Tensions between the U.S. and Russia just took their darkest turn yet

Vladimir Putin.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

The fog of war has already descended on the border separating Russia from Ukraine.

As recently as a day or so, things seemed to be moving in a hopeful direction, with word of Russian troop withdrawals and ongoing negotiations to avoid the outbreak of conflict. But on Thursday, events took their darkest turn yet.

First came confirmation that Russia has merely been repositioning forces, not withdrawing them, and has actually added 7,000 troops in recent days. Then came reports of cross-border shelling in the eastern part of Ukraine, with each side accusing the other of initiating hostilities. This was followed by word that the Russian Federation sent a chilly written response to a document the United States delivered three weeks ago engaging with Moscow's security demands in the region. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs then released a statement about the response, indicating the U.S. had "ignored" its concerns.

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Next came news that Russia had expelled Bart Gorman, the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission to Russia, the second-most senior diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. No explanation was given for the move, and the Biden administration has responded by calling it "escalatory." President Joe Biden himself then added to the gloom by telling reporters Thursday morning, "my sense" is that Russia will invade Ukraine "within the next several days."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking before the United National Security Council, echoed Biden's sentiments by calling the Russia-Ukraine crisis a "moment of peril."

But the most ominous development of all may be the content of that written response from Russia, which, in addition to calling for Ukraine and Georgia to be denied entry to NATO, reportedly demands that no NATO or U.S. military assets be stationed in countries once part of the Soviet Union and that NATO "military capabilities" be removed from all countries that have joined the alliance since 1997.

One can make the argument that NATO expansion went farther than it should have after the conclusion of the Cold War, contributing in decisive ways to bring us to the brink of war today. But that's entirely different from suggesting the United States and NATO effectively unwind NATO expansion back to 1997. That is and ought to be a complete nonstarter.

Which means war may well now be all but inevitable.

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Damon Linker

Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also a former contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.