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Russia has amassed enough men and materiel on its Ukrainian border to launch a full-scale invasion that could be the largest military action in Europe since the end of the Second World War.
Defense Department officials on Friday publicly confirmed that the Russian forces who have been massing on their side of Ukraine’s eastern frontier since March 2021 now number more than 100,000 and include troop formations, mechanised units and rocket batteries.
According to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the size and scope of the Russian redeployment “far and away exceeds what we would typically see them do for exercises, while Gen Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Friday that the “magnitude” of the buildup was such that “you’d have to go back quite a while to the Cold War days to see” anything similar.
Mr Austin told reporters that there is still “time and space” for a diplomatic solution to the standoff, and that a military conflict in Ukraine was “not inevitable”. He also said the Defense Department does not believe Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a final decision on whether to employ his forces against Ukraine, though the forces he has assembled give him a variety of paths to follow should he decide to do so.
“There are multiple options available to him, including the seizure of cities and the significant territories, but also coercive acts or provocative political acts like the recognition of breakaway territories," he said.
Mr Austin also decried Russian state media reports about alleged activities in Ukraine, calling them "straight out of the Russian playbook."
He added that the United States was focused on the possibility that Russia would act to create a pre-text for an invasion by using pre-positioned operatives to conduct a "false flag" operation.
The longstanding grievances that have led Mr Putin to position such a threatening force along his Ukrainian frontier stem from the tilt toward the West by the Ukrainian government, Kiev’s ambition to become part of the Nato alliance, and Nato’s expansion into former Soviet satellite states over the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The nearly year-long buildup of Russian forces on an invasion posture and efforts by the United States and its European allies to deter Mr Putin from carrying out such an action will also take centre stage at an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Monday which could be the most dramatic such gathering since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Nearly six decades after Adlai Stevenson told Soviet UN Ambassador Valerian Zorin he would “wait until hell freezes over” for a response to accusations that the USSR had placed nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba, the Biden administration is hoping the security council will once again provide the US with an appropriate venue to confront Russian aggression before the court of world opinion.
The Monday open session is being held at the request of US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who on Thursday called for the body to meet to discuss the Russian troop buildup, which called “a matter of crucial importance to international peace and security” in a statement announcing session.
A senior administration official who briefed reporters on plans for the session on Friday afternoon said Russia’s threats against Ukraine “strike at the heart of the UN Charter and have grave implications for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” as well as the “safety and security” of all UN member states.
“This is precisely the type of situation the UN and the Security Council in particular, were created to address,” added the official, who characterised US plans as an attempt at “preventative diplomacy”
A second official called the ongoing Russian build-up “a clear threat to peace and security” for which the security council has “primary responsibility” under the UN charter, and said the council would be derelict in its’ duties if it were to “take a wait and see approach” to the situation.
“In this instance, the council's full attention is needed now to examine the facts and consider what's at stake for Ukraine for Europe and for the international order should Russia further invade Ukraine,” the official said.
The official said Ms Thomas-Greenfield would use Monday’s session to “present the facts of the case” against Russia and “clearly articulate what's at stake for European and global peace and security”.
Quoting Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the official said a further Russian invasion of Ukraine would mean “opening a pandora’s box across the globe” and would also undermine the principles of both the international order that has stood since the end of the Second World War as well as the UN charter “which for nearly 80 years has stood upon a foundation of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states”.
The official also said the US plans to come to Monday’s meeting “prepared to listen” for Russia “to explain what it is doing,” but warned that US officials are equally prepared to “call out” any “disinformation” or “diversionary tactics” Russian officials may try to deploy, including claims that Ukraine or Nato are responsible for provoking the current tensions.
The security council will take up the matter of Russia’s threats against its neighbour after more than 100 separate American engagements with Russian diplomats alongside officials from Nato, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union and Ukraine failed to convince Moscow to de-escalate the situation by withdrawing any of the forces it has moved to Ukraine’s doorstep.
While the United States and its allies have threatened punishing sanctions against Moscow — and against Mr Putin himself — if Russian forces cross into Ukrainian territory, the Biden administration has so far ruled out imposing any of the sanctions preemptively.
But the chairman of Ukraine’s parliament, Rusian Stefanchuk, has asked a group of eight US senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — Democrats Bob Menendez (the committee’s chairman), Jeanne Shaheen, Chris Murphy and Ben Cardin, as well as Republicans Jim Risch (the ranking GOP member), Rob Portman, John Cornyn, and Lindsey Graham — to include preemptive sanctions in a legislative package “to deter a new stage of Russian aggression” in a letter to the senators which was first reported by Axios.
Specifically, Mr Stefanchuk has asked for “immediate, mandatory sanctions” against the Gazprom subsidiary constructing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany, as well as a “clear trigger” for “instant and unqualified imposition” of any sanctions not imposed at the moment the package is signed into law.
He also asked the senators to include “mandatory pre-trigger and post-trigger sanctions against all of Russia’s most significant financial institutions” in the package, as well as for “expedited and higher-impact security assistance” in the form of “air defense, anti-ship and anti-armor capabilities” and “flexible loans and financing mechanisms”.
“The United States is Ukraine's principal ally and strategic partner. We have chosen our future of democracy, rooted in shared values and principles with the United States,” Mr Stefanchuk wrote.
“But for Ukraine to realize its future as a prosperous, reformed, and capable American ally that helps advance US national interests both regionally and globally, we must be able to defend ourselves from Russian aggression. And to achieve this, Ukraine needs now bolstered support of the United States more than ever.”