The United States, aided by some of its close European allies such as the United Kingdom, has been ratcheting up tensions over Ukraine since December in an attempt to convince the international community that a Russian invasion of that country is imminent. However, important strategic partners of the U.S., such as France and Germany, have been openly sceptical of these assertions. For that matter, even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pooh-poohed the incessant propaganda from the U.S. and the U.K. that an invasion was about to happen. In fact, he requested the U.S. and the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in Brussels to tone down the rhetoric.
In a phone call to his Ukrainian counterpart in late January, U.S. President Joseph Biden warned of a Russian invasion in February. According to Ukrainian officials the telephonic conversation “did not go well”. They told the media that Zelensky told Biden that the threat from Russia “remains dangerous but ambiguous” and that it was not certain that an attack from across the border was going to take place at all. Zelensky then told the media that he had urged NATO heads of state to stop spreading panic about an imminent war. He said that the top priority for the country was to stabilise its economy. “They are saying tomorrow is the war. This means panic,” Zelensky said. He said that he had accepted an invitation from Russian President Vladimir Putin for talks. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also dismissed the West’s talk of an imminent Russian invasion. “The number of Russian troops massed on the border is insufficient for a full-scale offensive along the entire Ukrainian border,” he said. “We can say a hundred times a day that an invasion is imminent, but this does not change the situation on the ground.”
Putin himself ruled out the possibility of an invasion late last year after the military exercises had started. During a special United Nations Security Council meeting called at the request of the U.S. on January 31, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia denied that Russia was planning an invasion. He said that the Americans were the provocateurs “whipping up tensions and provoking escalation”. He said that Washington was waiting eagerly for the invasion to become a reality. Nebenzia told the Security Council that the U.S. had fabricated a crisis to drive a wedge between Russia and Ukraine. He said that the U.S. was behind the regime change in 2014 that removed an elected government and replaced it with a government comprising “nationalists, radicals, Russophobes and pure Nazis”.
Since the beginning of the year, the U.S. and some of its staunchest allies have been pouring into Ukraine tonnes of weapons, including 300 sophisticated Javelin anti-tank missiles, each costing over $600,000. At the same time, Biden has made it amply clear that U.S. troops will not be fighting in Ukraine. Local troops will have to do the actual fighting and dying for what has become an American cause. Kristina A. Kvien, the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, warned Russia that Ukrainian troops were ready to meet any challenge as they were now well equipped. “The losses to Russia will be heavy,” she said.
And to further raise tensions and give the impression that a Russian invasion was imminent, the U.S., the U.K. and some European countries ordered their embassy staff and nationals to leave Ukraine in the third week of January. Biden, whose popularity is waning by the day, wants to use the Ukraine crisis to bolster his and his party’s standing before the midterm elections in November. Similarly, beleaguered British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has used the crisis to divert attention from the various scandals he is embroiled in. The British intelligence services even claimed to have unearthed a plot hatched in Moscow to stage a coup in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and replace Zelensky with a Kremlin-friendly politician named Yevgen Murayev. The implausible story unravelled quickly as the politician in question totally debunked it. Even the U.S. did not take the British government’s allegations seriously. The Russian Foreign Ministry urged the U.K. “to stop spreading nonsense”.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and its allies are dispatching more troops and weapons to NATO member states bordering Russia, such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Estonia is less than 400 kilometres away from St. Petersburg. Russia, as well as most of the international community, refuses to buy the U.S.’ argument that NATO is a “defensive” military grouping.
Even as tensions were building along the Russia-Ukraine border, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanded that Russia’s immediate neighbours such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia be inducted into NATO despite Russia indicating that that action was “a red line” that it would not allow to be crossed. Russia had issued a written request for guarantees that Ukraine would not be invited to join NATO. France and Germany had informally vetoed the induction of Ukraine into NATO when the U.S. first proposed it. There is no indication that the two powerhouses in European politics have had a change of mind.
Before the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics decided to disband and end the Cold War, Mikhail Gorbachev had received a verbal assurance from President George H.W. Bush that NATO would not expand and would eventually be disbanded. President Bill Clinton, who succeeded Bush, initially seemed inclined to stop the further expansion of NATO. In a speech delivered at the NATO summit in 1994, Clinton talked about the risks involved in expanding the military grouping eastwards up to the Russian border. He said that the Atlantic alliance “cannot afford to draw a new line between the East and West that would create a self-fulfilling prophecy of future confrontation”. But the U.S.’ security establishment had the final say.
Moscow is now determined to stop any further encroachment on its periphery by the West. Russian officials have said that if the U.S. goes ahead with the expansion of NATO, then Russia may have no other option left but to revive its military alliance with Cuba and strengthen strategic ties with Venezuela.
The U.S. Secretary of State said that there was no question of Washington and NATO changing their stance on the issue. “We make it clear that there are core principles that we are committed to defend and uphold, including Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the rights of states to choose their own security arrangements and alliances,” Blinken said. After his statement, the U.S. announced that it was planning to dispatch an additional 50,000 troops to the NATO member-countries bordering Russia and Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that if the choice was left to Russia, then there would be no war. “We do not want war. But we will not allow our interests to be grossly violated or ignored.” Addressing Russian parliamentarians, Lavrov said that despite NATO’s provocative moves along the country’s border and the open encouragement given to the Ukrainian government to stage direct provocations against Russia, the U.S. wanted Russia to stop the military exercises it was conducting within its own territory. He characterised this demand as “particularly cynical”. Most observers and analysts believe that the Russian troop mobilisation was basically done to deter the rearmed Ukrainian army from launching an offensive to reclaim the Donbas region from pro-Moscow Ukrainian forces.
Lavrov’s warning came after the U.S. threatened to impose punitive sanctions on Russia, including the closure of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will supply gas to Germany. He said that if the West blocked complete access to its financial and banking structures that would be equivalent “to the breaking of diplomatic relations”. If this happens, the Kremlin will then have no option but to take retaliatory measures. The measures Moscow took would be “based on the proposals that our military command proposes”, he said. Russia has also mobilised its Navy, specifically its North Sea Fleet, Baltic Sea Fleet, Black Sea Fleet and Pacific Fleet.
The Biden administration is planning to impose on Russia the kind of draconian sanctions it has imposed on countries such as Iran. Lavrov said: “We are working to reduce our dependence on the dollar, and the Americans are actively helping us, as they are doing virtually everything to undermine confidence in this currency and make it risky for transaction, not only for Russia but for every country.” Russia is planning to bypass the dollar by making payments in the national currency. Lavrov said that Russia’s closest allies such as China, Cuba and Venezuela were also being selectively subjected to sanctions, intelligence provocations and media disinformation.
Chinese support to Russia
The Chinese government has come out in full support of Russia on the issue of Ukraine’s NATO membership. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Blinken during a virtual meet at the end of January that all sides should “remain calm” and “not hype the crisis” in Ukraine. Wang said that both sides should “fully consider each other’s security concerns” and that Russia’s “reasonable security concerns should be taken seriously and resolved”. He told Blinken that European security could not be guaranteed by “strengthening or even expanding military blocs”.
During an online conversation with Putin in mid December, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for greater efforts to safeguard the security interests of both countries as “certain international forces” are “trampling on international law” under the guise of safeguarding human rights. The crisis in Ukraine has brought the two countries even closer. China is no longer hedging its bets and has now come out fully in support of Russia. China had not formally expressed support for the reinduction of the Crimean Peninsula into Russia nor had it backed Russian support for the separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine. However, China had criticised the so-called “Maidan revolution” of 2014 backed by the West, which led to the installation of a right-wing anti-Russian regime in Ukraine. China views the U.S. troop deployment against Russia as being similar to the military tactics the U.S. has adopted in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.
Germany and France are not blindly following the U.S.’ diktats on Ukraine. Both countries have been votaries of strategic autonomy for the European Union. Germany especially is dependent on energy supplies from Russia. The Social Democrats, who are now leading the three-party “traffic light” ruling coalition in Berlin, are historically close to Moscow. German big business is also against a rupture in bilateral ties with Russia. The Germans have not taken kindly to the unilateral warning from Biden that Nord Stream 2 will be the first casualty if war breaks out in Ukraine. Germany has refused to send arms to Ukraine, unlike most of its NATO partners.
Germany’s naval chief, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schonbach, had to give in his resignation because of a speech he delivered at the Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses during his visit to New Delhi in January. Among the points he made, the most controversial in the eyes of the NATO establishment was that Putin “deserved respect” from the West and that Ukraine could “never again regain the Crimea”. He said that Russia was not interested in either taking over a strip of Ukrainian soil or for that matter waging a war. Schonbach said that it was “nonsense” to suggest that Russia wanted to incorporate Ukraine. “Putin is probably putting pressure because he knows that it splits the European Union,” he said.
Both Germany and France have warned that there will be serious consequences for Russia if it invades Ukraine. At the same time, French President Emanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, the new German Chancellor, have said that the two countries are united in their efforts to find ways to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine. “We will never give up on dialogue with Moscow,” Macron said after a meeting with Scholz in late January. He has since spoken twice with Putin within a span of four days. The Kremlin said that the two leaders had discussed Ukraine and Russia’s demand for a “security guarantees” that would provide a legally binding stop to NATO’s expansion towards the Russian border.
Both Germany and France have expressed concerns about the additional sanctions the U.S. has imposed on Russia. France has called for a European solution to the crisis. Instead of relying on the U.S., representatives of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine met in Paris in January 26 under the Normandy format to find a solution to the crisis and have promised to meet again in Berlin in February.