The attacks launched by Russia since Friday in the western part of Ukraine, the last one just 25 kilometers from NATO territory, have raised the risk of an “incident” triggering a dangerous escalation of the conflict. Allied sources point out that the main fear is that the proximity of the front leads to the fall in NATO territory of a Russian missile. The mishap, intentional or not, would place the US and its allies in the dilemma of responding militarily, at the risk of provoking a war escalation of catastrophic proportions.
Allied sources acknowledge that they breathed a certain amount of calm at the fact that the Russian offensive was concentrated in the eastern part of Ukraine in the early stages of the war. These positions, far from the borders of the EU and NATO, avoided a fortuitous clash between allied and Russian forces or an unexpected attack on one of the Western allies. But the displacement of the violence to the west of the Dnieper river increases the risk of escalation, according to allied sources.
“The closer to the western border, the greater the risk that a simple calculation error will cause an incident,” these sources point out. They also indicate that, as the war drags on, Russia is forced to use less accurate weaponry because high-tech weapons are much more expensive. “The risk of a calculation error is thus greater,” they add.
The United States has emphasized this Sunday that the Atlantic Alliance will respond “with all its force” if the offensive reaches allied territory. The warning was issued by the American national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, who explained that any attack would activate NATO article 5, according to which an attack on an ally is considered an attack on all. “If there is a military attack on NATO territory, it would trigger the invocation of this article, and we would use the full force of the alliance to respond,” he said in an interview on CBS.
On Friday there was already “an incident”, as NATO has defined it, not yet clarified, with the fall of a Russian-made drone in the capital of Croatia. The device, of six tons and usual in the Ukrainian armed forces, hit a public park in Zagreb. The drone crossed the airspace of three NATO countries (Romania, Hungary and Croatia) without being detected or intercepted.
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The apparent negligence has triggered alarms among neighboring countries and the Croatian government, outraged, has demanded explanations from NATO for the lack of information. Stoltenberg spoke on Saturday by phone with Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plencovik, and it was agreed to investigate the incident to clarify what happened.
US President Joe Biden warned on Friday that a Russian attack against a NATO ally It would mark the start of World War III. And the general secretary of the military organization, Jens Stoltenberg, stressed that day that the Alliance has already doubled its presence in the eastern allies, with thousands of troops and hundreds of aircraft and warships deployed on the eastern flank.
The allied warnings are intended to dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin from any temptation to test the Western reaction with an incursion into Poland, Latvia or Romania. But the risk of a contact between the allied forces and the Moscow Army has increased after the Russian attacks on Friday against the Ukrainian air base in Lutsk, 80 kilometers from the Polish border, and this Sunday against a military base in the Lviv region, just 25 kilometers from the same border.
The risk of a dangerous friction is also increased by the Russian threat to attack any European convoy that supplies weapons to the Ukrainian forces. The bombardments along the Polish border, as well as that of an airport (Ivano-Frankivsk) 150 kilometers away from the Allies, seem to be aimed precisely at stopping the arrival of military and humanitarian aid from the European allies.
Poland and Romania are the two NATO members with the largest border territory with Ukraine, more than 500 kilometers. Russia is aware that Western arms and supplies will most likely enter Ukraine through these two countries. Of the other two bordering allies with Ukraine, Hungary has prohibited the passage of weapons and the border with Slovakia is less than 100 kilometers and can be more easily monitored by Moscow.
NATO has repeatedly denied any intention to intervene in the conflict and has ruled out the presence of Western troops or forces on the ground. The Alliance has also rejected the request to establish a no-fly zone as demanded by the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to get rid of Russian missile attacks.
NATO believes that such an exclusion zone would require the destruction of Putin’s anti-aircraft forces, both in Ukraine and Russia, and the shooting down of Russian planes that did not respect the exclusion. That clash would mean, according to NATO, a total war in Europe with the participation of four nuclear powers such as Russia, the USA, the United Kingdom and France. NATO also ignored Putin’s decision to put his nuclear weapons systems on alert, a bluster ignored in Brussels so as not to encourage escalation.
“We have a responsibility to ensure that this conflict does not escalate beyond Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said Friday in a message to Poland to celebrate the 23rd anniversary of that country’s entry into the Alliance. The secretary general warned that this escalation would be “even more dangerous, destructive and deadly” than Putin’s current war against Ukraine.
NATO acknowledges, however, that Putin’s violence is aimed beyond Ukraine, as evidenced by his threats to Sweden and Finland if they choose to join the Alliance. “This is about denying any nation in Europe the right to choose its own path and become a member of NATO,” said the organization’s secretary general.