While most eyes have been focused on the Biden administration’s problems and attempts to impose a dictatorial state, foreign issues have continued to increase as areas of concern specifically the Russian build up along the border with Ukraine and the Chinese bellicose talk and actions in the Taiwan straits. As is my wont I will discuss these two in order with this piece being about the Ukraine and the next being about Taiwan.
Amid recent news that Russia has initiated a “large and unusual” – and potentially warlike – buildup of troops along the border with Ukraine, a top State Department diplomat has revealed that “all options are on the table” with regard to a possible response. We must consider the rhetoric and its meaning as part of any determination of what is occurring. We have been following events for several weeks and hope that this will make readers current.
The above map of Ukraine and surrounding countries highlights how geography plays in this growing “situation”. Russian seized the Crimea several years ago. Belarus remains loyal to Russia. Romania and Poland are members of NATO. Moldova is independent and neutral but has cultural ties to Romania and Ukraine.
Map courtesy of the Economist.
According to Karen Donfried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, countries comprising the NATO alliance were set to consult last week on next steps in dealing with the Russian military mobilization of roughly 100,000 troops. Speaking to reporters during a telephone briefing, Donfried said, “As you can appreciate, all options are on the table, and there’s a toolkit that includes a whole range of options,” according to Voice of America (VOA).
Donfried’s remarks were made ahead of a trip last week for Secretary of State Antony Blinken to visit Sweden and Latvia in which he is slated to attend meetings with officials from NATO as well as from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and it seems certain that those talks will focus – at least in part – on Russia’s seemingly aggressive and potentially threatening conduct.
Whether Blinken was likely to meet with Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister while in Sweden remained unknown, though Donfried suggested that reporters simply “stay tuned.”(The meeting actually took place as discussed subsequently.) VOA also noted that President Biden had himself expressed alarm over the troops amassing on Ukraine’s border with Russia and reiterated American respect for the territorial boundaries of that nation, indicating also that he would “in all probability” discuss the situation with Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin, the leaders of the two countries at issue.
It was also reported that last week, Biden administration national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with Andriy Yermak of Ukraine and lamented the “harsh rhetoric” employed by Russia in this regard, concurring that diplomatic measures should indeed be undertaken in order to tamp down tensions.
While concerns have grown among western nations about the troop movements along the border and the possibility of an imminent Russian attack, Putin and his deputies have continued to deny such suggestions and dismiss them as irrational fearmongering, according to VOA.
While Russia’s ultimate motivation for this latest troop buildup still is unclear a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation noted that: “What seems to have changed is Russia’s assessment of where things are going,”. “They seem to have concluded that unless they do something, the trend lines are heading to Russia losing Ukraine.”
Also, according to the defense-intelligence firm Janes, much of the recent Russian deployment has been covert, often taking place at night and carried out by elite ground units, in contrast to the fairly open buildup in the spring. The build up only became apparent due to its size.
Reports indicate that the possible invasion will occur in January when the ground is frozen, thus enhancing the mobility or armored vehicles cross country. The build up has, as noted above, been semi-clandestine. It has had a unique characteristic. The Russian troops moved their heavy equipment forward, established bivouac areas and then returned to their home stations. This prepositioning would seem to be designed to allow for the Russian troops to quickly return to their equipment and subsequently launch an attack.
Ukraine has declared its ambition to join the EU and NATO, to Russia’s dismay. While Russian officials often boast privately that their forces could quickly reach Kiev, it would be much more difficult to maintain control of a country of 44 million inhospitable people amid international condemnation.
Putin warned Europe last April that “they will regret it more than they’ve regretted anything in a long time” if they cross Russia’s “red line” on security. The deputy speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, Pyotr Tolstoy, declared that “all of Ukraine will be part of Russia and there won’t be any Ukraine” in a debate broadcast on Russian TV.
As part of the bellicose statements,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an address to the nation: “I hope now the whole world clearly sees who really wants peace and who is concentrating almost 100,000 troops on our border. “Psychological pressure from Russia doesn’t have an impact on us, our intelligence has all the information, our army is ready to repel anytime and anywhere.”
As the above rhetoric suggests neither side is backing down, nor can it without losing face. During previous confrontations in the region the Obama administration provided non-military aid, the Trump administration provided weapons and ammunition and so far, the Biden administration has provided words. The foreign aid from the US and NATO that is forthcoming from the current set of talks will be very instructive. It will indicate several things:
- The resolve of the western nations
- How serious the Russian threat is perceived to be
- The direction that tensions are evolving, and
- Harbingers of the future.
Interestingly, there has been no suggestion of reinforcing Poland or the Baltic states with NATO or US forces. Such reinforcements, would clearly be seen as reassuring to NATO allies and the Ukraine and threatening by Russia. The problem with US reinforcements is the lag time involved between a decision and boots on the ground. As we have noted in previous articles, the US maintains a small token prepositioned set of equipment in Germany, but those are a long way from any battlefields in Eastern Europe. A movement to deploy troops to that equipment would certainly be seen as escalatory by the Russians and insufficient by NATO, unless NATO were willing to forward deploy troops its self. The deployment could even serve as a decision point for the Russians to launch their attack before US troops, except the brigade or so currently deployed in the region, could enter the fray.
There are those that have suggested the President Biden’s weaknesses may be a tempting opportunity to Putin. However, those that believe in “wag the dog” theories suggest that such a move by Putin would be the recovery opportunity that Biden seeks and thus he (Putin) will not provide it. And the discussion continues. On Friday, President Joe Biden said that he is going to make it “very, very difficult” for Russia to invade Ukraine. “What I am doing is putting together what I believe to be will be the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for Mr. Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do,” Biden said.
What exactly this would entail is unclear, but it follows similar comments made earlier last week by Secretary of State Blinken, who had met with Lavrov. Lavrov, following the meeting, claimed that Blinken threatened Russia with new sanctions, but did not go into details. Lavrov also threatened a response from Russia if the U.S. follows through with such sanctions.
In an adjacent theater the Russians have threatened a US destroyer that entered the Black Sea. Historically the Russians have thought of the Black Sea as their own private lake, but since the fall of the iron curtain, now NATO states like Romania have had different thoughts. The Black Sea thus offers a separate place for a US-Russian show down to occur—one where the force multipliers are clearly in Russia’s favor.
It appears that arrangements are currently being made for a conversation between Biden and Putin—possibly as early as tomorrow.
As the situation continues to unfold, we will stay on top of it.