As U.S.-Russia talks over Ukraine continue next week, who is gaining more traction as the diplomatic clock ticks?
Following an agreement in Geneva on Friday to extend negotiations, each side is preparing to strengthen its military capabilities in the region.
Ukraine, for its part, received on Friday the first of a new package of military support from the United States: nearly 200,000 pounds of lethal aid, including ammunition. Deliveries of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and Javelin anti-tank missiles from the Baltic states have been approved by Washington and are also underway.
Defense officials and military analysts have said the question of leverage largely depends on Mr. Putin’s thinking. From the start, Russia set the timetable, deciding to assemble its invasion force which should reach its peak in February.
A full Russian attack could be affected by weather conditions and, according to the United States, would trigger strict economic sanctions. A less traditional approach that would weaken Ukraine’s leadership and sovereignty without an invasion would be less constrained by external factors and could be pursued by Moscow in hopes of achieving its goals without facing heavy economic sanctions.
Mr. Putin could also mix the two. He has a long playing record and waiting for opponents. But the risk-inclined president is also a master of surprise. In 2014, he wrested the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine from under the nose of the world with barely a shot, but then intervened militarily in eastern Ukraine soon after.
The West is relying primarily on the threat of economic sanctions to deter Mr Putin, although in recent days and weeks some NATO countries have hastily stepped up military aid to Ukraine.
Publicly, Ukrainians and US officials have described the impending danger in different terms. Ukrainian officials have expressed concern that Russia’s rise is aimed at undermining Ukraine’s economy and angering its people. Ukraine has privately expressed concern to its Western allies, including the United States, over public rhetoric suggesting a Russian attack is imminent, officials from both countries said.
“That’s what Putin wants: a weak Ukraine,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said in an interview on Friday. “We must be a strong Ukraine.”
Mr Reznikov called for calm and said Ukraine had built up its forces since its conflict with Russia began in 2014. But he warned that public ‘hysteria’ over the potential for war could deal a blow to the Ukrainian economy. “Our economy is growing, but if we keep spreading panic, spreading these threats, there will be hysteria,” he said.
Two Ukrainian officials also said their citizens have been rushing to banks to withdraw cash in recent weeks in response, which they say could be a blow to Ukraine’s economy if it continues. They called for the imposition of Western sanctions in response to Russia’s recent escalation and warned that penalizing Moscow after an invasion would have little impact.
US and Western officials expressed more concern that a major attack might be within reach.
“We must continue to develop our army, by ourselves, and also, using international aid,” Reznikov said. “It will be easier for us if we quickly get, for example, planes, anti-missile systems, etc.”
Weapons supplied by the West would not prevent the onslaught of the more capable Russian army, which has Iskander ballistic missiles, armored formations, electronic warfare systems and an air and military force. a much more efficient navy than the Ukrainians. But NATO allies hope that Mr Putin could be deterred from a major attack by the prospect that the weapons would be in the hands of an increasingly nationalistic population who could send many of Mr Putin’s soldiers home. them in body bags.
“Tens of thousands of people could die,” James Heappey, Britain’s Armed Forces Minister, said in a radio interview on Wednesday. “It’s not something the people of Moscow should believe without bloodshed.”
Even for Russia, the death toll has political significance, although Mr. Putin was a driving force beyond Russia’s second and ultimately successful war in Chechnya.
Mr. Putin has also deployed considerable forces in northern, eastern and southern Ukraine. US officials say there is enough room to launch an attack at any time. However, other forces are on the way.
Russia has already started military exercises with Belarus in northern Ukraine, which Western analysts see as a pretext to position invading forces, and leaves the Ukrainian capital Kyiv more vulnerable than ever. Russia used military exercises in 2014 to position its forces to intervene in eastern Ukraine.
Russian defense officials said the exercise in Belarus, “Allied Resolve”, has two phases. In the first, which runs until February 9, Russian and Belarusian troops will train to deploy forces, use air defense and defend military installations. In the second phase, from February 10 to 20, the two countries will train to “destroy illegal armed formations and enemy sabotage and reconnaissance groups”, the Russian Defense Ministry said.
Russia is sending substantial firepower for the exercise, including S-400 anti-aircraft systems and 12 Su-35 fighters, the Russian Defense Ministry said. Other forces are still in transit.
“From the perspective of military considerations, it would make more sense to launch an operation in February,” said Michael Kofman, Russian military expert at CNA Corp.
But Mr. Kofman added that Russia has the ability to maintain a significant military presence near Ukraine for some time, giving Mr. Putin considerable latitude in how and when to use its military.
Former military officials say the frozen ground in February would favor armored warfare, although it is not a prerequisite. Russia could also attack with what military planners call a flying start, fighting using what is in place as more forces arrive.
Moscow also appears to be strengthening in the south. Russia already has a substantial force in and around Crimea. Other ships may be on their way. Three Russian Ropucha-class amphibious ships left the Russian port of Baltiysk in Kaliningrad on January 15. The ships could be destined for a naval exercise but could also be diverted to the Black Sea and could arrive in another week.
Another factor in the timing of a Russian invasion may be geopolitics – and the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Rob Lee, a former Marine infantry officer and fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Philadelphia-based think tank, noted that Russia attacked Georgia in 2008 during the Summer Olympics there, which proved a global distraction during the time China was in the spotlight. .
“Moscow probably wants to avoid diverting attention from Beijing again,” Lee wrote in a recent article on Russia’s political and military strategy.
Mr Putin plans to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on February 4. The Russian leader is seeking to strengthen ties with Beijing and may want China’s help in mitigating the effects of Western sanctions if Russia intervenes in Ukraine, analysts say. This has led some analysts to speculate that if a Russian attack does occur, it won’t be until the end of the month.
On the other side, the United States seeks to delay any attack by promoting diplomacy and more talks. The White House has discussed a potential summit between the two presidents.
Meanwhile, Ukraine is getting stronger and the allies are sending it equipment. President Biden this week authorized the Baltic countries of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, which border Russia, to send American-made Javelin anti-tank weapons and Stinger air defense systems to Ukraine, officials said. Americans.
The first shipment of the additional $200 million in military aid that President Biden recently approved arrived in Ukraine on Friday. The United States is also transferring to Ukraine five Russian-made Mi-17 transport helicopters that were intended for the Afghan army and were being repaired in Ukraine. when the US-backed Afghan government collapsed.
Britain is sending more than 2,000 short-range anti-tank missiles and Turkey is supplying armed drones, some produced in Ukraine.
Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of the US Army in Europe, said the arms supply acts to deter Russia because it gives the Ukrainians the ability to damage Russian forces and demonstrates the will of the West to do more.
“In the mind of a helicopter pilot or a tank commander, you’re going to look over the border and think about it,” he said.
The systems provided can be used almost immediately, he said, as they require a few days of training to make a soldier proficient.
Yet Ukrainian forces would be stretched and ill-prepared to deal with simultaneous Russian attacks on multiple fronts.
All of these factors have a different meaning if Mr. Putin is not planning a military assault and instead aims to put Ukraine in a press and then negotiate at gunpoint. The demands could be accompanied by cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns, analysts said.
“Russia has many other options to target Ukraine… without really crossing borders,” said Keir Giles, senior consultant at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “So when the United States explicitly ties the threat of countermeasures to a ground invasion of Ukraine, it leaves open all of Russia’s other, easier options.”
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