LVIV, UKRAINE – Ukraine’s Western allies warned last week of an “imminent” attack from Russia, and earlier this week that turned into an attack that remained a “distinct possibility”. But now a consensus is being formed that the Kremlin intends to keep NATO and Kiev in suspense and is preparing to continue with a strategy of armed blackmail for the foreseeable future.
The British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss warned on Thursday that Russia could very well extend its stay at Ukraine’s borders for months, test the West’s determination and Ukraine’s resilience, and with the aim of extracting security concessions and cooling the Western alliance.
She said there was no evidence of a withdrawal of Russian troops, despite claims by the Kremlin in other ways.
“We must not be lulled into a false sense of security by Russia claiming that some troops are returning to their barracks, while the Russian military build-up does not in fact show any signs of slowing down,” she said. “There is currently no evidence that the Russians are withdrawing from border regions near Ukraine,” she added.
And the British Foreign Secretary warned: “We must not have any illusions that Russia could go into this much further in a cheeky ploy to devote weeks more – if not months – to undermining Ukraine and challenging Western unity. This is a test of our ability. “
Her assessment reflects what Ukrainian officials have long argued – namely that the Kremlin has many options for hybrid warfare and will prolong the crisis by using various tactics to stimulate and intimidate. They have repeatedly said that Putin’s strategy is more about trying to erode the Western world rather than playing with an invasion of Ukraine that would likely ruin Russia in a long and bloody war against insurgency.
Ukraine: What we know
And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his aides have been much more careful about predicting an invasion or offering a date for it. Earlier this week, the Ukrainian leader appeared to be joking about Western warnings about a fixed date for a Russian attack – 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 that it has planned to invade Ukraine and has accused Western leaders of whipping up “hysteria”. Kremlin-controlled media have told their domestic Russian audience that NATO has incited alarmism and Kremlin officials have mocked predictions of an invasion.
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, wrote on social media on Wednesday “I would like to ask about US and British sources of disinformation … could publish the schedule of our upcoming invasions for the year. I would like to plan my holiday.”
A former British intelligence chief, John Sawers, told the BBC earlier this week that he believed the chances of an invasion “were never as great as those portrayed by some Western governments.” He added: “I do not think President Putin ever decided to invade the country and I actually think it would always have been a very risky path for him to have taken.”
Apart from the fear of invasion, NATO allies are not taking any chances and are preparing to move more tanks and fighter jets towards Eastern Europe, in order to strengthen the confidence of the Alliance’s Central European and Baltic members. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday “we are prepared for the worst.”
Ukraine’s Western allies are also determined to step up their cyber defense following a massive mid-week cyber attack on denial of service that Ukrainians blame on Russia, targeting the Defense Ministry’s web portal. The cyber attack also affected Ukraine’s largest private bank, and another state-owned and energy infrastructure.
Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister, said the attack, which took place on Tuesday, was “unparalleled” and designed to “cause panic, to do everything in its power to create a certain chaos in our country”. The Kremlin has denied any responsibility for the cyberattack.
Electronic warfare experts from the United States and Britain are tasked with helping Ukraine build more cyber-resilience and discovering vulnerable access points in key systems and identifying if any disruptive malware has been planted, Western officials say.
With the crisis prolonging, in the midst of a Russian demand that NATO publicly guarantee that Ukraine will never join the alliance as a member, there are signs that a split is emerging among Western allies over what concessions to offer the Kremlin in an attempt to end the crisis.
Russia has demanded that Ukraine never join NATO. And the Kremlin wants all NATO military presence removed from the former communist countries of Central Europe, once members of the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact and now members of the Western Alliance.
The leaders of France and Germany, Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, who have commuted between Moscow and Kiev, are pressuring Ukraine to announce that they will relinquish their ambition to join NATO, Ukrainian officials have told VOA.
In a difficult moment on Monday during a joint press conference in Kiev, Scholz said that the issue of NATO membership for Ukraine “is practically not on the agenda.” But Zelenskiy suggested that Ukraine would still like to join NATO, although he admitted that it was nothing more than a “dream” at this stage.
Other alliance members, especially Ukraine’s closest neighbors, are opposed to formally closing the door on Ukraine joining NATO, fearing that doing so would encourage the Kremlin and undermine the alliance’s open door policies and establish the right of greater powers to dictate the foreign policy of smaller nations.
Macron and Scholz have also called on President Zelenskiy to agree to the implementation of a 6-year-old peace agreement 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 soldiers are currently stationed.
Known as the Minsk Agreements, mediated by France and Germany in 2015, the agreement is very unpopular in Ukraine and was agreed by Kiev at a time when it was losing the war in the East and had no choice but to sign.
Ukrainian politicians believe the agreements could be used by the Kremlin to dominate its neighbor and interfere further in its domestic policy. The agreement was intended to stop the fighting in the Donbas and proposed that the two Moscow-backed “breakaway republics” in the region be reintegrated into Ukraine but retain significant autonomy.
Last week, the President of Ukraine remarkably refrained from reaffirming his full commitment to the agreement during a joint press conference with Macron. On Wednesday, the Kyiv Independent news agency quoted the Ukrainian government and diplomatic sources as saying that both France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Olaf Scholz had tried to pressure Kiev to show progress in complying with the Minsk Accords.
Former Swedish diplomat Fredrik Löjdquist is worried that the crisis will be prolonged by the Kremlin. He already wrote on social media “The West has reacted to a game plan defined by Russia.” He fears Putin has achieved a great deal by maneuvering Western governments to discuss Europe’s security and “by renewing pressure on Kiev to make concessions to its sovereignty.”
But others argue that the Western powers, led by US President Joe Biden, have done a good job of countering Putin and devising a cohesive policy to hold back Russia while maintaining overall unity. Ian Bremmer, from Eurasia Group, a risk assessment company based in New York, credits Biden: “So far, Ukraine’s policy is right on target,” he says.