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Friday, 23 February 2024
Will Putin dare to invade Ukraine?
Ian Black

It has become one of the most alarming international questions of 2021 as the end of this turbulent year approaches: will Vladimir Putin decide to invade Ukraine – or at least to intervene again militarily in Russia’s neighbour, which for decades was part of the Soviet Union? The Kremlin, naturally, denies that.

 Significant events have taken place in recent months: one was the massing of Russian forces on the border with Ukraine in April. Russia returned some, but not all, of its troops to their bases in May after Putin secured a Geneva summit with President Joe Biden. In July however, Putin published a lengthy account on the Kremlin website, calling Russians and Ukrainians “one nation” and labelling Kyiv’s leaders as running an “anti-Russian project.”

 Another was the difficult video call Biden made to Putin in early December. And another key move was last week’s warning from the EU and Nato and the UK that if the Russian president went ahead with his perceived threat there would be “unprecedented measures with serious consequences.”

 Despite their overall denial, officials in Moscow are reflecting the Kremlin’s sabre-rattling view. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, frighteningly compared the mounting tensions over Ukraine to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 – at the peak of the Cold War – and the dangers it entailed.

 Additional strategic factors are the damage done to America’s global reputation by this summer’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover; another is the increasing closeness between Moscow and Beijing in confronting the West and Nato and accusing them of using the “excuse” of respecting human rights.

 Putin agreed with President Xi Jinping in a video call last Wednesday that Russia and China should stand firm in rejecting Western interference and defending each other’s security interests.  Their conversation, a week after Putin spoke to Biden in a similar format, emphasized how shared hostility to the West is bringing the two autocracies closer together.

 And the visit to Moscow by the assistant US secretary of state included discussion of Russian demands that Ukraine will not be invited to join Nato. Putin has also insisted on securing guarantees that the Atlantic alliance will not seek to station offensive weapons in Ukraine. Nato has made it clear that Russia has no right to veto membership for eastern European countries. Still, observers rightly point out that an attack on member of the alliance is considered an attack on all. And they add of course that Russia already annexed Crimea in 2014.

 Putin’s shifting demands are in effect intended to return Nato forces to where they were stationed in 1997, before an expansion which included much of eastern Europe, including Poland, the former Soviet countries of Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Balkan countries.

 US intelligence officials say Russia has moved 70,000 troops towards Ukraine’s border and is preparing for a possible invasion early next year. Moscow officially denies it has any plans to attack and rejects Western concerns as part of a smear campaign. Ukrainian authorities have said Moscow could be planning an offensive at the end of January, although US officials say it is not yet clear whether Putin has yet made a decision. Experts think he wants to create positions of power, opportunities and exploit them.

 In 2015, following Putin’s annexation of Crimea, France and Germany brought Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table and brokered a peace agreement that helped end large-scale hostilities in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region since the overthrow of the pro-Moscow president in 2014.

 Paris and Berlin are adopting similar attitudes to the current crisis, both arguing that the EU and Nato should engage with Moscow. But Olaf Scholz, the new German chancellor who has replaced Angela Merkel, warned that more talks “must not be misunderstood as a new German ‘Ostpolitik’,” referring to West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s policy of détente towards the communist Eastern bloc in the early 1970s. There “can only be a European Ostpolitik in a united Europe” that is based on principles of international law and order that Russia committed itself to but violated with the annexation of Crimea, as Scholz said.

 Another German contribution to increasing pressure on Moscow is likely to be the new government’s attitude to the Nord Stream 2 project, the pipeline, not yet operating, that is intended to supply gas to Germany via the Baltic sea. Merkel was reluctant to weaponize that but Scholz seems inclined to respond differently in order to improve relations with EU and Nato allies. His foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, has made clear if there is any further Russian escalation then "this gas pipeline could not come into service". Another significant economic tool could be threatening to disconnect Russia's banking system from the international Swift payment system, though that has always been seen very much as a last resort.

 Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, came up with a good line about how to deal with this escalating crisis: “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” Sensible advice in an increasingly scary situation in these uncertain times!