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Western Allies Fear Kremlin Set to Prolong Armed Intimidation


A Ukrainian frontier guard patrols along the border with Russia, some 40 kilometers from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, on Feb. 16, 2022.

Ukraine’s Western allies were warning last week of an “imminent” attack by Russia, and earlier this week that shifted to an assault remaining a “distinct possibility.” But now a consensus is forming that the Kremlin intends to keep NATO and Kyiv in suspense and is preparing to persist with a strategy of armed blackmail for the foreseeable future.

Britain’s foreign secretary Liz Truss warned Thursday that Russia might well prolong the stand-off on Ukraine’s borders for months, testing the resolve of the West and the resilience of Ukraine, and with the aim of extracting security concessions and roiling the Western alliance.

She said there is no evidence of any withdrawal of Russian troops, despite claims by the Kremlin otherwise.

“We must not be lulled into a false sense of security by Russia claiming that some troops are returning to their barracks, while in fact the Russian military build-up shows no signs of slowing,” she said. “There is currently no evidence that the Russians are withdrawing from border regions near Ukraine,” she added.

And Britain’s foreign minister warned: “We must have no illusions that Russia could drag this out much longer in a brazen ploy to spend weeks more — if not months — subverting Ukraine and challenging Western unity. This is a test of our mettle.”

Her assessment echoes what Ukrainian officials have long argued — namely, that the Kremlin has many hybrid-warfare options and will prolong the crisis using different tactics to goad and intimidate. They have said repeatedly that Putin’s strategy is more about trying to wear the West down rather than gamble with an invasion of Ukraine that would likely mire Russia in a long and bloody counter-insurgency war.

And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his aides have been much more cautious about predicting an invasion or offering a date for it. Earlier this week the Ukrainian leader appeared to poke fun at Western warnings about a firm date for a Russian assault — February 16 had been publicly earmarked by US and British officials as the likely date for a Russian offensive to begin.

The Kremlin has denied it has been planning to invade Ukraine and has accused Western leaders of whipping up “hysteria.” Kremlin-directed media have been telling their domestic Russian audiences that NATO has been fomenting alarmism and Kremlin officials have been mocking the predictions of an invasion.

Maria Zakharova, Russia's foreign ministry spokesperson, Wednesday wrote on social media “I'd like to ask if US and British sources of disinformation ... could publish the schedule of our upcoming invasions for the year. I'd like to plan my holidays.”

A former British intelligence chief, John Sawers told the BBC midweek that he thought the chance of an invasion “was never quite as high as was being portrayed by some Western governments.” He added: “I don't think that President Putin ever decided to invade the country and, indeed, I think it would always have been a very risky course for him to have taken.”

Invasion fears aside, NATO allies are taking no chances and are preparing to move more tanks and warplanes towards eastern Europe, to bolster the confidence of the alliance’s Central European and Baltic members. NATO’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday “we are prepared for the worst.”

Map: NATO Members and Membership Candidates
Map: NATO Members and Membership Candidates

Ukraine’s Western allies are also determined to harden the country’s cyber-defenses following a massive midweek denial of service cyber-attack, that the Ukrainians blame on Russia, and which targeted the web portal of the defense ministry. The cyber-attack also impacted Ukraine’s largest private bank, and another owned by the state as well as energy infrastructure.

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's deputy prime minister, said the attack, which happened on Tuesday, was “unprecedented” and designed “to sow panic, to do everything so that a certain chaos appears in our country.” The Kremlin has denied any responsibility for the cyberattack.

Electronic warfare experts from the United States and Britain are being tasked to help Ukraine build more cyber-resilience and to spot vulnerable access points in key systems and to identify whether any disruptive malware has been planted, say Western officials.

NATO split

With the crisis prolonging, amid a Russian demand that NATO publicly guarantee Ukraine never joins the alliance as a member, there are signs that a split is emerging among Western allies over what concessions to offer the Kremlin in a bid to end the crisis.

Russia has demanded Ukraine never join NATO. And the Kremlin wants any NATO military presence removed from the former Communist countries of Central Europe, once members of the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact and now participants in the western alliance.

The leaders of France and Germany, Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, who have been shuttling between Moscow and Kyiv, are pressing Ukraine to announce that it will ditch its ambition to join NATO, Ukrainian officials have told VOA.

In an awkward moment Monday during a joint press conference in Kyiv, Scholz said that the issue of NATO membership for Ukraine “is practically not on the agenda.” But Zelenskiy suggested Ukraine would still like to join NATO, although he conceded that it is nothing more than a “dream” at this stage.

Other alliance members, especially Ukraine’s near neighbors, are opposed to closing the door formally on Ukraine joining NATO, fearing to do so would embolden the Kremlin and because it would undermine the alliance’s open-door policy and establish the right of bigger powers to dictate the foreign policy of smaller nations.

Macron and Scholz have also been urging President Zelenskiy to agree to implement a 6-year-old peace deal on the future of Ukraine’s Donbas region, parts of which have been under de facto Russian occupation since April 2014, and where an estimated 32,000 Russian troops are currently stationed.

Minsk accords

Known as Minsk Accords, which were brokered by France and Germany in 2015, the deal is highly unpopular in Ukraine and was agreed to by Kyiv at a time it was losing the war in the East and had little option but to sign.

Ukrainian politicians believe the accords could be used by the Kremlin to dominate its neighbor and meddle further in its domestic politics. The agreement was meant to bring fighting to a halt in the Donbas and proposed that the two Moscow-backed ‘breakaway republics’ in the region be reintegrated into Ukraine but retain considerable powers of self-government.

Last week, Ukraine’s president noticeably refrained from re-committing fully to the agreement during a joint news conference with Macron. On Wednesday, the Kyiv Independent news outlet quoted Ukrainian government and diplomatic sources as saying that both France's Emmanuel Macron and Germany's Olaf Scholz had tried to push Kyiv to show progress in complying with the Minsk accords.

Former Swedish diplomat Fredrik Löjdquist worries about the crisis being prolonged by the Kremlin. He posted on social media already “the West has reacted on a playing field defined by Russia.” He fears Putin has achieved much by maneuvering Western governments into discussing Europe’s security and “by renewing pressure on Kyiv to make concessions on its sovereignty.”

But others maintain that Western powers, led by U.S. President Joe Biden, have been doing a good job in countering Putin and shaping a cohesive policy to contain Russia while retaining overall unity. Ian Bremmer, of the Eurasia Group, a risk assessment firm based in New York, credits Biden, “So far Ukraine policy is right on target,” he says.

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