UK

Soldiers sent to help Poland at border with Belarus

British soldiers were deployed to the Polish border with Belarus yesterday as tensions in Eastern Europe threatened to spill over.

The escalating migrant crisis at the edge of the EU triggered a rapid military build-up in the region, with Russian paratroopers touching down on the opposite side of the border.

The deployment of Royal Engineers on a reconnaissance mission came as a pair of Kremlin nuclear-capable bombers forced the RAF to defend British airspace.

Vladimir Putin was also warned against making a ‘serious mistake’ after America said satellite images of troops suggested Russia could be planning to invade Ukraine.

The small forward party of British soldiers, thought to number about ten, will help Polish forces strengthen their border with Belarus, where as many as 4,000 migrants, mainly from Iraq, Syria and Yemen, have gathered hoping to cross into Europe.

The escalating migrant crisis at the edge of the EU triggered a rapid military build-up in the region, with Russian paratroopers touching down on the opposite side of the border

Belarus started building camps yesterday to house those who have spent night after night sleeping in freezing forests with little food

Belarus started building camps yesterday to house those who have spent night after night sleeping in freezing forests with little food

Another 15,000 migrants are thought to be in Belarus and heading for the border, having been brought in from the Middle East to flood into Europe by president Alexander Lukashenko in revenge for EU sanctions

Another 15,000 migrants are thought to be in Belarus and heading for the border, having been brought in from the Middle East to flood into Europe by president Alexander Lukashenko in revenge for EU sanctions

RAF Typhoons intercept Russian bombers 

A pair of Russian nuclear bombers yesterday forced the RAF to defend British airspace over the North Sea.

Amid a heightening of tensions between East and West thanks to the escalating crisis on the Polish-Belarus border, two TU-160 ‘Blackjack’ strategic bombers, which are capable of launching cruise missiles, launched a menacing sortie.

The entered the Nato zone – for which the Netherlands is responsible – without warning the Dutch, Amsterdam’s defence ministry confirmed. Belgium and the Netherlands take turns to look after air defence in the area for Nato on behalf of the Benelux region, which also includes Luxembourg.

Belgian F-16s escorted the Russian aircraft out of the area towards a zone policed by Britain, where they were met by a pair of RAF Typhoons from the Quick Reaction Alert force at RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, north-east Scotland, along with a refuelling jet from Brize Norton, Oxfordshire. The TU-160s were then ‘deterred from entering UK aerial territory’, with the Russian pilots turning back and heading north. The RAF’s protection mission was completed by 2.30pm when all British aircraft returned to base, nearly three hours after take-off.

Last night, an RAF spokesperson confirmed that it scrambled the British Typhoons, which ‘intercepted and escorted two Russian TU-160 Blackjack, long-range strategic bomber aircraft’.

Belarus started building camps yesterday to house those who have spent night after night sleeping in freezing forests with little food.

Katarzyna Zdanowicz, spokesman for Poland’s border guards in the eastern Podlasie region, said ‘The scale of the problem is not diminishing.’

She said Belarusian forces had brought wood and water to migrant camps on the border, adding: ‘We can see they are preparing for a longer stay.’

Another 15,000 migrants are thought to be in Belarus and heading for the border, having been brought in from the Middle East to flood into Europe by president Alexander Lukashenko in revenge for EU sanctions.

Moscow, a key Lukashenko ally, has been accused of helping to fuel the crisis.

As the Royal Engineers arrived in the region, hundreds of Russian paratroopers jumped from military aircraft into Belarus. They conducted tactical rehearsals 25 miles from the flashpoint at the border. The Russian defence ministry said the troops, two of whom died, flew home after the exercise, which was interpreted as a show of support for Lukashenko.

Last night, Tory former defence minister Tobias Ellwood backed the Ministry of Defence’s demonstration of solidarity with Poland.

He said: ‘Nato states will need to act swiftly to stay ahead of the threat, while countries which share borders with Russia will require further support.

‘Any failure to do so would be interpreted as weak behaviour by President Putin.

‘He could absolutely invade Ukraine. It is a reflection of just how weak the West has become.’

America warned European leaders this week that Russia may be about to invade Ukraine, having annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014. The warning was based on satellite images showing tens of thousands of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Moscow would commit a ‘serious mistake’ if any of the 90,000 Russian troops positioned to march into Ukraine did so.

Last night, Tory former defence minister Tobias Ellwood backed the Ministry of Defence's demonstration of solidarity with Poland

Last night, Tory former defence minister Tobias Ellwood backed the Ministry of Defence’s demonstration of solidarity with Poland

He assured Kiev this week that Washington’s commitment to Ukraine’s security was ‘iron-clad’.

He said yesterday: ‘We don’t know Russia’s intentions. But we do know that we’ve seen in the past – Russia mass forces on Ukraine’s borders, claim some kind of provocation by Ukraine, and then invade. That’s what they did in 2014.’

France urged Russia to use its ties with Belarus to bring the migrant crisis to an end, and warned that any Russian threat to Ukraine would have ‘serious consequences’. The EU expressed alarm at Russia’s activities by Ukraine’s border.

Belarus said it was ready to defend itself, accusing Poland of an ‘unprecedented’ military build-up on the border, with 15,000 troops and guards backed by tanks, air defences and other weapons.

Defence minister Viktor Khrenin added: ‘Belarus armed forces are ready to respond harshly to any attacks.’

Turkey said yesterday that Iraqis, Syrians and Yemenis would no longer be allowed on flights to Belarus. Iraq also stopped direct journeys, and said it would repatriate Iraqis in Belarus. 

This is how war starts: Troops mobilising, a Russian autocrat eager to show his strength and a toxic climate of hubris, fear and distrust… DOMINIC SANDBROOK says the echoes of history have never been so pertinent

Tomorrow morning, at exactly 11 o’clock, Britain will fall silent. Young and old, black and white, rich and poor, millions of people will stand united to remember the fallen.

Known originally as Armistice Day, Britain’s first day of remembrance was held on November 11, 1919, marking the first anniversary of the end of World War I. Today, as Remembrance Sunday, it remains one of the few truly sacred moments in our national calendar.

But what was it all about, that first Great War? Why did it happen? And how did more than five million young men from Britain and Ireland find themselves on the beaches of Gallipoli, in the deserts of Mesopotamia, in the hills of Palestine and, above all, in the mud of the Western Front?

At the time, ordinary soldiers found the whole thing utterly baffling. ‘What devil has brought this war upon us?’ they would mutter. ‘What is all this about, God help us?’

And even now, more than 100 years after the guns fell silent, historians still argue about the underlying causes.

Imperial greed? Nationalist bloodlust? Or simply a saga of accidents and misunderstandings?

Today, with the planet so febrile, understanding the causes of World War I has never been so important. As in the years before 1914, we live in an age of feverish uncertainty. The certainties of the Cold War, terrifying as they were, are gone.

With China challenging U.S. power in the Pacific, and Vladimir Putin and his clients rattling their sabres in Belarus and eastern Ukraine, who would bet against provocation escalating into war one of these days?

In the past few weeks, there have been reminders of the chilling fragility of the peace we take for granted.

China has reasserted its claim to the U.S.-backed island of Taiwan, while the U.S. State Department has explicitly warned that Russian troops are massing on the border of Ukraine. An exercise, or the prelude to invasion? Who knows?

The footage that emerged yesterday of Russian and Belarusian paratroopers taking part in unnannounced military drills close to the Polish border — where thousands of migrants are gathering — is certainly little cause for comfort.

Has the global situation ever been so unpredictable?

And isn’t it possible that the resulting adventurism, hubris, fear and distrust could build into precisely the same kind of cataclysm that tore the world apart in 1914?

Here, then, is a lesson in how arrogance, weakness, insecurity and the psychological flaws of individual leaders can lead to disaster — and many millions of deaths.

First, let us get back to what history is really all about — not vast, impersonal forces, but human beings. With a grim irony, given the agonies World War I brought to millions of mothers, the story begins with that most fundamental human instinct — a mother’s love for her child.

Marija Princip, a farmer’s wife from the tiny village of Obljaj, in the wooded mountains of Bosnia-Herzegovina, had great hopes for her son Gavrilo. The boy was bright and bookish, and when he was 13, Marija persuaded her husband to send him to the capital, Sarajevo. There, she thought, he could go to school and become a great man.

In August 1907, Gavrilo Princip’s train pulled into Sarajevo, a bustling city of mosques and bazaars that were overwhelming to a country boy.

At first, he knuckled down to his studies but, lonely, awkward and short of money, he began to fall behind. He started to miss lessons and when, aged 17, he skipped a crucial exam, that was that.

Gavrilo had found a new and incendiary passion — politics. He sought somebody to blame for his misfortunes and, like other youngsters from his Bosnian Serb background, he focused on the Austrians who had ruled Bosnia since 1878.

Over the years, Gavrilo’s hatred festered. He moved to Belgrade, the capital of the neighbouring Kingdom of Serbia, and became involved with nationalist terrorist groups.

Then, in the spring of 1914, one of his friends showed him a newspaper cutting. In June the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, would be visiting Sarajevo. Gavrilo saw the potential for a terrorist spectacle that would shock the world.

So it was that on June 28, 1914, the Archduke and his assassin were brought together in one of the most fateful moments in human history.

When Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie drove into Sarajevo, one of Gavrilo’s comrades threw a bomb at their car, but it missed by inches. Shaken but determined to continue, the couple went on to a reception. Then, in a change of plans, they decided to visit the wounded in hospital. En route, their driver made a wrong turn and put the car into reverse. The engine cut out.

A British ammunition column during World War I, circa 1915

A British ammunition column during World War I, circa 1915

For a moment, the vehicle was motionless, as if frozen in time. Then a man stepped forward from the pavement — thin, frail and shabbily dressed, with an unblinking stare. It was Gavrilo Princip. Scarcely believing his luck, he took out his pistol and fired two shots. Sophie was hit in the abdomen; Franz Ferdinand in the neck. As his wife slumped at his side, the Archduke whispered: ‘Sophie, Sophie, don’t die. Stay alive for our children!’

News of the murders flashed around the world, setting in train the events that led to war.

After rounding up Princip and his friends, the Austrians decided on military reprisals. Not unreasonably, their generals held Serbia responsible.

For years Serbia’s politicians had whipped up anti-Austrian sentiment, and Princip’s gang had been encouraged and armed by Serbian intelligence agents.

Now, it was time to teach Serbia a lesson.

There was, however, an obvious problem.

If Austria declared war, Serbia would undoubtedly appeal to its most powerful protector, the eastern colossus of tsarist Russia.

So, a week after Franz Ferdinand’s murder, on Sunday, July 5, two men had lunch in Berlin. One was the Austrian ambassador. The other was perhaps the most powerful man in Europe: Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany.

Later, Allied propaganda painted Wilhelm as a blood-crazed monster. In fact, he was simply bumptious and insecure.

At Wilhelm’s birth almost 60 years earlier, the doctors had accidentally torn the nerves in his neck. His left arm was crippled and useless, and as a child he suffered from agonising earaches.

His mother Vicky — a daughter of Queen Victoria — treated him like a freak, and he never got over it. Even after becoming Kaiser in 1888, he remained hot-tempered, needy and desperate for attention.

On the international stage, Wilhelm cut a ridiculous figure, forever fuming at his British relatives. ‘The English,’ he said bitterly, ‘will be brought low some day!’

What was more, he and his generals felt threatened by their neighbours: France to the west, Russia to the east. They were convinced that Russia, industrialising at a breakneck rate, was bound to challenge them at some point.

Indeed, some German generals thought they should fight Russia now, before it became too strong. ‘War the sooner the better,’ the army chief, Helmuth von Moltke, told the Kaiser in 1912.

So when the ambassador confided Austria’s plans to strike against Serbia, Wilhelm offered them a ‘blank cheque’, promising unconditional support.

Did he seriously think this meant war? Almost certainly not. Wilhelm was never entirely convinced that the Austrians would follow through, and certainly never thought the Russians would risk a global conflagration to resist them.

In fact, the very next day he left for his summer yachting holiday —hardly the behaviour of a would-be warmonger.

But in the next few weeks the crisis spiralled out of control, driven not just by the alliances of European powers but by the flaws and anxieties of some very powerful men.

In other circumstances, Russia’s Nicholas II might have hesitated to pour petrol on the flames. But now his own family background came into play.

Nicholas’s father, the domineering Alexander III, had taught him to rule as an autocrat. That had provoked years of domestic unrest, including an abortive revolution in 1905.

As a result, Nicholas’s advisers were desperate to win popularity at home by asserting Russian strength abroad.

Then there were the French, seething with resentment after their defeat by Wilhelm’s grandfather in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. Terrified of falling farther behind, they urged the Russians to stand up to German pressure.

Polish Military Police soldiers guard the fence during 'Operation Strong Support' near the Polish-Belarusian border crossing in Kuznica, eastern Poland, 09 November 2021

Polish Military Police soldiers guard the fence during ‘Operation Strong Support’ near the Polish-Belarusian border crossing in Kuznica, eastern Poland, 09 November 2021

Today we often assume these men had no idea what was coming. But that’s simply not true. Their letters and diaries show they knew that in an age of aeroplanes, battleships, barbed wire and machine guns, millions of people might be killed.

So why did they do it? The basic truth is that they were frightened. Afraid of looking weak, afraid of being left behind by their rivals, none wanted to back down.

Instead, they gambled on standing firm, staking the lives of millions on a bet they might easily lose.

So, one by one, they tumbled over the brink. Austria declared war on Serbia. Russia mobilised its troops against Austria, then Germany declared war on Russia and France.

But what about Britain? Few ordinary Britons had given Franz Ferdinand’s murder much thought — including the Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith.

A clever, worldly Yorkshireman, he had been running the country since 1908 and now, in his 60s, was desperately weary.

He also had other things on his mind. He was completely besotted with his daughter’s best friend, Venetia Stanley, who was in her early 20s. He wrote her hundreds of love letters, often several times a day.

Both sides, he told her, were as bad as each other. The Serbs deserved a ‘thorough thrashing’, but the Austrians were ‘quite the stupidest people in Europe’.

If war broke out, it might build into a ‘real Armageddon’. But ‘there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators’. His Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, had other ideas.

For years he had worked to bind Britain into close alliance with France, and he was determined to honour it.

Grey lived under a deepening shadow. His wife had died young and his brother had been killed by a lion in Africa. Now he was beginning to lose his eyesight — a cruel affliction for a passionate birdwatcher.

Brooding, lonely and depressive, he became convinced that Britain must fight. If we stayed out, he thought, the Germans would win, France would be finished and we would be friendless on the world stage.

Was he right? Some historians think he was. Sceptics, however, argue that Britain’s youth paid a heavy price for Grey’s loneliness and pessimism.

Yet on the first weekend of August 1914, as Germany and France headed for war, Britain’s destiny remained uncertain. But now came the decisive twist.

To deal with a war on two fronts, the Germans had concocted a plan to knock out the French first, striking through neutral little Belgium.

The Kaiser’s generals knew Britain was pledged to guarantee Belgium’s independence. So that Sunday night, August 2, 1914, they took a catastrophic gamble, perhaps the worst mistake of World War I.

Hoping to bully the Belgians into agreement — and thereby avoid British reprisals — they issued an ultimatum, demanding free passage. The Belgians, a proud people, said no.

Two days later, on August 4, the German army crashed across the Belgian border.

At midday, King Albert asked Britain for help. Two hours later, our government delivered an ultimatum to the Kaiser. If he failed to reply by 11 that evening, it would mean war. Darkness fell.

In his office overlooking St James’s Park, Sir Edward Grey stood with a friend, watching the men light the lamps in the street below.

‘The lamps are going out all over Europe,’ he said quietly. ‘We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’

At 11pm, the chimes of Big Ben echoed through the open windows, followed by the sound of crowds singing God Save The King. There had been no reply from Berlin. A few moments later, a signal flashed from the Admiralty to Britain’s fleet across the world. It read simply: ‘Commence Hostilities At Once Against Germany.’

And so began the Great War. Not by design, but through a combination of accidents, misadventures and miscalculations, born of the insecurities of a handful of individuals, from a disaffected teenage dropout to the master of imperial Germany.

Some 886,000 British and colonial servicemen and women lost their lives — leaving almost a million families scarred by grief and loss.

Was it worth it? The debate will never be settled, but the lessons are surely clear. Today, more than ever, the Western world needs clear, decisive, unambiguous leadership.

Impulsive posturing and naive adventurism are just as dangerous as spineless appeasement and vague good intentions.

And in the face of mounting provocation from Russia and China, our leaders need to remain calm and think clearly. They need to be firm, but not aggressive — and above all to keep talking.

Tomorrow, though, what matters is to remember the fallen, not just in World War I but in all Britain’s wars ever since.

There are more than 80,000 war memorials in every corner of the UK, from the solemn grandeur of the Cenotaph to the tiniest country village.

Behind every name is a once living, breathing human being, with hopes and dreams of their own, who gave their life to defend this country. And tomorrow, as the clocks strike 11 and The Last Post sounds, we should remember them. 

Adventures In Time: The First World War, by Dominic Sandbrook, is published by Particular Books at £14.99. ©Dominic Sandbrook 2021. To order a copy for £13.49, go tomailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Promotional price valid until 28/11/2021.

 

Norwegian undersea surveillance network capable of detecting submarines has cables mysteriously cut as police are called in to investigate – while suspicion swirls that Russia may have ‘sabotaged’ the equipment 

A Norwegian undersea surveillance network that is capable of detecting submarines has had its cables mysteriously cut.

Police were called in to investigate amid suspicion Russia could have ‘sabotaged’ the undersea sensors, which predominantly monitor fish but can pick up the movement of submarines.

The cables were cut and then disappeared, with the Institute of Marine Research describing ‘extensive damage’ to the outer area of the Lofoten-Vesterålen (LoVe) Ocean Observatory.

LoVe consists of a network of underwater cables and sensors located on the Norwegian Continental Shelf, an area of strategic interest for both Norway and Russia.

LoVe, which was only declared fully operational in August 2020, has been offline since the outage in April.

Police were called in to investigate amid suspicion Russia could have 'sabotaged' the undersea sensors, which predominantly monitor fish but can pick up the movement of submarines. Pictured, the surveillance network

Police were called in to investigate amid suspicion Russia could have ‘sabotaged’ the undersea sensors, which predominantly monitor fish but can pick up the movement of submarines. Pictured, the surveillance network

Norway’s military and the country’s Police Security Service are allegedly investigating what could have happened to the research surveillance system, which is in place to monitor the effects of climate change.

It measures methane emissions and fish stocks, providing scientists with a live feed of imagery, sound and other data. 

Data gathered by its sensors, which can also pick up submarine activity, is first sent to the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI).

‘FFI is believed to routinely remove traces of any submarine activity in the area before turning over the observatory’s data to IMR so that it only contains fishing, currents, and climate information,’ according to a report from Norway’s News in English website. 

‘We don’t care so much about the submarines in the area (located not far from onshore military installations at Andøya, Evenes and other bases in Northern Norway), but we know the military is,’ IMR director Sissel Rogne told the Norwegian newspaper Dagens Næringsliv. 

‘You could see what’s going on down there regarding all types of U-boats [submarines] and all other countries’ U-boats.’

In a press statement last Friday Geir Pedersen, the LoVe project leader, said ‘something or someone has torn out cables in outlying areas’.

More than 2.5miles of LoVe’s 40 miles of fiber optic and electrical cables were removed, reports claimed.

An unmanned submarine traced the cause to Node 2, a surveillance platform 820 feet underwater that was dragged away from its normal location. Another mission in September found Node 3 had also been moved and its cables were missing

An unmanned submarine traced the cause to Node 2, a surveillance platform 820 feet underwater that was dragged away from its normal location. Another mission in September found Node 3 had also been moved and its cables were missing

And the observatory has been affected by interference since at least last April, according to reports in the Dagens Næringsliv.

That was when the connection between the sensor network and the control station at Hovden on the northern island of Langøya was lost. 

An unmanned submarine traced the cause to Node 2, a surveillance platform 820 feet underwater that was dragged away from its normal location.

Another mission in September found Node 3 had also been moved and its cables were missing.

Rogne told Dagens Næringsliv whatever vessel severed it would need considerable power because of the cables’ size and weight. 

Around 9.5 tonnes of cable remains missing, as IMR’s Øystein Brun claimed it was likely they were cut deliberately.

The damage could not have been an accident, Rogne claimed, because a vessel would notice dislodging the cables and would have reported it. 

But any vessel that could have tampered with the cables could be untraceable because its transponder would likely be off, meaning it wasn’t transmitting its position to the Coast Guard. 


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