The crisis on the Ukraine border is two-fold: diplomatic in that the U.S. and its European allies work to negotiate a solution, and operational in that a clear allied military response is required to show strength of resolve. Progress has been faltering, and recent reports confirm it isn’t getting any better. As President Biden goes off script in press conferences and confers privately with European allies, Secretary of State Antony Blinken scrambles to smooth over any misperceptions it might generate. All the while, Russia continues to move troops to the border and allow rumors of war to fly. Confused by what you’re hearing about Russia’s designs on Ukraine? You aren’t alone.
During a Jan. 19 press conference, Joe Biden delivered some off-the-cuff comments that were, as William Safire might have said, “inartful.” In what amounted to impromptu foreign policy crafting, the president said that a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine might be treated differently from an invasion. That he distinguished between “minor incursion” and “invasion” resulted in a diplomatic furor. Kyiv was naturally caught by surprise, or “stunned,” as one Ukraine official put it.
Scrambling in what The New York Times called a “hastily scheduled meeting in Geneva,” the U.S. chief diplomat, Antony Blinken, talked to his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, on Friday, Jan. 21, to smooth over any misperceptions. Secretary Blinken agreed to a Russian request made of NATO and the U.S. over two weeks ago. The U.S. foreign policy leader said, “The United States would provide written responses next week to Russia’s demands that the West scale back its military presence in Eastern Europe.”
The discussions ended with both diplomats agreeing to speak again. And, if needed, the talks prepared the groundwork for another chief executive-level round of conversations between Presidents Biden and Putin. The U.S. secretary of state summed up the Geneva talks: “So that’s the choice that Russia faces now, it can choose the path of diplomacy that can lead to peace and security or the path that will lead only to conflict, severe consequences, and international condemnation.” Therefore, on the diplomatic side of things, talks and threats of talks continue. But the U.S. State Department seems to be resolved to proceed as though Biden’s predictions of a Russian invasion are imminent. As reported by the Associated Press, the State Department “on Sunday [January 23] ordered the families of all American personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine to leave the country amid heightened fears of a Russian invasion.” An interested onlooker might get the idea Foggy Bottom had lost confidence in its crackerjack negotiating team to bring the U.S. and NATO back from the brink of hostilities with Russia.
Addressing the potential for Russian aggression on Ukraine’s border, President Biden held a secure conference call with European allies yesterday afternoon. In a statement, the White House press office announced that “… the President will hold a secure video call with European leaders as part of our close consultation and coordination with our Transatlantic Allies and partners in response to Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders.” The call was not open to the press.
For its part, Russia is keeping the heat turned up on rumors of a pending invasion of Ukraine. Another recent article from AP reported that the Kremlin “announced sweeping naval drills in several parts of the world this month and claimed the West is plotting ‘provocations’ in neighboring Ukraine.” In addition, reports of Moscow increasing the number of troops at the border persist. The number by all accounts stands at about 100,000 combat troops, but since standby Russian forces are not far away, increasing the number of prepared soldiers to 175,000 with their equipment could be done relatively quickly.
If Russia has no intention of invading Ukraine as so many Moscow officials continue to tell the world, why is Putin doing nothing to assuage the fears of an imminent invasion? While the troops mass on Ukraine’s east, a Reuters report reveals that Russia and Belarus plan troop exercises and military training in February. The new combined “Allied Resolve” training will be conducted near Belarus’ western border shared with Poland, Lithuania, and, of course, on Belarus’ southern territorial boundary with Ukraine.
Amid Russia’s overt military activities, NATO is not sitting on its hands. As Mark Angelides wrote for Liberty Nation, the NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, asserted: “We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defense.” In an interview on Fox News, retired U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff General Jack Keane said it’s not likely that Putin would invade in February, upstaging the Winter Olympics and angering China’s President Xi Jinping. Keane also explained the steps being taken by the U.S. and NATO should have been taken earlier, demonstrating “intentions and seriousness on the part of the United States.” The retired general recommended the Biden administration implement economic sanctions now before an invasion, “and Putin would get a taste of what this really means to him.”
For the U.S., NATO, and western European nations, Russian President Putin’s prolonged military maneuvers boost anxiety that the current Ukraine crisis could turn violent. War on Ukraine’s borders remains a menacing possibility.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
~ Read more from Dave Patterson.