The voltage has not dropped. Since last November, Russia has been massing troops on the Ukrainian border and reviving the memory of the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Westerners, led by the United States, are on high alert and preparing for the worst.
A worrying military escalation
Since November 2021, tensions have only increased between Russia on the one hand, Ukraine, the United States and NATO member countries on the other. While nearly 100,000 Russian soldiers are massed on the Ukrainian border, Westerners fear an imminent invasion of Ukrainian territory. Moscow denies any bellicose intention and claims to defend its territory against “provocative military exercises” carried out by NATO on the outskirts of Russia.
After an initial rise in tension at the end of 2021, the situation has worsened in recent weeks. On January 14, several Ukrainian government sites were the target of a massive cyberattack, attributed to Russia. On the same day, Washington accused Moscow of dispatching agents to Ukraine to carry out “sabotage” operations in order to create a “pretext” for an invasion.
On both sides, the staffs are preparing for the possibility of an armed conflict. The Kremlin has been deploying soldiers in Belarus since mid-January for “combat readiness” exercises, a sign that Russia can attack Ukraine “at any time” according to Washington. Moscow is also mobilizing its fleet and planning naval maneuvers in the Atlantic, Arctic, Pacific and Mediterranean.
On the western side, the Pentagon has placed 8,500 soldiers on alert, ready to intervene within five days, while NATO is sending ships and combat planes to Eastern Europe.
The latest movement to date, Ukraine claimed on January 25 to have dismantled a group coordinated by the Russian special services which was preparing armed attacks against infrastructure to “destabilize” the country.
In recent weeks, diplomatic meetings between Russian and American officials have multiplied. Biden-Putin summit in December, long negotiations in Switzerland at the beginning of January, meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov last week… None of these meetings led to de-escalation, each party accusing the other of causing the negotiations to fail.
Concretely, Moscow is demanding a written commitment from the Americans on the non-enlargement of NATO to Ukraine and Georgia and is asking for the withdrawal of NATO forces from countries in Eastern Europe such as Romania and Bulgaria.
These demands are unacceptable to Washington, which reaffirmed on January 26 “the principle of the open door to NATO”. The United States would like to move the negotiations to the field of arms control and the limitation of military maneuvers.
Although neither party seems ready to make concessions, the diplomatic dialogue continues. “There is an (American) reaction that gives hope for the start of a serious conversation on secondary issues,” recognized the head of Russian diplomacy Sergei Lavrov. A new meeting is already scheduled between him and his American counterpart Antony Blinken.
A real risk of war?
“Everything indicates” that Russian President Vladimir Putin “will use military force at some point, perhaps between now and mid-February,” US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said on Wednesday January 26.
For Europeans, these statements are alarmist and exaggerated. The Ukrainian government believes that the number of Russian soldiers massed on the border is, although worrying, “insufficient” to consider a major attack on the country.
France called for “not to create ambiguity, additional volatility” while the European Commission invited not to “dramatize” the situation more than it already is.
According to some experts, the absence of field hospitals and logistical support in the Russian military apparatus shows that the move to action is not for now. Others claim that if Russia really wanted to invade Ukraine, it would have done so by surprise.
Heavy penalties in the event of an attack
In the event of an invasion, the Westerners have assured that they are preparing sanctions of unprecedented severity. The reduction of gas and oil purchases, which respectively represent 43% and 20% of the EU supply, and which largely finance the Russian budget, is on the table, even if the subject divides within the EU. Doubt still hangs over the fate of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which the Germans are reluctant to include in the sanctions package.
The position of the fledgling German coalition government in the event of an escalation with Russia remains uncertain. Berlin indeed refuses to deliver arms to Ukraine, to the great displeasure of Kiev and Washington.
On the American side, Joe Biden plans to ban Russian banks from using the dollar, the main currency of international trade, which would deal a very severe blow to the country’s finance and real economy.
Europeans want to play their part
Excluded from the showdown between Russia and the United States, the Europeans intend to conduct their own negotiations.
To put Europe back at the heart of the Ukrainian crisis, Germany and France discussed in Paris on Wednesday January 26 in “Normandy format” with Russian and Ukrainian officials. This format of negotiations was initiated in 2014 to find a way out of the Donbass war, opposing Ukraine to pro-Russian separatists suspected of being supported by Moscow.
Next meeting, a telephone meeting is scheduled for Friday January 28 between Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Poutine.