Early on Sunday morning, less than 24 hours after Hamas launched the largest assault against Israel in more than 50 years, an unknown object or force wrenched aside and damaged the key undersea gas pipeline and fibre-optic cable linking Finland and Estonia beneath the Baltic Sea.
As NATO defence ministers met this week in a long-scheduled regular meeting in Brussels, alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned of a 'determined' response if the damage was found to be the result of a deliberate attack.
Barely a week ago at a Washington event organised by magazine The Atlantic, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had described the Middle East as 'quieter today than it has been in three decades', allowing Washington – and the Pentagon in particular – to reorient itself against the two new threats of Russia and a rising China.
On Wednesday, the US announced the arrival of the Navy aircraft carrier Gerald R Ford in the eastern Mediterranean, and said it was considering sending a second carrier battle group around the Dwight D Eisenhower – already scheduled to leave Norfolk, Virginia, on Friday – to the same region.
The move would give the world’s pre-eminent superpower significant available force in the immediate war zone, a move the US will hope helps deter Lebanon and Syria-based Hezbollah from attacking Israel. On Thursday, Syrian authorities reported air strikes on airports near Damascus and Aleppo, suggesting the conflict might be spreading further.
The US is also flying high-tech weapons to Israel to support its increasingly massive military offensive into Gaza, only months after it pulled thousands of artillery shells from its stockpiles there to ship them to Ukraine.
All of that makes immediate strategic sense, but it risks increasing what was already a deepening strategic overstretch for the world’s pre-eminent military superpower.
The invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 forced the US to refocus on Russia more than a decade after the Obama administration had announced it wanted to “pivot” towards a rising China. Now the Middle East looks as dangerous as at any point in recent history – and so do both Asia and Europe.
That represents a real challenge to years of thinking at the Pentagon, which had already been through a painful transition from thinking in terms of tackling no more than one major conflict or adversary at once to acknowledging it might face two.
For now, the US is not – much to its relief – a direct combatant alongside Israel or Ukraine. But the latter war has already overwhelmed pre-existing US and European capability to manufacture simple weapons like artillery shells, while the Middle East is now demanding the focus of two of America’s 11 aircraft carriers.
Both of those theatres, some in Washington increasingly worry, risk becoming a distraction from what should be the United States' primary strategic focus: deterring a Chinese assault against Taiwan that some US. officers have warned could come as early as 2027.
TYING ISRAEL, UKRAINE, TAIWAN TOGETHER
At worst, meanwhile, the entirely unpredicted war in Gaza – which blindsided both Israel and Western intelligence agencies – could spill over into a wider conflict with Iran. That would overstretch the US and its European allies still further, likely also catastrophically disrupting energy supplies and seriously complicating Ukraine’s ongoing battle for survival.
Last month, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told fellow officials the Kremlin was expecting the war in Ukraine to last until at least 2025, with pro-Kremlin commentators describing events in Israel as “good news” that would distract the West.
NATO ministers now also face another distraction within Europe – mounting tensions on the border between Kosovo and Serbia, now arguably at their worst since the alliance intervened to evict Serb forces in 1999.
Next year, of course, will see presidential elections in the US, with Donald Trump and some other Republican contenders for the nomination pledging to stop military aid to Ukraine and pushing the Kyiv government to sue for peace.
The Biden administration is now reportedly considering tying military aid to Israel, Ukraine and potentially Taiwan together in one multibillion-dollar package to present to Congress, relying on sympathy for Israel to help push through support to Ukraine as well.
Some Republicans say they would veto such a move. Whatever happens, however, the suggestion puts into plain sight what many in the Biden administration already increasingly believe – that the multiple regional crises the US and its allies now face risk essentially becoming one overarching and perhaps almost existential challenge to decades of US dominance.
That confrontation, however, already has some extremely complex dynamics – not least the challenges of cutting through both deliberate disinformation and the 'fog of war' to work out what is really happening.
In the Baltic, for example, it remains unclear for now whether what happened to the Estonian-Finnish pipeline was a deliberate act or an accident such as a ship dragging its anchor during weekend storms. Even if the disruption was deliberate, proving Russian involvement is unlikely to be easy.
The pipeline damage comes almost exactly a year after explosions destroyed a section of the NordStream 2 pipeline at the other end of the Baltic. Responsibility for that remains disputed, with some US officials telling media outlets they suspected Ukraine while others point the finger at Russia.
If Hezbollah now joins the attack on Israel, there will be plenty in both Washington and that country who will believe that action was deliberately coordinated by Iran, which they already suspect of working with Hamas before its first assault.
Proving that, however, will likely be a very different thing – while an ongoing and brutal Israeli offensive into Gaza is likely to further antagonise regional opinion and complicate US efforts to formalise better relations between Israel and regional and particularly Saudi partners.
While Washington has been keen to push its partners particularly in the developing world to cut back their ties to Moscow and Beijing – and cease engagement with Iran altogether – that approach has only brought very mixed success.
While most countries are reluctant to antagonise the United States, they also see little upside to upsetting China – while some continue to find Russia a useful and cheaper source of energy and arms. The more the US looks likely to be overstretched, the more they may wish to hedge their bets.