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Analysis

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompts fear of new ‘Iron Curtain’ in Europe

Politicians, experts say Moscow’s assault on former Soviet republic could revive post-WWII’s hostile division

Ukrainian military vehicles move past Independence square in central Kyiv, on February 24, 2022. (Daniel Leal/AFP)
Ukrainian military vehicles move past Independence square in central Kyiv, on February 24, 2022. (Daniel Leal/AFP)

AFP — Russia’s attack on Ukraine could herald a Cold War revival in Europe with two blocs armed to the teeth pointing nuclear weapons at each other across an iron curtain, politicians and experts say.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s statement that Moscow’s assault on his country was “the sound of a new Iron Curtain lowering” has resonated in Western halls of power where many had assumed that Europe’s post-war division into hostile camps led by the US and Russia was consigned to the history books.

From Hitler’s defeat in 1945 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Europe was divided into two camps with the dividing line running through Germany.

The so-called Iron Curtain, a term coined by British wartime leader Winston Churchill, separated the western liberal, capitalist democracies from the communist countries in the east, each part of zones of influence that were mostly accepted by the other side.

‘Shift borders’

But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of Moscow’s former satellites turned to the West, joining NATO and the European Union if they could — like Poland and Romania — or at least liberalizing their economies and political systems, like Ukraine.

Former German chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in communist east Germany, warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin is on a quest to roll back that trend and re-establish Moscow’s sphere of influence.

“Russia’s war of aggression marks a profound turning point in European history after the end of the Cold War,” Merkel said Friday.

Her successor, Olaf Scholz, echoed such concerns when he called the invasion of Ukraine “an attempt to forcibly shift borders within Europe.”

An illuminated window on a residential building with the rest of the lighting turned off for safety reasons, in the city of Kyiv, on February 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Putin point-blank of wanting to “reconstitute the Soviet empire” or at least “reassert a sphere of influence.”

French President Emmanuel Macron also seemed to be looking at the Russian offensive’s long-term impact when he described the war as a “turning point in the history of Europe and our country” with “deep and lasting consequences for our lives.”

Russia taking “Ukraine off the map of nations,” as French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian fears it will, would dramatically lengthen the border NATO countries share with Russia, with a big rise in potential flashpoints — and fewer buffers.

Already the US and other NATO members are sending reinforcements to the alliance’s frontline.

Once Washington stations the promised 7,000 extra soldiers, the US will have 90,000 troops in total deployed in Europe.

Among European nations promising more efforts, France has said it would accelerate its troop deployment in Romania, while Italy is to send 3,400 soldiers to its most exposed NATO allies.

‘All kinds of repercussions’

Western experts have little doubt that victory in Ukraine would see Putin tighten his grip not just on Kyiv, but also on neighboring Belarus, which has already served as a launchpad for Russia’s attack.

“The war in Ukraine will have all kinds of repercussions on the line that runs from Baltic to the Black Sea,” said Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier at the Thomas More institute think tank.

Belarus would “become a satellite again,” he told AFP, and Russian pressure would grow on the Baltic countries and Poland.

The body of a serviceman is coated in snow as a man takes photos of a destroyed Russian military multiple rocket launcher vehicle on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine, on February 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Scholz called on Germany’s allies to prevent the conflict from spilling over into other countries “with everything at our disposal” and warned Putin not to underestimate NATO’s determination to defend its members.

France meanwhile expressed concerns that Russian tanks may also roll into Moldova and Georgia, two other former Soviet republics where separatists declared unrecognized statelets.

As tensions rise, the nuclear arms threat — a key ingredient of post-war Europe’s Cold War order — is also making a return.

Le Drian has reminded Putin that “the Atlantic alliance is also a nuclear alliance,” while the Russian leader threatened retaliation “like you have never seen in history” for anyone interfering with the war in Ukraine — which many understand to mean nuclear reprisal.

Both Russia and the US have thousands of nuclear warheads at their disposal, with France and Britain adding to the West’s atomic capabilities.

Ukraine, which emerged from the Cold War with sizable Soviet-era nuclear weapons stocks of its own, gave up its arsenal in the 1990s.

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