Russia has expanded its already voluminous list of demands for what it would take to deescalate the crisis surrounding Ukraine and has threatened to take unspecified "military-technical" actions in a public rejection of U.S. diplomatic counter-proposals. This comes as U.S. President Joe Biden, among other U.S. and Western officials, have warned that a new Russian invasion of Ukraine could come very soon and that the Kremlin and its Ukrainian proxies appear to be attempting to foment a pretext to launch such an operation.
The Russian Foreign Ministry released a lengthy public response today to a package of security proposals from the U.S. government, which had been intended to provide a path to defusing tensions between Russia and Ukraine, as well as between the Kremlin and other parties, such as NATO. American officials had put forward those measures, which included various new arms control and confidence-building measures, as a counter-offer to previously proposed security deals from the Kremlin.
The "U.S. side did not give a constructive response to the basic elements of the draft treaty…on security guarantees," the Ministry's statement declared, echoing recent public comments from President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials. "Russia will be forced to respond, including through military-technical measures."
What those "military-technical" consequences might be are unclear. This could include, among other things, Russia deploying various additional weapons systems, such as SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missiles, along its borders that would present an increased standing threat to its geopolitical foes in the region.
Political and economic moves could well be another component of this response. The Russian government has already expelled Bart Gorman, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, the second most senior American diplomat in the country, today. A U.S. State Department spokesperson told journalist Laura Rozen that this action was "unprovoked" and that some kind of response was under consideration. They added that "we note that Russia’s actions have led to the U.S. mission to Russia being staffed at levels well below the Russian mission to the United States," which could be an implied threat of retaliatory explosions of Russian diplomatic personnel.
In addition, the Russian Foreign Ministry statement contains a string of new demands that the Kremlin says would need to be met in order to deescalate the situation surrounding Ukraine. This would include the United States and other countries not only halting deliveries of any more military aid to the Ukrainian armed forces, but also taking back weapons, ammunition, and other materiel that they have sent in recent weeks.
The U.S. government and other NATO members have sent Javelin and other anti-tank guided missiles, unguided anti-armor weapons, and Stinger short-range surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine, among many other things, in recent weeks. More military aid is still in the process of being delivered.
Furthermore, authorities in Moscow want the United States, in particular, to withdraw forces it has deployed to various locations along NATO's eastern flanks in recent weeks. The Kremlin has previously called for the alliance to return to its posture as it existed in May 1997, which would include a broader drawdown of forces in countries that joined after that point.
Currently, U.S. Air Force F-35 stealth fighters, F-16 and F-15 combat jets, and B-52 bombers are forward-deployed at multiple bases across Europe, while U.S. Army units have taken up temporary positions in Poland and Romania. The U.S. Navy has sent a quartet of Arleigh Burke class destroyers to bolster America's naval presence in the region. All of this comes amid a broader NATO effort to reinforce the alliance's posture in areas along its periphery with Russia, as well as to help deter future Russian aggression.
NATO has categorically rejected Russia's previous demands regarding its interactions with Ukraine and over how the alliance conducts its own affairs, and there is no indication that it, as an organization, is any more inclined to acquiesce now. Even if it wanted to, the extensive practical and political ramifications of meeting the Kremlin's stipulations easily make them a non-starter. No matter what, individual NATO member states would still retain their rights to pursue their own bilateral or multi-lateral foreign policies regarding Ukraine. There was a formal announcement just today of a new trilateral security cooperation agreement between the United Kingdom, Poland, and Ukraine, which has been in the works since at least the beginning of this month and is outside of any NATO framework.
All of this, of course, comes as around 150,000 Russian military personnel, together with a wide array of assets, including tanks and other heavy armor, artillery, and Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles, continue mass in areas around the country's borders with Ukraine. The Kremlin continues to insist that these deployments, which started last fall and have now expanded into areas of Belarus, are only for exercises and that it has no plans to launch a new military incursion into Ukraine.
Russian authorities have claimed this week that some forces are beginning to withdraw as evidence to substantiate this. However, U.S. and other Western officials have long highlighted the fact that these exercises present an ideal cover for preparations for such an invasion. On top of that, by every indication, there has been no substantial Russian drawdown in the region and that the Kremlin appears to actually be deploying more forces. A senior U. official told reporters yesterday that approximately 7,000 additional Russian personnel had arrived in the region recently. Beyond all this, Ukraine has already been fighting a relatively low-level conflict with Russia and Kremlin-backed proxies in its eastern Donbas region since 2014.
"My sense is it [a Russian intervention into Ukraine] will happen within the next several days," U.S. President Biden told reporters earlier today, adding that he has no new plans to engage directly with Russian President Putin. "Every indication we have is they are prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine."
“I was a soldier myself not that long ago, and I know firsthand that you don’t do these sorts of things for no reason," U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also said today, referring, in part, to intelligence that the Russian military had moved supplies of blood, which would be valuable for combat casualty care, to areas near Ukraine. "And you certainly don’t do them if you’re getting ready to pack up and go home."
U.S. intelligence indicates that after any such operation kicks off that "Russian missiles and bombs will drop across Ukraine. Communications will be jammed. Cyberattacks will shut down key Ukrainian institutions," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said separately during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council today. "After that, Russian tanks and soldiers will advance on key targets that have already been identified and mapped out in detailed plans. We believe these targets include ...Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million people."
"And conventional attacks are not all that Russia plans to inflict upon the people of Ukraine," he added. "We have information that indicates Russia will target specific groups of Ukrainians."
These remarks are very similar to how U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan described the most likely scenario for a new Russian incursion into Ukraine this past weekend. The U.S. government, together with authorities in the United Kingdom, had previously released information indicating that the Kremlin was also working with groups of Ukrainian nationals who would move to seize control of the country's institutions after such an operation began. This all mirrors The War Zone's own analysis of how such an operation would proceed.
Officials from countries within the NATO alliance, as well as the organization itself, have made broadly similar statements about the situation surrounding Ukraine and their concerns today. Though they have called for continued diplomacy to try to resolve the crisis, American authorities and others have further accused the Kremlin, as well as its proxies in Ukraine, of trying to create pretexts for a Russian intervention that seems increasingly inevitable.
"Russia plans to manufacture a pretext for its attack," Blinken said at the United Nations today. "This could be a violent event that Russia will blame on Ukraine, or an outrageous accusation that Russia will level against the Ukrainian Government. We don’t know exactly the form it will take."
"It could be a fabricated so-called 'terrorist' bombing inside Russia, the invented discovery of a mass grave, a staged drone strike against civilians, or a fake – even a real – attack using chemical weapons," he continued, highlighting some things that have already been part of what appears to at least a semi-coordinated information operations campaign by pro-Russian media outlets and other actors in the region in recent weeks. "Russia may describe this event as ethnic cleansing or a genocide, making a mockery of a concept that we in this chamber do not take lightly, nor do I do take lightly based on my family history."
Putin described the plight of civilians in two breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region as a "genocide" earlier this week and the Russian government now claims to be formally investigating those claims. The Kremlin made similar allegations during its own statements at the Security Council meeting today. Though there have certainly been civilian casualties on both sides, the Russian government has yet to provide any hard evidence to substantiate the assertion that there has been some kind of deliberate, systematic Ukraian campaign against civilians in breakaway areas of the Donbas.
There has been something of a surge in fighting in Donbas in the past day or so, though how significant it might actually be has been a subject of debate among experts and observers. Russian-backed forces did notably shell a kindergarten today, leaving two teachers injured, and then attempted to accuse Ukrainian forces of staging a false flag attack. That is exactly the kind of multi-faceted provocation that Blinken and others have said could lead to larger conflict erupting.
As has been consistently the case for weeks now, it is unclear whether or not Russia will actually decide to pursue new military action against Ukraine in the end or seek to achieve its policy objectives, even just in the immediate term, through other means. The steady stream of publicly disclosed intelligent assessments from the United States and other Western countries, together with a similar string of what all but certainly authorized "leaks," seem to be designed to try to upend Putin's decision-making cycles and rob him of the initiative by depriving him of control of the prevailing narrative.
The fact that the Kremlin continues to have a variety of options for how to proceed, as The War Zone has explored in depth this week, is one of its greatest assets in this conflict. At the same time, there are potential limit factors, such as the ongoing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, which run through February 20. Experts and observers had suggested Putin would be unlikely to do anything before these games end to avoid distracting from them or otherwise embarrassing China's leader Xi Jinping, one of the Kremlin's main international partners at present. U.S. officials have increasingly stressed that they do not feel that Putin would be bound to this schedule.
"We are laying it out in great detail, with the hope that by sharing what we know with the world, we can influence Russia to abandon the path of war and choose a different path while there’s still time," Blinken said outright today at the Security Council meeting. "I am mindful that some have called into question our information, recalling previous instances where intelligence ultimately did not bear out. But let me be clear: I am here today, not to start a war, but to prevent one."
"The information I’ve presented here is validated by what we’ve seen unfolding in plain sight before our eyes for months," he continued. "If Russia doesn’t invade Ukraine, then we will be relieved that Russia changed course and proved our predictions wrong."
It has been made clear that what the U.S. government is seeing is based on a variety of intelligence streams, including a steady flow of information from persistent aerial overflights of Ukraine and adjacent areas by manned and unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft. Satellite imagery, including shots from commercial providers, and human intelligence have been important factors, as well.
All told, the next few days, and possibly weeks, look set to be one of the tensest periods of this current crisis.
You can find our continuing coverage on this still-evolving crisis here.
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