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Two months into the war the temperature of the rhetoric on both sides is warming considerably, exacerbating the conflict between Washington and Moscow, despite the US not being directly involved in the fighting.
Russia has tested both intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles, the latter with a sufficient range to reach targets in the US – and when the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, warned that these would be “food for thought for those who, in the heat of frenzied aggressive rhetoric, try to threaten our country”, it was clear he was thinking about the US.
For its part, the US has upped the stakes considerably, with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declaring that the US and Nato would strive to ensure that Russia emerged from the Ukraine conflict “weakened to the point that it can’t do things like invade Ukraine”.
Frank Ledwidge, an expert in military strategy at Portsmouth University, who has been tracking the news from the battlefield since the invasion began, has taken a look at what this might mean in terms of the way the conflict may play out, and the increasing involvement of Nato and other western countries in supplying Ukraine with state-of-the-art weaponry.
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In turn, Russia conducted a military drill in the Baltic region, rehearsing the deployment and launch of “nuclear-capable” missiles from Kaliningrad which have the range to hit targets in western Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic states and parts of Germany.
Michael Mulvihill, an interdisciplinary researcher at Newcastle University, has spent the past few years engaged in a history of the UK’s early warning systems at Fylingdales in north Yorkshire. Having tracked the fears of a nuclear confrontation between Russia and the west since the second world war, he has explained the ebb and flow of proliferation and disarmament through the cold war and writes of various moments where it looked as if the world was on the brink of nuclear war. It’s fairly simple, he writes, the more weapons the greater the chance of disaster.
That the latest drills were held in Kaliningrad is also significant, writes Stefan Wolff, a Birmingham-based expert on international security and the post-Soviet space. Kaliningrad sits between Poland and Lithuania and was taken by Josef Stalin as part of the peace settlement after the second world war. It has no land border with Russia, but is deep into Nato territory. Missile tests conducted there are freighted with extra meaning.
Guns and God
As Ukrainian forces have pushed Russian troops out of various areas in the north and west, they have captured significant hauls of the enemy’s weaponry – and analysis has shown up a surprising amount of western military tech incorporated into Russian military systems. This is interesting, in that Russia has been under sanctions since 2014 which should mean it can’t buy military tech, certainly from countries obeying the sanctions regimes.
But – as Daniel Salisbury, a historian and weapons expert at King’s College London, writes – Russia (and the Soviet Union before it) has a history of being able to get around sanctions via legal loopholes and, when needed, espionage.
Far from the battlefields of Ukraine, Russia’s military machine will be on display in Moscow on Monday when Russia celebrates Victory Day, the anniversary of the defeat of Nazism at the end of the second world war (similar to VE day, but celebrated a day later in Russia because of the timing of the German surrender).
There has been much speculation about what the day might mean for Russia’s plans for Ukraine, but as historian Miriam Dobson writes, the day itself resonates for many Russians with a message of Soviet will and determination and the self-sacrifice of its young fighters, a sacrifice Putin is asking his troops to make once again in 2022.
In recent years the Orthodox church has had a major role to play in Victory Day, lending a sacred aspect to the military celebration with the overtone that the red army marches with the blessing of the Christian god. Kathryn David, a professor of Russian studies at Vanderbilt University in the US, takes a look at the differences between Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox traditions and writes that Moscow can’t claim exclusivity when it comes to waging a “holy war”.
While you are reading this
Do take the time to have a listen to this week’s Conversation Weekly podcast. The latest episode looks at the concept of neutrality and what it might mean for the future of Ukraine.
The Conversation is thrilled to be able to invite you to the first event in a new series set up to explore social science perspectives on current topics of interest. Social Science Perspectives on the Russian Invasion of Ukraine – featuring Sir Lawrence Freedman is on Wednesday May 18 at 18:00 at SAGE Publishing, 1 Oliver’s Yard, 55 City Road, London, EC1Y 1SP.
Hosted in collaboration with the Campaign for Social Science and SAGE Publishing, we’ll be holding these in-person salon-style events each quarter, providing an informal environment for like-minded people to build connections and discuss the pressing issues of the day. Join us at SAGE’s London office for free food, drinks and stimulating conversation.
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