of US intervention gone horribly awry. Indeed, this was but another instance of Washington stepping in to support “democratic” protests on the way to bringing about regime change. Just three months after a dramatic visit to Maidan Square by the Senate’s favorite warhawk John McCain, Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych was unceremoniously ousted.
Unfortunately, the democratic utopia that America figured was inevitable didn’t take shape (just like it didn’t take shape after Gaddafi in Libya or after Saddam in Iraq) and now, Ukraine is mired in civil war as Russian-backed separatists battle Kiev’s US-backed regulars and a handful of nationalist militias.
The point is, that problem hasn’t gone away and in fact, reports indicate that the violence has accelerated this week. Ukraine, and before that, the Crimea “incident,” were the “original” Russia Vs. NATO proxy playgrounds and have only faded from memory because of just how dramatic the situation in Syria truly is. While tensions in Syria revolve primarily around the possibility of an “accident” that leads to a wider conflict, the Ukraine/Crimea issue was characterized by both sides’ fears of the other's territorial ambitions. NATO insisted that Vladimir Putin intended to invade and annex other territory while The Kremlin contended that a series of snap drills, war games, and heavy weapons deployments telegraphed NATO’s desire to expand its capabilities and influence on the way to threatening Russia’s borders.
As if tensions needed to rise any further in the wake of Turkey’s move to shoot down a Russian Su-24 near the Syrian border, NATO has once antagonized Moscow by extending a membership invitation to Montenegro. The announcement came at the NATO ministirial meetings being held in Brussels.
While that may sound inconsequential, Bloomberg reminds us that the country has “close economic links to Russia.”
“NATO expansion since 1999 into eastern European countries that were under Soviet domination during the Cold War has provoked Russian suspicions and, in 2014, was a factor in the Kremlin’s decision to retake Crimea and promote the rebellion in eastern Ukraine,” Bloomberg goes on to note.
The move marks the first expansion of the military alliance since 2009 and as Reuters puts it, "defies Russian warnings that enlargement of the U.S.-led bloc further into the Balkans is 'irresponsible' action that undermines trust." Here's more color:
Moscow opposes any NATO extension to former communist areas of eastern and southeastern Europe, part of an east-west struggle for influence over former Soviet satellites that is at the center of the crisis in Ukraine.Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in September that any expansion of NATO was "a mistake, even a provocation".In comments to Russian media then, he said NATO's so-called open door policy was "an irresponsible policy that undermines the determination to build a system of equal and shared security in Europe."RIA news agency cited a Russian senator as saying on Wednesday that Russia will end joint projects with Montenegro if the ex-Communist country joins the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The Adriatic state of 650,000 people is expected to become a member formally next year.
“It’s not focused on Russia per se or anybody else," John Kerry said on Wednesday, adding that "it would be a great mistake to react adversely."
Kerry went on to insist that NATO "is not a threat to anyone ... it is a defensive alliance," which makes you wonder what exactly he meant when he said it "would be a great mistake to act adversely."
In any event, Russia isn't happy as Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow may need to take “retaliatory action.” Here's the whole statement:
“On all levels, Moscow has always noted that the continuing expansion of NATO, of the military infrastructure of NATO to the east, can only lead to retaliatory measure from the east, from the Russian side, in terms of guaranteeing the security and maintaining a parity of interests.”
Reuters goes on to point out that "NATO allies are [still] divided over what message to send to Georgia over its long-delayed membership bid" and at the two-day meeting, "ministers repeated their long-held position that Tbilisi must continue to prepare for membership, calling for Russia's military to withdraw from Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia."
Here's some amusing commentary from Jan Oberg of the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, who spoke to RT:
RT: The NATO chief was asked whether they've taken Russia's concerns into account. This will be another eastward expansion for the Alliance, near Russia's borders. How worried should Moscow be?Jan Oberg: Maybe not too much, but this is the wrong moment given the situation between NATO and Russia. The West needs Russia in Syria and elsewhere. Secondly this is provocative... I see it as a sign of weakness.RT: And how do you expect Russia to respond?JO: Well, there will be a diplomatic grumpy response to this, which is understandable given the other measures that NATO has taken in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. If NATO is an alliance of democracies – why not have a referendum? We have thousands of people demonstrating in Montenegro against this. It is done by means of lawmakers, but it is the same problem we have everywhere in the Western so-called democratic world – that the elite are doing things that people don’t want. It applies to Denmark and Sweden, it applies to the US, it applies to France, it applies to Montenegro. So let’s be democratic and get them into NATO if that is what the will of the people is.Now, I don’t see any point in all these things, because they are all done without alternatives. Let the Montenegrin people get five models of how to secure their future and let them vote democratically. This either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ has nothing to do with democracy. I tell you – there is no problems in Montenegro that can be solved by NATO membership and participation in anti-terror or the war on terror and bring terror to Montenegro.RT: It's been 16 years since Montenegro was bombed by NATO, and these memories are surely still fresh in the minds of some locals there. Why were the people denying a referendum on joining the Alliance?JO: Because it is not a democratic leadership – everybody who has followed [Milo] Dukanovic over the years knows that this is not a democracy in a genuine sense of the word. We also know that it is a country with quite a lot to judge from, quite a lot of media report, ... economic corruption…So if this is what NATO boosts itself within this crisis situation - it is an alliance on its way down.
NATO’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance would be willing to chat with Russia about the latest expansion.
Sergei Lavrov said only this: "Yes, we have something to talk about."