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How Russia could invade Ukraine - by Aris Roussinos for UnHerd - 29.01.22

A shock and awe campaign could overwhelm Eastern Europe

A couple of weeks ago, in a biting sleet wind, I visited the graveyard of the tiny village of Bohoniki in Poland’s far north east, home to Poland’s minuscule Tatar Muslim minority, descendents of the Mongol Golden Horde. On the graveyard hillock beneath the swaying pine trees, below gilded crescent moons and Arabic calligraphy, the names on the headstones — Miroslawa Safarewicz, Ali Bogdanowicz, Aleksander Sulkiewicz — spoke of centuries of Tatar assimilation since their arrival on horseback in Poland in the Middle Ages.

The four newest headstones, decorated with plastic flowers, gave evidence of more recent arrivals — the graves of migrants from Yemen and Syria who died trying to cross the nearby border from Belarus, after the country’s strongman Alexander Lukashenko deployed illegal migration as a weapon against Poland and the EU last autumn.

The Tatars of Bohoniki prepare and deliver food to their co-religionist migrants who make it through the closed border, hiding in the forests, as well as to the Polish troops and border guards whose role it is to hunt them down and return them across the barbed wire border fence. Outside the village’s small wooden mosque, a banner spread against the railings declares: “Thank you for your service and for protecting our border #PolishMilitaryWall.” For centuries, the Tatar minority distinguished itself through loyal military service to Poland’s rulers, serving as cavalry in the contested steppes of Ukraine, against the Ottomans at Vienna, and conducting one of the last Polish cavalry charges against the invading Germans in 1939.

This bleak stretch of borderland, an extension of the great Eurasian steppe with no defensible natural frontiers, has always witnessed the movement of peoples and the sudden extinction of nations following the ebb and flow of imperial borders. The golden onion domes of Orthodox churches rise up from the wooden cottages of villages which seem to have spilled over the natural border: though of course it was the borders which came after the peoples, washing back and forth in bloody waves.

An ethnic map of the province in the late 19th century reveals a Pollock painting of peoples, two of whom — the Jews and the Germans — have been entirely expunged from the region within living memory. Twice in the past 300 years, Poland has vanished entirely, carved up by hungry neighbours. Twice in the twentieth century, these borderlands were drenched in blood as great empires rose and fell. Now, once again, Europe’s eastern marches are witnessing the massing of armies and the threat of a sudden, violent reordering of borders as a great empire wanes.

At its moment of greatest strength in the Nineties, the American empire expanded to encompass these borderlands, taking the former satellite states of the Soviet Union under the Nato umbrella. Now that the great empire is itself weakened by political turbulence at home and an existential challenge in East Asia, a resurgent Russia feels emboldened to renegotiate this settlement by the threat of force, demanding that not just that Nato advances no further eastward, but also that it withdraws from the region.

No-one can predict with certainty what will happen next: but as troops and materiel flood westwards in vast numbers across Russia to the eastern marches of America’s European empire, it seems clear our continent is at a great inflection point, like 1914 or 1939, 1945 or 1989. The generation-long slumber of the post-Cold War era has ended: Europe is awakening to history once again.

With every day, it becomes more likely that a great hammer blow is about to descend on Ukraine. More than 100,000 Russian troops have been deployed to Ukraine’s frontiers, in a great arc from Belarus to the north to the Black Sea in the southeast. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its parallel detachment of two predominantly Russian-speaking portions of eastern Ukraine did not bring about the great reordering Putin sought in Eastern Europe. The Minsk agreement that sought to end the war did not bear fruit; Ukraine’s armed forces are stronger than they were eight years ago, and the Ukrainian purchase of Turkish Bayraktar attack drones threatens to overturn the fragile stalemate in the country’s east.

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How Russia could invade Ukraine - article for UnHerd by Aris Roussinos 29.01.22
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There is no time to waste (Yuri SmityukTASS via Getty Images)

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