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The United States says it is preparing for strong economic and other measures out of fear of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, after Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin’s talks. In a video call, President Biden expressed concern over the formation of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine and called for an end to the conflict. Are Russian troops preparing for war in Ukraine? Certainly, that is the fear between Western leaders and Ukraine itself. It was only seven years ago that Russia took over part of Ukraine and supported the separatists who started the conflict in large eastern areas. Russia says it has no such plans, so what happens?
Ukraine shares borders with the EU and Russia, but like the former Soviet republic, it has deep social and cultural ties with Russia, and Russian is widely spoken there. That eastern conflict continues to this day. More than 14,000 people have lost their lives in the seven years of unrest since Russian-backed forces occupied large areas in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine says Russia has sent tanks, rifles, and sniper rifles to rebel-held areas. But with the more than 90,000 Russian troops reported on the Ukrainian border are extremely troubling. There is no sense of future threat or that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to attack. A Kremlin spokesman urged everyone to hold their cool head. But Western and Ukrainian spies think it is possible by early 2022. US intelligence estimates that some 175,000 Russian troops may be involved in early January. Moscow has responded by blaming Ukraine for building part of its military force – about 125,000 people – in the east and complaining that Kyiv plans to invade territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists. Ukraine claims that this is not short-lived nonsense about concealing Russian plans. President Putin has warned Western countries not to cross Russia’s “red lines” towards Ukraine.
Russia is in the best position since 2014 economically, politically, and militarily to execute such an operation, which is not to say it will happen, but simply to suggest that there are the fewest constraints relative to other periods when it has been conducted offensive operations.
Meanwhile, a Kremlin statement said President Putin emphasized that Russia should not be held responsible for the unrest because Nato made serious efforts to replace Ukraine and increase its military capabilities on Russia’s borders. Russia is therefore keenly interested in obtaining reliable credentials legally established to halt Nato’s rise to the east and to the territory of Russia’s neighboring invasive weapons systems. The White House has said President Biden has not made any guarantees to curb NATO’s rise. One of them halted Nato’s rise in the east and sent weapons to neighboring countries that could threaten Russia. The Western military alliance Nato defends itself and its secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, has made it clear that any military support is based on those lines alone. The UK is scheduled to help Ukraine build two shipping bases, Ochakiv in the Black Sea and Berdyansk in the Azov Sea. US Javelin tanks have also been sent to Ukraine and two US Coast Guard guard boats have been handed over to the navy. Now, it is up to Ukraine and 30 allies to decide when Ukraine is ready to join the coalition. The US has made it clear that it is committed to helping Ukraine defend its territory, but President Biden has stated that military action is not on the table. So even if the US refuses to recognize Russian red lines in Ukraine joining Nato or anything else, how far will it go to help Kyiv? The largest weapon in the Western arms region seems to be sanctioned. President Biden spoke of real costs if Russia took military action and U.S. officials talked about strong economic measures and supported Ukrainian troops. The UK Foreign Office also said British officials were considering additional defense support.
The measures included economic sanctions and other actions such as the deployment of more troops to NATO allies in the region and Ukrainian defense equipment. In terms of economic measures, the biggest tool could be the risk of breaking the Russian banking system into Swift’s international payment system. That has always been seen as a last resort. Another important threat is to prevent the opening of the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in Germany, and the approval of that is determined by the German energy regulator. Earlier reports said US officials had reached an agreement with Germany to shut down the pipeline in the event of an attack. There may also be measures aimed at the Russian RDIF fund or restrictions on banks that convert rubles into foreign currency.
Where does the United States stand on all these issues? Russia’s military option could take a variety of forms from major attacks, to significant attacks in the eastern part of Ukraine. One goal could be to bring the main Ukrainian army into conflict and make them so weak that the Kyiv government has to reconsider its position. An offensive environment among hostile individuals poses serious dangers. The Ukrainian armed forces have had Western weapons and training and have been greatly improved since 2015. However, the Russian military has also improved in recent years. The constructive Russian firepower is amazing. In all the talk about Ukrainian sovereignty Nato cannot and will not help Ukraine. And more weapons may contribute to Russia’s forgiveness of war. Moscow’s calculation of conflict costs may be influenced by previous military deployments. While the West is currently seeing a military coup over the prism of strategic defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia may have a very different view. Its operation in Georgia, its capture of Crimea, its war in eastern Ukraine – not to mention its involvement in Syria – can all be seen by President Putin as a limited victory. Russia has been in a very good position since 2014 economically, politically, and militarily to do such work, which is not to say that it will happen, but just to suggest that there are very few obstacles compared to other times when it has done aggressive activities.