Avoiding a new Checkpoint Charlie

Hany Ghoraba
Sunday 6 Feb 2022

Negotiations to defuse the escalating situation over Ukraine are the best hope to avoid a new Checkpoint Charlie crisis in which US and Russian troops wait for the order to fire.

The idea that history repeats itself is not simply an old saying but a fact that unfolds as time goes by. 

The prospect of reliving the same historical conflicts once again is a recurring phenomenon, as can be seen through the potential war situation between the US and its NATO allies on one side and Russia on the other over Ukraine. Despite diplomatic efforts to avoid a potential war over Ukraine, the signs have never been so threatening in recent decades. 

The current situation is reminiscent of an event that occurred in Berlin during the height of the Cold War in 1961. This event, at Checkpoint Charlie, could have caused a nuclear war between the former allies of World War II who became adversaries after it, namely the US and the former Soviet Union.  

Checkpoint Charlie was designated as a crossing point between East and West Berlin and for members of the Allied armed forces. Then premier of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev issued an ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of all armed forces from West Berlin, including those of the US, Britain, and France. 

As a result of the ultimatum, US and Soviet tanks rushed to control the famous checkpoint on 27 October 1961, and for almost an entire day each country’s tanks faced the other, waiting for a signal from their commanders. Had one of the tanks started to fire on the other side, there would have been a good possibility that the world we live in now might not exist, or at least not in the way we know it. 

The US deployed a tactical nuclear device known as the Davy Crockett to the field in preparation for what could have been a nuclear war that could have been ignited from Berlin to sweep the rest of the world. However, luckily the Americans and the Soviets agreed to deescalate the situation through backdoor diplomatic channels, and the order was given to the Soviet tanks to move five metres back, with the US tanks doing the same until the situation was defused. 

Over 60 years later, the world finds itself in a new Checkpoint Charlie situation, but this time the potential battlefield has moved eastwards from the German capital towards Ukraine. 

The danger of a full-blown confrontation cannot be understated. According to US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, the fact that Russian troops are amassing near the Ukrainian border is a threat “larger in scale and scope than we have seen in recent memory.” This opinion is shared by US chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, who believes that the current level of Russian troops and military equipment on the border with Ukraine would be enough to invade the country with little notice. 

The escalating situation has not been defused, and US President Joe Biden has ordered the deployment of a small number of troops, estimated to be around 8,500, to Eastern Europe in preparation for a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine. The move remains a symbolic one and serves as a warning to Russia that all sides are starting to place their chips on the negotiation table. The number of the US troops remains negligible compared to the estimated 100,000 Russian troops amassed near the Ukrainian border. 

The Russian leadership complains that NATO actions have provoked this response from its side. After a long silence, Russian President Vladimir Putin told his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron that his country’s security concerns had not been met in the negotiations between NATO and Russia. 

Russia has demanded before that Ukraine should not be accepted as a member of NATO, saying that this represents a “red line” that would jeopardise the country’s security given the fact that Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, borders Russia and hosted its Black Sea fleet for decades. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, which was part of Ukraine, and declared it to be part of Russia amidst much international condemnation. 

The problem remains that Russia still views Ukraine as a satellite state and one that must not be allowed to forge its own independent policies away from Russian influence. This sentiment is approved neither by Ukrainians nor by the West. Nevertheless, the Russian demands for Ukraine not to join NATO stem from the lack of trust that has been building up over the past two decades. The Russians do not wish to see Ukraine filled with NATO troops jeopardising its security. 

The current amassing of Russian troops, countered by NATO ones moving to the region, is becoming another Checkpoint Charlie situation that could trigger a war. If US or NATO troops are targeted, whether during a border skirmish or as part of a full-scale Russian invasion, that would spell a crisis that has moved out of control. 

Despite the animosity that reigned between the US and Russia during the days of the former Soviet Union, neither country engaged in a direct war or battle with the other. In fact, they were allies from 1941 to 1945 against the Axis countries led by Nazi Germany in World War II. However, the current moves risk the occurrence of such a direct war after decades of non-direct confrontations and proxy wars. 

While Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that his country does not desire to go to war with Ukraine or the US, he has reiterated that Russia cannot ignore its own security even if his country is not receiving any positive reaction from the Western camp. 

His pessimism about the situation cannot be overlooked because it represents the Russian state’s sentiment towards the situation. A war in Ukraine would spell disaster for the rest of the world including Russia even if only traditional weapons were used. Russia could also certainly do without the international sanctions that would result and the need to occupy a sovereign country. 

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 looked like a walk in the park to the then Soviet leadership, but it turned into a disaster for the whole country and was a catalyst for its later disintegration. Russia, as the successor state of the USSR, must not fall into a trap of this sort again, especially with NATO and all Europe drawing lines on how far the Russians can interfere in Ukraine. 

Negotiations to defuse the escalating situation are the best hope to avoid a new Checkpoint Charlie crisis in which US and Russian troops face off against each other waiting for the order to fire. A world already battered by the Covid-19 pandemic could certainly do without a World War II. 

* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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