Vladimir Putin has announced his intention to formally recognize the independence of Donetsk & Luhansk, the breakaway areas of eastern Ukraine now controlled by pro-Russian separatists. In an address this afternoon, Putin did not discuss the Luhansk People’s Republic/Donetsk People’s Republic at length. Instead, he took the opportunity to lay the groundwork to justify a Russian invasion of Ukraine, most likely in the coming days. The speech was peppered with historical grievances and explanations of why Ukraine is not a sovereign nation-state.
Putin’s speech is still being digested at this hour, but the statement released by the Kremlin on recognizing independence of the self-declared republics in eastern Ukraine elicited a swift response from European leaders. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed such a move will “plainly be in breach of international law.” Germany and France have also condemned Putin’s apparent intentions.
There is much happening across Europe, Ukraine and Russia right now and I was caught in transit when all of these events started to happen. I’ll post a more thorough update between 5 and 6 PM Eastern Standard Time.
Diplomacy may be afforded one final opportunity to prevent war from erupting in Ukraine. US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed in principle to meet for a summit meeting to discuss the ‘security and stability’ of Europe. Biden added that he will attend only if an invasion has not happened. The office of French President Emanuel Macron was swift to take credit for the summit idea as well as getting both the US and Russian leaders to agree. Macron has been attempting to shoehorn his way onto centerstage and keep France in the diplomatic limelight for weeks now. It serves his purposes to take credit for brokering a summit and helping to bring about an eleventh-hour peaceful solution to the crisis. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will discuss the summit when they meet on 24 February.
At this point in the crisis, open source intelligence ‘experts’ are tripping over themselves in an attempt to correctly identify from satellite photographs the extent of military deployments near the Ukrainian border. Their ‘analysis’ has flip-flopped severely in recent days. If anything, this crisis is highlighting the limits of OSINT analysts and pointing out their limited value in a fluid, fast-moving situation like this crisis. I realize this is not the first time I’ve broached the topic, yet I felt it was appropriate to mention this evening. It will likely be the last time I mention the OSINT sources who seem to be more interested in picking up followers on social media then they do with providing useful conclusions to the data.
Accusations were made by the United States yesterday that Russia is preparing to stage an fabricated attack to use as a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine. Over the last twenty-four hours the news cycle has taken the story and run with it. Washington’s warning certainly stems from accurate intelligence data. Russian intelligence and military leaders would be foolish to not be planning a ‘false flag’ action right now to use as justification for a largescale military operation. Now that this plan has been exposed for the world to see, the US expects Vladimir Putin to not use it. Yet in all probability, Putin will likely push forward anyhow since the target audience for a staged attack will be domestic. To say there is an amount of bad blood between Ukrainians and Russians would be an understatement. There is already a high level of distrust and animosity between the two groups, heightened even more by the War in Donbass. Putin would be a fool not to attempt and exploit the divide even more. This will be the reason for a fabricated attack against Russian citizens in either eastern Ukraine or Russia.
French President Emmanuel Macron will be traveling to Moscow on Monday to discuss the crisis in Ukraine with Russian President Vladimir Putin. On the return trip, Macron will land in Kiev to hold talks with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The French leader has been supporting diplomatic efforts to bring the crisis to an end, even though France is currently deploying troops to Romania. There have been a series of phone calls between Macron and Putin over the past week and expectations are rising in Paris over the opportunity to bring the crisis to an end. The optimism negates the stark reality that even the prospect of diplomatic concessions has failed to sway Russia off its current path.
The fact Russia is serious about Ukraine appears to finally be kicking in for NATO, the EU and Western governments. Whether this will end up being a matter of ‘too little, too late’ remains to be seen. But for the moment, there are at least some decisions being made in Western capitals which will lead to prudent action in the near future. The Western media is also coming around to the idea that all of this might very well be real. The media is almost always at least 48 hours behind events though, and we’re seeing that in their reporting today.
-Wall Street is responding negatively to the worsening situation in Europe. The Dow Jones Industrial Average cratered this morning, dropping more than 1,000 points. The immediate reason for the drop was news that President Biden will be holding a video call with European leaders this afternoon to discuss Ukraine and Russia’s growing military buildup. There are other factors contributing to the Dow’s slide into correction territory, however, the realization that the Ukraine crisis is worsening appears to be the catalyst.
-The US is moving ahead with plans to withdraw dependents of embassy staff from Ukraine starting this week. The plan was announced on Friday but did not garner much media coverage until the official authorization was given. Apparently, the US State Department has also decided to remove non-essential staff from the Kiev embassy as well. Great Britain has also announced the planned withdrawal of family members of diplomats and other embassy staff. London has also indicated it will be reducing its embassy staff in Kiev along lines similar to what the US is doing with its people. The European Union, on the other hand, will not evacuate its diplomats from Ukraine for the moment.
-NATO is starting to reinforce its Eastern Flank, albeit in limited fashion. A number of alliance members have pledged to deploy additional fighter aircraft and warships to the region in the near future. Denmark is sending four F-16s to bolster the Baltic Air Policing mission in Lithuania as well as a frigate to the eastern Baltic Sea. The Netherlands has pledged two F-35s for Bulgarian air policing duties, yet they will not arrive until April. Spain, we discussed last week, has committed two warships and possibly fighter aircraft to Bulgaria. France has revealed it is open to deploying ground troops to Romania and Bulgaria under NATO command. The United States is considering reinforcing its own forces in Europe but no further details have yet been made available.
Vladimir Putin is putting the squeeze on NATO and Western leaders for immediate negotiations to halt NATO expansion and put in place security agreements that will limit the amount of NATO forces in states neighboring Russia. He began the week by holding telephone discussions with French and British leaders on the matter. Today, he broached the subject with the president of Finland. Putin has received little more than guarantees to continue such discussions in the future yet the Western powers are moving slower than he would like. Understandably so. With the buildup of Russian forces near its border with Ukraine continuing, NATO refuses to be strongarmed into security discussions with Russia. Agreeing to such talks will only undermine NATO’s position even more, forcing it to negotiate from a weak position.
Russia has hinted it may be compelled to respond militarily and deploy tactical nuclear weapons if NATO’s eastern expansion does not end. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov made the threat as Putin’s demands for talks have not received a positive response. “A lack of progress towards a political-diplomatic solution would mean that our response will be military and military-technical,” Ryabkov said, laying out the position of his government with alarming clarity: If NATO expansion cannot be curbed by diplomacy, Russia will resort to military force to halt it.
Meanwhile, in the Black Sea on Tuesday tensions continue to rise. Russia is monitoring the movement of a French warship in close proximity to its territorial waters. Last week, Russian aircraft were scrambled to intercept US and French military aircraft over the Black Sea. NATO’s consistent naval and air presence in the region has been a thorn in the side of Russia for some time. Putin has accused the United States and Russia of provoking tensions in the Black Sea since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.