A fog of war surrounds Russia’s intentions. With over 90,000 Russian troops moving in on Ukraine, NATO and the Baltics are struggling to find an response.
“This is unprecedented since the collapse of the Soviet Union”, a diplomatic source in Kyiv told LRT.lt. Reportedly, Russia has mobilised reserve troops to follow an initial invasion force, something that the Kremlin did not announce publicly.
Last week, more worrying news came from Kyiv, when President Volodymyr Zelensky announced during a press conference an alleged coup being planned against his government. If true, this would mirror the steps taken by Russia in 2014, when it used internal political turmoil – the Euromaidan revolution – to launch its Crimea and Donbass operations.
But as Russia draws troops, NATO and the US have been slow to indicate the responses they have on the table if an invasion of Ukraine does take place – again.
“There is no desire to face the Kremlin because this requires a significant investment in time and resources and they would rather use those resources in the challenge of China,” Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former senior US intelligence officer, told the Financial Times.
At present, the US is leaning toward providing political and economic support, coming short of promising military options. The view in Washington is clear – the United States will not go to war over Kyiv.
During a press conference in Vilnius on Sunday, NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg indicated that only political and economic deterrence measures were on the table: “We demonstrated our will and capabilities to impose costs on Russia before, we did that over the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 [..] by imposing heavy economic sanctions.”
Previous statements from Washington have also come short of naming military deterrence options.
Dimitry Trenin, an analyst well-informed of the Kremlin’s position, compared Ukraine’s drift West to the Soviet Union placing missiles in Cuba during the Cold War.
“Any Russian leader would seek to prevent such anchorage, using whatever means they have at their disposal,” he wrote in an article published on the Carnegie Moscow think tank’s website on November 19.
Although NATO and the US are not moving troops or missiles into Ukraine, the perceived loss of Kyiv is one of the “red lines” that Putin claimed the West had failed to observe.
Earlier in November, Russia’s foreign intelligence service SVR said the Georgian scenario was a possibility. In a statement, it said Tbilisi “paid dearly” in 2008 for the miscalculated attempt to take back the country’s Moscow-backed separatist region, which led to a war with Russia and left a fifth of the Georgian territory occupied.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba countered the narrative, tweeting that “we see a surge in Russian disinfo, including false accusations of Ukraine plotting a military attack in the Donbass”.
According to Vitaly Portnikov, a Ukrainian journalist and political commentator, “all signs of the Georgian scenario are already there”.
“This is a de facto breakdown of negotiations within the framework of the Minsk process and Moscow’s refusal to negotiate with the West,” he wrote on Facebook.
Speaking to LRT.lt, Portnikov said Russia was potentially looking for a provocation to launch a military incursion. But “I don’t believe Russia wants to occupy Ukraine”, since the economic weight would be too much for Moscow to bear, he added.
But the Kremlin has more options than just a full-fledged occupation or escalation of the conflict in Donbass.
Russia has now drawn troops north of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city located on the border with Russia. Many of its residents have previously displayed pro-separatist sentiments, and terror attacks have targetted infrastructure as well as pro-Euromaidan rallies.
The threat to Kharkiv is also one of the potential targets cited by intelligence made available to a diplomatic source in Kyiv.
Russia-US power plays?
The previous buildup of Russian troops around Ukraine last spring culminated with the June 2021 summit between US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
Based on “recent statements from Russian officials”, the Kremlin may be betting on future negotiations, according to Vira Konstantynova, a Ukrainian political commentator and former foreign policy adviser to the parliament’s chairman. “Ahead of a possible virtual meeting between Biden and Putin, Russia is raising the stakes and is trying to strengthen its negotiation position.”
The previous summit in June concluded with intentions to cooperate on various issues, including cyber security.
Now, Washington is trying to “circle the wagons” and “develop a portfolio of responses that can really impose costs on Russia'', Charles Kupchan, senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations think tank in the US, told LRT.lt.
According to Kupchan, the US policy focused on finding routes to work together on lower-level issues, while keeping strategic-level tensions low.
But with Eastern Europe seemingly back where it was in spring 2021, it’s questionable whether the approach has worked.
During his tenure as assistant to the president and a senior director at the National Security Council (NSC) in the Barack Obama administration, Kupchan saw that the joint European and US solidarity in 2014 “surprised Putin”.
“He thought he could split the US from Europe and the EU members from each other, [but] this did not happen,” Kupchan added.
“Putin tends to turn up the heat militarily when he wants attention and when he is attempting to increase his bargaining influence,” he said. “But the broader picture remains the same, which is that Ukraine is not a NATO member [and] the US is not about to go to war with Russia over Ukraine.”
Linas Linkevičius, who served as Lithuania’s 2012–2020 foreign minister, maintains that the move not to offer a NATO membership roadmap to Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 pushed the Kremlin to act.
“The position [of the alliance] was then that Russia would be provoked,” Linkevičius told LRT.lt. “The minority of us said that there will be an opposite reaction if we don’t offer [the roadmap].”
The war between Georgia and Russia started a few months later.
Now, the situation is exactly the same, Linkevičius added. “[Moscow] is trying out [tools] and seeing what the reaction is.”
In deterrence, perceptions matter. And from the view of the Kremlin, it has been scoring victories – from the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to seeing the US’s shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“Lithuania’s instruments are only in collective means. We can signal that the situation is serious, gather a coalition,” according to Linkevičius. So far, only a few countries, including the United Kingdom, Turkey, and the US, are seen as doing so, he added.
“To prevent [Russia’s attack], there needs to be serious arguments and graspable sanctions. [...] It seems like this is not happening.”
NATO foreign ministers are meeting in Riga, Latvia, on Tuesday, where Russia has raced to the top of the agenda. The ministers plan to discuss possible reactions to any escalation in Ukraine.