(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.