There are two really dangerous geographical zones where conflict, even war, between major powers, could be sparked.
The first are the South and East China seas, where China is asserting various territorial claims against neighbouring states. The other lies in the borderlands between Russia and the European Union (EU).
The first is probably the more dangerous, because it is here that the US and China might clash. But the second is the more immediate flashpoint. Two states are in play here, Belarus and Ukraine.
Both were long part of the pre-revolutionary Russian Empire. And both only broke free of Russian control when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Both have complicated affinities and tensions—culturally, politically, and economically—with Russia.
Both have manoeuvred between it and the Western bloc since 1991. But in the end, Belarus tilted eastwards and Ukraine westwards.
Belarus’s president Alexander Lukashenko has depended on the support of his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin since he fiddled his re-election in 2020 and crushed the opposition.
Confrontation has been growing between Belarus and the EU in the past few weeks. With Putin’s apparent encouragement, Lukashenko has been pushing migrants and refugees across the border with Poland, in retaliation against sanctions imposed by the EU.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government is talking up war with Russia. The latest warning comes from Kyrylo Budanov, the chief of Ukraine’s defence intelligence. He accuses Russia of planning to invade Ukraine from the north, east, and south in the New Year.
In 2014 Putin reacted to the overthrow of the corrupt Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych by sending Russian troops in to seize the Crimean Peninsula. Since then he has waged a proxy war of varying degrees of intensity against the pro-Western Ukrainian government.
Some 92,000 Russian troops are massed on the border with Ukraine. One can’t rule out that Putin might actually use them.
The US broke promises made to the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, by expanding the Nato military alliance and the EU to Russia’s borders. The security analyst George Friedman pointed out in 2014, “Ukraine is about 300 miles from Moscow at its closest point.
“Were Belarus and Ukraine both admitted to Nato, the city of Smolensk, which had been deep inside the Soviet Union, would have become a border town. Russia has historically protected itself with its depth.
“The loss of Ukraine as a buffer to the West leaves Russia without that depth and hostage to the intentions and capabilities of Europe and the United States.”
The current Ukrainian government would love to join the EU and Nato—something that Putin has warned would cross a red line. Sounding the alarm about Russian invasion may be Ukraine’s way of pressuring the US and EU for more support.
Boris Johnson has already obliged with a deal signed this month to supply Ukraine with ten naval vessels and missiles.
Putin may be playing mind games as well. He built up Russian troops on the Ukrainian border in the spring only to pull them back.
The West are probing his defences too, notably in the strategically important Black Sea.
Russia seized Crimea partly to secure its naval base at Sebastopol. HMS Defender, part of the Carrier Strike Force headed by the new British carrier Queen Elizabeth II, made a provocative voyage into the Black Sea in June. Putin has been complaining about more recent Nato drills in the Black Sea.
It all looks like manoeuvring for advantage rather than preparations for war.
Joe Biden has sought to calm relations with Russia in order to concentrate on China, which he rightly sees as the main threat to US global hegemony.
But, amid the build-up of tensions, imperialist power games could escalate out of anyone’s control and into a real confrontation.