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Europe readies for armed conflict, diplomacy craters

Across Europe, preparations for war are afoot as the conflict between NATO and Russia intensifies following the Kremlin's decision to move troops into pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.

(CN) — Europe moved closer to a major conflict on Wednesday as opposing governments in Ukraine called up their citizens to arms, Moscow bolstered its presence in the rebel-held Donbas region and NATO sent even more arms and troops toward its borders with Russia.

In parallel, diplomatic efforts to defuse this major crisis cratered as U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin nixed a potential summit and their top diplomats canceled a scheduled meeting in Geneva on Thursday.

“It's clear that diplomacy has failed,” said Ian Bremmer, the president of the Eurasia Group political consultancy firm, in a briefing. “We are in severely escalatory territory.”

European leaders, led by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, were putting the hope of diplomatic breakthroughs on deep freeze too by imposing new sanctions on Russian lawmakers, banks, oligarchs, officials and banning the trade in Russian state bonds. The European Union's NATO members also moved to confront Russia militarily by boosting troop levels at potential hot spots, such as in Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states.

Scholz made the most far-reaching retaliatory move on Tuesday by halting the opening of a major Russian pipeline across the Baltic Sea, the Nord Stream 2.

The United States has tried for years to torpedo the project, which it said tethered Europe to Russian gas. Supporters in Germany, including many top politicians and industry, saw it as a crucial way to build ties with Russia. Until now, Scholz was a supporter too, but he seems to have bowed to pressure from the U.S., which is also eager to open Europe up for its exports of shale gas.

“Now it is down to the international community to respond to this unilateral, unjustified and incomprehensible action taken by the Russian president,” Scholz told reporters. “We need to coordinate our approach … in order to send a clear signal to Moscow that activities of this kind cannot remain without consequences.”

Closing the pipeline though will anger the Kremlin and Russian state-owned gas giant Gazprom, which has poured billions of dollars into the project along with German companies and banks.

“Welcome to the brave new world where Europeans are very soon going to pay 2,000 euros for 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas!” taunted Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president and deputy chair of Russia's Security Council, in a tweet.

At 2,000 euros (about $2,260) per 1,000 cubic meters, Europeans would be paying more than twice the very high prices they currently pay for gas.

Closing the pipeline potentially could hurt Germany's economy and leave Europe at risk of seeing Russia retaliate by cutting off gas supplies. But in stopping the certification process for the controversial pipeline, Scholz was praised by many for taking what they see as a courageous step.

“Germany is acting as a leader in Europe and across the Atlantic community even if it means that the country may need to make tougher energy choices in the future,” said Kristine Berzina, an expert at the German Marshall Fund, a U.S.-funded think tank.

“Germany’s decision to halt the certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline shows that even in a country where having good economic ties to Russia is a cornerstone of foreign policy, President Putin’s moves are beyond the boundary of acceptability.”

Relations between Kyiv and Moscow were quickly worsening following Putin's decision on Monday to occupy with Russian troops two pro-Russian breakaway eastern Ukrainian regions that Russia had been tacitly supporting since an armed rebellion started in 2014 following the overthrow of a pro-Russian, and democratically elected, Ukrainian president during the U.S.-backed “Maidan Revolution.”

Troops were sent there after Putin recognized them as independent states, a move condemned by the West and characterized as an invasion, though some commentators hesitated to call it an outright invasion because Russia has in effect been occupying these territories for the past eight years through proxies.

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In Ukraine, preparations for a war were speeding up with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declaring a state of emergency, calling up to arms Ukrainian reservists and citizens and telling 3 million Ukrainians living in Russia to leave. He said he was mulling cutting off diplomatic ties with Moscow.

A Ukrainian army officer looks at his phone in a local train in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

On the other side of the frontline in the disputed territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, pro-Russian forces were being joined by Russian troops and the leaders of the self-declared republics issued conscription orders for adult males.

In Ukraine, the conflict is dredging up past grievances and stoking nationalist narratives pitting Europhile western Ukrainians against Russophile eastern Ukrainians.

In a fiery speech on Monday, Putin stoked those dark sentiments by accusing Kyiv of becoming a country in the hands of neo-Nazi nationalistic groups that are determined to destroy everything Russian in Ukraine.

His anti-Ukrainian rhetoric though is not without founding and it plays more generally into his anti-Western narrative.

Since the 2014 Maidan uprising, Ukraine has begun imposing restrictions on the use of the Russian language; it's banned the Communist Party, a party close to many ethnic Russians; taken down statues to communist leaders, such as ones depicting Vladimir Lenin; renamed streets to honor anti-communist fighters who collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II; and banned Russian media outlets.

Ultranationalist groups in Ukraine associate themselves with Nazi symbols and ideology and harken back to Ukraine's anti-communist independence fight during World War II. These groups are flourishing in Ukraine since they gained a lot of influence in Ukrainian politics following their role in the Maidan uprising, experts say. These groups play a key role in the conflict over Donbas and militia groups, most notably the state-sanctioned Azov Battalion, are seen as among the best fighters on the Ukrainian side.

In Ukraine, patriotism is on the rise too in the face of Russia's aggressive moves to halt the country's democratic development and entry into NATO and the EU. Many Ukrainians are passionately opposed to Russia due to a history that saw millions of Ukrainians die in a famine caused by Joseph Stalin's forced industrialization and decades of suffering under the repressive Soviet system.

There are dangers the conflict in Ukraine could spread and cause tensions elsewhere on a continent where Russia's influence has reached far and wide over the centuries. As such, there are numerous spots vulnerable to seeing conflict erupt.

In Serbia, an Orthodox nation of 7 million people and an ally of Russia at the heart of the Balkans, the government did not condemn Putin's recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk. Serbia is seeking EU membership, but its population opposes NATO, in large part because of NATO's bombing of Serbia in 1999.

On Tuesday, when Ukraine's ambassador in Belgrade, Alexander Aleksandrovich, demanded Serbia condemn Russia, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic replied that he would do that only if Zelenskyy condemned NATO’s bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999.

“We are a small country and do not want to do away with the possibility of continuing our friendships with some [countries],” Vucic told Pink TV, according to Euractiv, a news outlet.

He added: “I invite Mr. Aleksandrovich to call the president of his country Mr. Zelenskyy and ask him to condemn as early as this evening on television the horrific and tragic aggression against Serbia by the U.S., the United Kingdom, Germany and other countries and I am sure that he will do so. As soon as he does this, I will gladly accept his invitation and answer his pleas.”

Much more volatile is the situation in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. In that multi-ethnic nation, pro-Russian Serb leader Milorad Dodik is threatening to unravel that country's constitutional order by withdrawing the Serb-dominated part of the country, the Srpska Republika, from national institutions, including the armed forces. Dodik has not condemned Russia over Ukraine.

In recent days, Russia has talked about the alleged presence of Muslim militants from Bosnia and Chechnya fighting alongside Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine, a suggestion that has governments in the Balkans concerned about Russian retaliatory moves in that conflict-ridden region.

But there are many other spots of potential friction and conflict across Eastern and Central Europe. For instance, there's the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, a port city and home to the Russian navy's Baltic Sea Fleet surrounded by Poland and Lithuania, two EU and NATO members.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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