Russia has stated openly what its concerns are in the current Ukraine crisis. Meanwhile, the US and NATO seem unable to remain consistent on what is happening and how to respond.
It’s the sequel that no one asked for. After last spring’s Russian ‘troop buildup’ and subsequent non-invasion of Ukraine, this tried-and-tested story has made a comeback in the new year.
For the second time in one year, the Western media sounded the alarm over Russian troop movements and an impending invasion of Ukraine, culminating in the ongoing ‘crisis’ which has resulted in several conferences between the US, NATO, and Russia. The subject of the talks has been Ukraine in tandem with Russia’s proposals for written security guarantees, a draft of which the Foreign Ministry published in December.
The crux is NATO enlargement and the positioning of weapons systems on Russia’s border, as re-iterated by Russia’s top diplomat Sergey Lavrov very recently: “The main issue is our clear position on the unacceptability of further NATO expansion to the East and the deployment of highly-destructive weapons that could threaten the territory of the Russian Federation.” This has been a key concern for years.
Russia has laid out its stakes in the discussions. Despite this, some western observers continue to portray Russian requests and proposals as ‘cryptic’. Case and point, in a POLITICO podcast in mid-January a panel of journalists speculated on what is really happening, suggesting that President Putin may be trying to “opportunistically” hog the world stage whilst throwing everything at the US and NATO to “see what sticks.” The host added that “often, the Russians don’t want to tell us what they really want, they want us to work it out, so we’ll see whether we can work it out and it all becomes clear in the fullness of time.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin may indeed be playing his cards close to his chest, as is par for the course in all things geopolitical, but how does Russia’s openness about its concerns stand in comparison to the US and NATO response to the current crisis?
Convinced of an impending invasion of Ukraine by Russia, President Biden has warned Moscow that it would “pay a heavy price” if troops crossed the border. This means a new package of sanctions, possibly against major banks, microelectronics, and other key economic sectors, and maybe even against President Vladimir Putin himself, which would amount to a severance of relations.
Biden also said that the response from the US and its partners might be different in the event of a “minor incursion” short of an invasion, as there may be discussion over consequences. This language prompted backlash from the media and Ukrainian President Zelensky, who saw it as inviting military action against the country. Biden quickly walked back his comments and clarified: “Any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion.” The real ‘gaffe’ was that Biden hinted at the disunity within NATO, that there would be disagreement on how to respond to any Russian action.
Germany has already refused to make arms deliveries to Ukraine and even blocked arms exports from NATO ally Estonia. Croatian President Zoran Milanovic has also made headlines, threatening to recall Croatia’s troops from NATO forces in Eastern Europe in the event of conflict around Ukraine. France too seems to be interested in presenting its own path when it comes to dialogue with Russia, albeit “at the edge of NATO” and within a European vision.
President Biden’s team has remained more ambiguous whilst toeing the party line on NATO unity and American preparedness. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in Geneva that “if any Russian military forces move across Ukraine's border, that's a renewed invasion. It will be met with swift, severe and a united response from the United States and our partners and allies".
During a joint presser at the Pentagon on Friday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley urged Russia to “stand down”, saying that “the military capability of NATO is very, very significant.” Sec. of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters that “the president's been real clear that he does not intend to put combat troops into Ukraine for the purpose of conducting combat operations”, adding that “any troops that we deploy, if we deploy troops to the region, are those troops that are already in the region [that] have multiple capabilities.”
The US and NATO have each delivered undisclosed responses to Russia’s proposals for security guarantees. Sergey Lavrov said on Friday that the US document is a "paragon of diplomatic decency” when compared to the follow-up from NATO, which Lavrov said was “ideologized” and “so full of the alliance’s exclusiveness, its special mission, it’s special destiny, that I felt a little bit embarrassed for those who wrote it."
Whatever comes next will likely include Moscow’s written response to the US-NATO response to the proposals for security guarantees, followed by more meetings. Whether the two sides will continue to play what amounts to diplomatic hot potato remains to be seen, but so far progress continues to elude the talks.
Invasion? Incursion? Confusion and Diversion.
Biden’s phone call with Zelensky a week ago has further muddied the waters. CNN reported that there was disagreement between the two regarding the supposed invasion threat, with Biden re-stating the imminence of a Russian ‘invasion’ once “the ground freezes” and Zelensky suggesting that the situation is more ‘ambiguous’ and that it is ‘possible’ there won’t be an invasion at all.
The White House released a readout of the call which omits any mention of such disagreement, but Zelensky has since stated openly what he supposedly told Biden over the phone: “Today we are not seeing any greater escalation than it has been before.” The Washington Post interviewed a US Government official “specializing in Russia” according to whom “Zelensky and his political team are working from their own set of priorities, and they do not necessarily accord with those of the intelligence and military.” Ukraine’s Defense Minister Alexey Reznikov has said that “the armed forces of Russia created no strike groups, indicating they were ready to launch an offensive tomorrow”.
On Wednesday, White House spox Jen Psaki was asked about the use of the word “imminent” in reference to a Russian invasion of Ukraine, to which Psaki replied: “we stopped using that because we think it was sending a message that we didn’t intend to send”, adding “we don’t know that Putin has made a decision.” The next day, the State Department’s Ned Price told the press that the US had intelligence that Russia was preparing to stage a false flag operation in Eastern Ukraine, including a “graphic video”, which would be used as justification for an invasion. Veteran AP reporter Matt Lee interrogated the claim, asking if the US government could provide proof to substantiate Price’s statement. The response was telling: “if you want to doubt the credibility of the US government and British government and find solace in information put out by the Russians, that is for you to do.”
From the very start of the current row in late November 2021, when western media began reporting on a buildup of Russian troops near Ukraine’s border, the claims were based on cropped satellite images of military bases inside Russia, in some cases over a hundred away from the Ukrainian border, and the usual ‘intelligence reports’. How Russia would stand to gain from an invasion and occupation of Ukraine has also left many scratching their heads.
Think tanks and ‘news’ outlets alike have been producing maps and graphs which supposedly showcase precisely where and how Russia will launch an invasion. These are reminiscent of such 21st-century gems as the infamous ‘Bin Laden mountain fortress’ and Iraqi WMD maps. The Foreign Policy and Geopolitics analyst Moon of Alabama has aptly called the current invasion frenzy a “parthogenetic” conflict, the “virgin birth of a conflict in which there is no enemy.” Feverish claims of an “imminent invasion” have devolved into vague statements that amount to “Russia could, hypothetically, invade at any time.”
Still, the possibility of further escalation and conflict remains. The head of the Donetsk People’s Republic Denis Pushilin has stated that some 120,000 Ukrainian troops have been observed near the line of contact in Donbass. This assessment has been echoed by Pushilin’s counterpart in the Luhansk People’s Republic, Leonid Pasechnik, who has claimed that “the Armed forces of Ukraine are preparing an offensive against the republics of Donbass in the area of the Svetlodarsk Arc”, the goal being to “split the republics (LPR/DPR), to cut us off from each other, to go to the border, to cut us off from the Russian Federation.”
Before changing to a more peaceable tune, Zelensky declared in a speech to Ukraine’s Foreign Intelligence Service as recently as January 24 that “it is time we begin offensive actions aimed at securing our national interests. Our citizens are united in wanting their territory returned.”
An offensive in the Donbass launched by Kiev would violate the Minsk agreements and may yet prompt Russian support actions in Donetsk and Luhansk. If such a turn of events would constitute an invasion, an incursion, or something else in the eyes of Washington and Brussels is not entirely clear.
Julian Fisher is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC).