The fraught relationship between Russia and the West, which was supposed to improve following an agreement over Ukraine, has descended instead into renewed acrimony after a series of tense military and diplomatic confrontations.
France and Germany, which had brokered the Minsk accord last week, were yesterday trying to hold together the increasingly fragile ceasefire in Ukraine amid reports that fighting was spreading once again.
Kremlin-backed separatists and Cossack fighters triumphantly paraded through Debaltseve, a strategic point they had captured in the past 48 hours, leaving the Atlanticist project to expand NATO into Ukraine in tatters.
Britain, which along with the EU will be strongly criticised by a House of Lords committee today for “sleep-walking into this crisis”, was drawn towards centre-stage after two Russian Bear bombers off the coast of Cornwall – but just outside UK airspace – were met by RAF jets scrambled from their base in Coningsby, Lincolnshire.
The apparent probe of British readiness came soon after the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, accused President Vladimir Putin of a “campaign of destabilisation to the Baltic countries”. The Russian leader, he said, presented “as much of a threat to Europe as ISIS”.
Russian deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Lukashevich declared that Fallon’s war-mongering comments were “already beyond diplomatic ethics”, adding: “The characterisation of Russia is completely intolerable. We will find a way to respond to the comments.”
In London, Rory Stewart, the chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, said the West was on a “political razor-edge”. He urged all British political parties to write into their manifestoes a commitment to spend two per cent of GDP on defence – as required by Nato. He also asked them to prepare to deal with threats such as cyber-attacks, irregular troops, and propaganda.
The British Government, which is one of the guarantors of the territorial integrity of Ukraine in return for it giving up a nuclear arsenal, is worried that Germany and France may have already recognised separate regions.
“It [the committee] believes that the EU, and by implication the UK, was guilty of sleep-walking into this crisis,” said the committee chairman, Lord Tugendhat. “The lack of robust analytical capacity, in both the UK and the EU, effectively led to a catastrophic misreading of the mood in the run-up to the crisis.”
An inspection by Dutch military specialists revealed no military activities on the part of Russia in the Rostov region bordering Ukraine, the head of the Russian Defense Ministry’s International Treaties Implementation Department told RIA Novosti on Friday.
Dutch military experts inspected 13,000 square kilometers (5,000 square miles) in Russia’s Rostov Region bordering Ukraine, Sergei Ryzhkov added.
“The inspection took place in accordance with the Vienna Document and was carried out not only on the ground, but also with the help of helicopters,” Sergei Ryzhkov said.
Dutch military inspected the same area in the Rostov Region bordering Ukraine that Ukrainian specialists chose for inspection earlier.
Kiev authorities and Atlanticists have accused Russia of providing military aid and troops to Donbas militias. Moscow has dismissed the allegations and denied any involvement in the armed conflict in Ukraine.