The guessing game about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions continued Sunday, with alarmed Western military officials and independent experts agreeing the Kremlin has amassed sufficient forces to invade Ukraine.
Disagreements persist, though, among allies over whether the military buildup is a feint designed to extract Western concessions or an invasion force primed for assault.
Washington and London believe Russia is not pretending, and that the forces deployed on three sides of Ukraine are not just mirroring an invasion force but are ready to mount an offensive.
“The worrying thing is that despite the massive amount of increased diplomacy, that military buildup has continued. It has not paused, it has continued,” Britain’s Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said Saturday.
Wallace likened Western diplomacy aimed at averting a Russian invasion of Ukraine to appeasement, telling newspapers in London there’s a “whiff of Munich in the air from some in the West,” a reference to the Munich agreement of 1938 that allowed Nazi Germany to annex Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland.
Despite Wallace’s fighting talk, the British flag was lowered Sunday at the country’s Kyiv embassy, with local staff saying they had been told the mission in effect will be closed Monday, with only the ambassador and military attaches remaining.
While British officials fear Putin is ready to discount the threat of Western sanctions and has priced them into his war calculations, their counterparts in Paris and Berlin believe an escalation will not happen this week. French officials are playing down a detailed intelligence report from the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies, which has been shared with NATO allies, outlining a Russian invasion plan they believe could be scheduled for this Wednesday.
Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron talked for two hours Saturday. An Elysée palace official told French media that Putin made “no indication that he is going to go on the offensive.” French officials still hold out hopes that diplomacy can avert a conflict and say Putin and Macron agreed to pursue further dialogue, much as U.S. President Joe Biden and the Russian leader agreed to do so during their hourlong phone conversation Saturday.
Nonetheless, Paris is observing the same precautionary principle as the United States and other European nations and recommending foreign nationals leave Ukraine immediately.
“We are nevertheless extremely vigilant and alert to the Russian posture in order to avoid the worst,” a French official said. Germany is moving its consulate based in Dnipro in central Ukraine to the western Ukrainian town of Lviv. This is its second relocation — it was moved from Donetsk in 2014 when Russian armed proxies seized the city.
Britain is also moving its Kyiv consulate to Lviv, and consular staff will focus on assisting British nationals who want to leave Ukraine, say local staff, who will receive advance payments, which can be paid into foreign bank accounts, if they want.
The Kremlin denies it is planning to invade Ukraine. Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry Sunday accused Western media of colluding in a smear campaign against Moscow with the goal of “discrediting Russia’s fair demands on security guarantees and justifying the West’s geopolitical aspirations and militarization of the territory of Ukraine.”
Russian officials echoed a claim made Saturday by Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who also spoke on the telephone. Lavrov accused Washington of encouraging Kyiv to launch a false-flag military offensive in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, part of which has been occupied by Russian forces and Kremlin-backed proxies since 2014.
This is the mirror of a charge being made by Western officials that Russia is preparing a false-flag provocation to trick the Ukrainians into responding, giving the Kremlin a pretext for an offensive.
The Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of independent military investigators based in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, said in a statement Saturday the force Russia has massed on Ukraine’s borders is highly sophisticated and equipped for an invasion.
“We definitely cannot rule out that building up this offensive force is nothing more than an infowar. … But what we see on the ground is no different from an actual preparation for an invasion,” the group said.
References to Munich were being made Sunday by other European politicians, aside from Wallace. In Britain, senior Conservative lawmaker and chair of the British Parliament’s defense committee Tobias Ellwood criticized Western powers’ decision not to deploy forces in Ukraine to act as a deterrent in an article for The Sunday Telegraph.
“What leverage have we assembled to dissuade Vladimir Putin from invading?” he asked, “Where is the deterrence? Simply put, we have no Russia strategy.”
“As soon as we ruled out sending NATO forces into Ukraine, we were no longer in control of events,” he added. “This is about much more than Ukraine. It’s a totemic moment as we enter an era of increasing instability,” he concluded.
“In this situation of increasing tension it must be important for countries as well as others to have key diplomatic staff close to the authorities. Embassies now leaving Kyiv send absolutely the wrong signal,” tweeted former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt.
In Kyiv, General Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of the country’s ground forces, told reporters his troops are “ready and capable.”
“We will not give up a single meter of Ukrainian land without a fight,” he said.
Ukrainian officials were fuming Sunday, though, at the Western evacuations, saying they are encouraging the Kremlin.
Ordinary Ukrainians have been calm about unfolding events, but the closure of embassies and relocation of consulates have caught their attention, and those with connections to Westerners appear now to be starting to get alarmed.
“The West does not know what to do with all this mess between Russia and Ukraine and they will be happy to get rid of the headache as soon as possible,” reckons Iuliia Osmolovska, a former Ukrainian diplomat and now an analyst at the Eastern European Security Institute, a think tank in Kyiv.
Like some other analysts and Ukrainian officials, she suspects Western powers will urge Kyiv to accept the 2015 Minsk Accord, an agreement Ukraine made with Moscow to halt fighting in the Donbass. The agreement has never been implemented and is highly unpopular in Ukraine as it would allow the Kremlin to interfere in Ukraine’s domestic politics.
Osmolovska does “not think that the West has given up on Ukraine, because it will suffer huge reputational loss worldwide,” but she doubts that the Western “threats of severe economic sanctions will deter Russia” and judges that the “Kremlin’s menacing military posture will strengthen the Kremlin’s negotiating position in security talks with U.S. and NATO.”
A high ranking United Nations official dismissed comparisons to Munich, telling VOA: “Biden and his team are doing their best including publicly exposing potential Russian moves ahead of time to ward off the attack.”