A massive build-up of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border is fueling speculation of an imminent invasion. Western leaders have warned Russian President Vladimir Putin against military action, but, especially after the catastrophic American withdrawal from Afghanistan, they appear divided and weak and may be unable to stop him.
A Russian invasion of Ukraine, if successful, would expand Moscow's sphere of influence along its western border and pave the way for Eastern Europe and the Baltics to come under Russian domination once again.
On December 3, the Washington Post reported that it had obtained an American intelligence document which assessed that Russia is planning a multi-front offensive involving nearly 200,000 troops within the next few months. The unclassified document, which includes satellite photos, shows Russian forces massing in four locations near Ukraine.
The document states that Russia already has roughly half the units -- 50 battlefield strike groups consisting of a total of 70,000 troops -- it needs for an invasion deployed near the border. Most of those units have arrived since September. A Biden administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said:
"The Russian plans call for a military offensive against Ukraine as soon as early 2022 with a scale of forces twice what we saw this past spring during Russia's snap exercise near Ukraine's borders. The plans involve extensive movement of 100 battalion tactical groups with an estimated 175,000 personnel, along with armor, artillery and equipment."
The American intelligence assessment -- leaked on the same day that Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said that Russia has amassed nearly 100,000 troops near the border and will be ready to invade in late January 2022 -- comes after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the Ukraine situation with his European counterparts. On December 1, after a NATO summit in Latvia, Blinken said:
"We don't know whether President Putin has made the decision to invade. We do know that he is putting in place the capacity to do so on short order should he so decide. We must prepare for all contingencies.
"We've made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high impact economic measures that we've refrained from using in the past."
On December 2, Blinken met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of a ministerial meeting of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Stockholm. Blinken demanded that Russia withdraw troops from the Ukrainian border. Lavrov deflected by warning that his country regarded the eastward expansion of the NATO military alliance as a "fundamental" security threat."No one should strengthen their security at the expense of the security of others," Lavrov said. "NATO's further eastward expansion will obviously affect our fundamental security interests."
Putin, speaking at an investment forum in Moscow, warned that Russia would act if its "red lines" on Ukraine were crossed by NATO.
NATO has not agreed to grant Ukraine membership, nor has the alliance deployed troops or weapons to Ukraine. NATO views Ukraine as a "partner" and has provided training and other forms of military support.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg indicated that the alliance would not defend Ukraine if it was attacked by Russia:
"It is important to distinguish between NATO allies and partner Ukraine. NATO allies, there we provide [Article 5] guarantees, collective defense guarantees, and we will defend and protect all allies.
"Ukraine is a partner, a highly-valued partner. There's a difference between a partner Ukraine and an ally like, for instance, Latvia. We need to understand the difference between a NATO ally, Latvia, other Baltic countries, Poland, Romania, and a close and highly valued partner, Ukraine. We provide support for Ukraine ... for the NATO allies we have the security guarantees, Article 5."
NATO did not defend Ukraine after Russia's first invasion in 2014, when Moscow occupied and then annexed the Crimean Peninsula, nor did it defend Georgia, another NATO "partner," after Russia's invasion in 2008.
Stoltenberg hinted that the Western response to any Russian invasion would be limited to economic sanctions:
"There will be a high price to pay for Russia if they once again use force against the independent, sovereign nation Ukraine. We have demonstrated our ability to impose costs, economic, political actions."
Stoltenberg also said that Russia has no right to extend its "sphere of influence" over Ukraine:
"It is only Ukraine and 30 NATO allies that decide when Ukraine is ready to join NATO. Russia has no veto. Russia has no say. And Russia has no right to establish a sphere of influence, trying to control their neighbors....
"They try to re-establish some kind of acceptance that Russia has the right to control what neighbors do, or not do....
"I, myself, I'm coming from a small country bordering Russia. And I'm very glad that our NATO allies have never respected that Russia has the kind of right to establish a sphere of influence in the North, trying to decide what Norway, as a small, independent country can do or not do.
"And that's exactly the same for Ukraine. Ukraine is an independent, sovereign nation with internationally recognized borders, guaranteed by Russia and all the other powers. And those borders, those internationally recognized borders should be respected. And that includes, of course, Crimea as part of Ukraine, and Donbas as part of Ukraine. So, this idea that NATO's support to a sovereign nation is the provocation, is just wrong. It's to respect the sovereignty of, the will of, the Ukrainian people.
"So I think that tells more about Russia than about NATO."
On December 3, U.S. President Joe Biden said that his administration was "putting together...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's going to do."
A spokesperson for the White House's National Security Council said that Washington was "deeply concerned by evidence that Russia is stepping up its planning for significant military action against Ukraine." He concluded:
"The Biden administration has been consistent in our message to Russia: the United States does not seek conflict, and the best way to avert a crisis and a negative spiral in the broader relationship is through diplomacy and de-escalation."
The London-based Financial Times reported that some European officials were "surprised" about the strength of the U.S. intelligence assessment and that authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have spent weeks comparing and contrasting their evaluations.
The newspaper added that the Biden administration is seeking to announce the consequences to Russia of a Ukraine invasion as part of a diplomatic push to deter Putin from deciding to act.
An American defense official told the Financial Times that the Biden administration was considering providing weaponry to Ukraine, but that inter-agency discussions were continuing and no decisions had yet been made.
On December 3, a Biden administration official said:
"Since the beginning of this administration we have demonstrated that the United States and our allies are willing to use a number of tools to address harmful Russian actions, and we will not hesitate from making use of those and other tools in the future."
On December 6, in an interview with the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, Reznikov, the Ukrainian defense minister, urged military support from Britain, Canada and the United States, even if it is outside NATO. He said that the "Anglo-Saxon allies" were more likely to challenge Putin's aggressive behavior than countries like France and Germany, which are more concerned about maintaining their economic relationships with Russia.
What Does Russia Want?
Analysts are divided on what is motivating Putin. Some believe that he is using the Ukraine issue to deflect from runaway inflation and a divisive push for Covid vaccine passports. Others say that Putin is fixated on restoring Russian control over Ukraine and other former members of the former Soviet Union.
Max Seddon, Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, wrote:
"Analysts say Putin's desire to rid Ukraine of western influence is underpinned by a conviction that it is an inalienable part of the 'Russian world,' a Moscow-centric sphere of influence rooted in the Soviet Union and the Tsarist empire.
"Putin has described the collapse of the USSR, which separated millions of intermarried families on either side of the Ukrainian border, as 'the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century' and has questioned the grounds on which Ukraine broke off from Russia.
"Following Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin likened the Ukrainian peninsula, where Vladimir the Great -- the first Christian ruler of Rus, a medieval state ruled from Kyiv -- was baptized in 988AD, as 'Russia's Temple Mount' -- a notion that has no theological basis but cast Putin as the protector of Russians everywhere."
In July, Putin published a 5,000-word article -- "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians" -- in which he wrote that he was convinced that the "true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia." He vowed Moscow would never allow the country to become "anti-Russia."
Putin was apparently referring to laws introduced by the Ukrainian government in July 2019 that aim to promote the primacy of the Ukrainian language. Those laws limit the use of the Russian language in public settings and exclude Russians from a list of Ukraine's "indigenous peoples.