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As Russian forces continued to mass on Ukraine’s border and recriminations ratcheted up between Moscow and the west, the recurring and foreboding theme among observers was not whether a conflict will break out, but rather when.
One suggested timescale for a Russian attack to take place was last week, during the Christmas and New Year holiday period, when reaction from the US and Europe would have been slower in coming.
There were supposed intelligence reports pointing towards this: Nato sent stern warnings to Moscow against taking hasty decisions; a claim from the Russian foreign ministry that Kyiv was planning a chemical “incident” in the separatist east would be used, it was said, as an excuse for hostilities to begin.
That period has come and gone. The headlines in the international media about Ukraine in the last few days have, instead, been about Emily in Paris.
Ukraine’s minister of culture, Oleksandr Tkachenko, complained that a character from Kyiv in the Netflix drama set in the French capital has been insultingly portrayed as a shoplifter, an illegal immigrant, and – horror of horrors for fashion conscious Ukrainians – having poor dress sense.
Netflix has assured that they would be careful in future about pejorative stereotyping, the Ukrainian minister said. But the real life drama of what is happening at Ukraine’s borders continues – and the next month will be crucial on whether war can be averted, despite the sabre-rattling.
Senior security figures in Ukraine, including the head of military intelligence, brigadier general Kyrylo Budanov and defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov, have said that any assault is likely to take place at the end of January, or early February; when the conditions would be right for the movement of heavy armour.
Ukrainian contingency plans are said to include countering airstrikes, artillery and armour offensives, followed by airborne assaults in the east and amphibious assaults in Odessa and Mariupul.
There is a busy run-up to that time. Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security, is visiting Ukraine this week with a trip to the frontline. Meetings are due to begin between American and Russian officials on 9 January – two days after the Orthodox Christmas – in Geneva, with a Nato meeting on Ukraine scheduled for next week.
There have already been several rounds of high-level talks between Washington and Moscow, without any sign of resolution of the crisis.
Last week, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin had a telephone call in which the two presidents reportedly issued warnings to each other.
There has also been a series of meetings between senior figures since last November. William Burns, the CIA director and former ambassador to Russia, met Putin; Nikolai Patrushev, the security council secretary; and Sergey Naryshkin, director of foreign intelligence. US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has been talking to Yuriy Ushakov, foreign policy aid to the Russian President. Anthony Blinken, the US secretary of state, met the Russian foreign minister in Stockholm, last month.
Putin’s “red line” on Ukraine – a breach of which the Kremlin says may trigger Russian action – has broadened. The demand now is not only that Ukraine must not become a member of Nato, but that interoperability between Ukrainian and Nato forces must be halted; as, in Moscow’s view, it means Kyiv is joining the alliance by stealth.
Russia has now proposed that Nato rescinds the promise made to Ukraine, along with Georgia, in April 2008: that it can join the alliance at some stage in the future. There should be also be an end to military assistance to Ukraine by the US and Nato, and an end to Western military exercises in the country.
Nato military exercises, Moscow has put forward, should also end in all former Soviet countries. Nato’s expansion should be halted, with an assurance that Sweden and Finland would not become members.
Most of these demands would not be acceptable to the west – and the Kremlin know that. So, one can assume that these are opening gambits for negotiating a status quo which would be more acceptable to Russia – and go some way towards addressing its complaint about the US reneging on promises to Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1990s that Nato will not spread eastwards.
Russia also appears to have decided that the Minsk II agreement signed with the mediation of France and Germany to end the Ukraine strife has run its course. The Normandy format forum between France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia has been halted. Moscow and Kyiv blame each other for the failure of a settlement over the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.
The direct talks with the US are aimed by the Kremlin, it is thought, at bypassing Paris and Berlin – and getting a deal which will be presented to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky as a fait accompli.
What happens if this does not work? Some senior American politicians appear to believe that a conflict is now almost inevitable.
Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, has said: “I fear Putin is very likely to invade. I don’t understand the full motivation for why now he’s doing this, but he certainly appears intent on it unless we can persuade him otherwise. And I think nothing other than a level of sanctions that Russia has never seen will deter him, and that’s exactly what we need to do with our allies.”
But the current Russian military build-up is taking place despite sanctions already in place after the annexation of Crimea having significant consequences. The Russian economy has grown by an average of 0.3 per cent a year, compared with a global average of 2.3 per cent. According to some estimates, up to 3 per cent in growth has been lost at a cost of $50bn a year.
The threat of military action comes despite the fact that it is likely to lead to the halting of the new Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a project which began in 2011, and is of commercial and strategic significance to Moscow.
If the Russians really have decided on military action, then the question may be “if not now, when?” Joe Biden’s humiliating retreat from Afghanistan has led to speculation that it heralds an era of “western defeatism”. This is not just the view of adversaries, but allies. Consider how uncertainty about depending on America has led to a new impetus in talks among Sunni Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, with their traditional foe: Iran.
Biden has declared that the US and its European allies will “respond decisively” to any Russian military action.
But there are problems and divisions in Europe. The continent’s strongest leader, Angela Merkel, has retired; members of the new German government are split on how to approach Russia. Emmanuel Macron is occupied with the coming election in France. There has been a series of confrontations between the European Union and the nationalist governments in Poland and Hungary. In addition, Europe is once again the epicentre of the global Covid pandemic.
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Nato will not put boots on the ground in Ukraine – as the British defence secretary, Ben Wallace, correctly pointed out recently. But the cost of mounting an invasion would be high for Russia in terms of deaths and injuries.
The 2014 war in eastern Ukraine, along with the continuing violence it spawned, has cost more than 14,000 lives so far. The Ukrainian forces – 250,000 strong and armed with some western weaponry – will be better able to withstand combat far better than they were seven years ago. This is likely to mean that a conflict would go on for longer and be more attritional, with a massive number of casualties.
These are uncertain and dangerous times in the confrontation between Russia, Ukraine and the west. It may well be that negotiations will eventually defuse the crisis. But military brinkmanship can easily lead to fatal miscalculations – the law of unintended consequences which has led to devastating wars in the past.