Whatever hope there was attached to last night’s emergency meeting of the UN Security Council rapidly evaporated as the meeting went on. It was a typical security council meeting punctuated by uniform condemnation of Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government had requested the meeting yesterday after Russia announced its recognition of the Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic, the breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine that are controlled by pro-Russian separatists. It was a purely symbolic gesture though. Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council and holds veto power, guaranteeing no resolution aimed at condemnation of Russia’s actions has even a remote chance of seeing the light of day.
Europe is taking the lead on applying sanctions to Russia for its actions yesterday. Germany has cast aside its reluctance of past weeks and suspended the certification process of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline while Great Britain has targeted five Russian banks for its first round of sanctions. France has not yet taken action, however, the threat of “targeted sanctions” was introduced by Paris minus specifics. The French government has a good amount of egg on its face after working relentlessly to set up a summit between US and Russian leaders this past weekend, only to see it turn to dust following Russia’s recognition of the breakaway republics yesterday. Perhaps this slap to the face will teach French leadership a lesson about trusting Vladimir Putin.
Despite the recognition of the LPR and DPR’s independence, the fact remains that two-thirds of the territory in both breakaway republics is controlled by the Ukrainian military…albeit tacitly in some instances. Russian ‘peacekeeping forces’ are reportedly advancing towards Mariupol, a vital port that sits in Ukrainian controlled territory. There has been contact between government forces and separatists and/or Russian peacekeepers at the Novoazovsk border crossing east of Mariupol. The port city is important to both Ukraine and Russia for a variety of reasons. It’s certainly worth discussing a bit at length later on in the day.
US President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin spoke for an hour this morning. Although an administration official has said the discussion was “professional and substantive” the conversation has not changed the situation. “The two presidents agreed that our teams will stay engaged in the days ahead,” the official said. “Russia may decide to proceed with military action anyway. Indeed, that is a distinct possibility if it does the damage to Ukraine, European security and yes, Russia will be profound.” It has been accepted in Washington that military action is imminent at this point despite the threats of economic sanctions which have dominated Western responses in recent weeks. The main question remaining is: When will Russia move?
US officials have stated off the record that Wednesday is the most probable time for the commencement of hostilities. Personally, I’m in agreement. The exercises in Belarus and the Black Sea will both be reaching points where the it will be difficult for Western intelligence to determine if movements and actions are a part of the scripted exercises or the lead up to hostilities. Wednesday is not a given, either. An attack could be launched before then or after. In all likelihood, Putin’s original plan was probably not to attack after the Olympic games in Beijing ended. But given recent events, moving sooner will be beneficial. Russia’s strategic objectives have not changed, yet the fact NATO is now moving additional military forces into Eastern Europe gives him the incentive to start operations as soon as possible. Wednesday is most probable; however, it could come earlier in the week.
Today, the US State Department has ordered an additional reduction of personnel for the US Embassy in Kiev. With the threat of war looming, and US citizens having been warned to leave Ukraine immediately, this move was expected. A core team of diplomats and personnel (what was formerly called a skeleton staff) will remain in place at the embassy but it will not be enough to coordinate evacuation procedures for US citizens there after hostilities begin. The Pentagon has also ordered the withdrawal of 150 Florida National Guardsmen who have been in Ukraine since later 2021 as part of a training mission. Great Britain is also withdrawing its troops who have been training Ukrainian forces.
In the last 24-36 hours there has been increased military activity in Russia as well as a number of NATO member-states. The failure of Monday’s talks between the French and Russian presidents to deescalate the crisis has prompted Denmark and the United Kingdom to begin preparing forces for movement east. The alliance is also preparing to hold military exercises in close proximity to the frontiers of Belarus and Russia to demonstrate NATO resolve in the face of growing Russian troop numbers. Simultaneously, Russia continues its military buildup, moving more assets and troops into Crimea, Belarus and along the Ukrainian border. Military exercises in Belarus and on the Black Sea will also begin to get underway later this week.
Denmark is moving decisively even as her larger fellow NATO member-state to the south Germany dithers. The Danish military will increase the readiness of a combat battalion that is earmarked for NATO operations. Preparations are underway for the battalion of 800 troops to be ready for a deployment east within five days instead of the thirty days generally needed. Additionally, the Royal Danish Air Force will be moving a flight of F-16 fighters to Bornholm in the Baltic, should the situation call for it.
Great Britain will be moving more troops and equipment to Poland. 350 Royal Marines from 45 Commando have been diverted from exercises in Norway and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he’s prepared to go further. Deployments of RAF Typhoons to Romania and Bulgaria, as well as moving warships to the Black Sea are all being considered by London right now.
For Russia, the final pieces of its pre-hostilities military deployment puzzle could be coming into place. Considerable attention is being paid to the Black Sea where a trio of Russian Navy amphibious assault ships and a Kilo class conventionally-powered submarine were expected to pass through the Bosphorus this morning. They will join three other amphibs that entered the Black Sea for naval exercises according to the Russian Ministry of Defense. Their arrival is raising concerns from Ankara to NATO headquarters in Belgium as leaders, diplomats and military leaders attempt to decipher whether their presence is a sign that Russian military operations will begin soon.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke publicly about elements of the growing crisis in Europe for the first time in weeks. Using a press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as a soap box, Putin accused the United States and NATO of using Ukraine as a tool to contain Russia, as well as deliberately ignoring its security concerns. “NATO refers to the right of countries to choose freely, but you cannot strengthen someone’s security at the expense of others,” Putin remarked, and in the process explained in simple terms the core of Russia’s security dilemma. He then repeated his nation’s primary demand that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO.
On this first day of February, the procession of diplomats and European leaders looking to contribute their power and influence towards a peaceful resolution of the crisis continues through Ukraine. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived in Ukraine today. At a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Johnson advised Putin to ‘step back’ from what could be a military disaster for Russia and the world. He also warned that Britain will apply significant sanctions to Russia “the moment the first Russian toecap crosses further into Ukrainian territory.”
With the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics set for this coming Friday, the probability of Putin beginning a major military effort this week is low. As the games go on, Russia will use the next two weeks to build its case for military action and make the final preparations for the military operations set to come. Russia would be smart not to initiate hostilities against Ukraine during the Olympics and considering that Putin is obviously playing the long game here, such a move is not expected. Putin was in a similar position back in February of 2014. A Euromaidan raged in Ukraine, the Winter Olympics that year were going on in Sochi, on the Black Sea. As host of the games, Russia and Putin had to sit there and watch powerless as a friendly government fell. Yet the moment the games ended, Putin took action.
Circumstances today are considerably different, but the Russian leader won’t risk the diplomatic and public relations wrath that would almost definitely come from an attack on Ukraine during the Olympic games.
This morning’s meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York resembled a boxing match more than a gathering of diplomats. As soon as the meeting began, Russia’s ambassador Vasily Nebenzia objected to the meeting even being held. He labeled US accusations as unfounded and claimed the Russian government had addressed and refuted them already. US warnings of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine were dismissed as theatrics and fear-mongering. The US response was more measured. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield defended the need for a Security Council meeting after a series of private discussions on the Russian military buildup between US and Russian diplomats failed to make progress. Through the course of the meeting, Thomas-Greenfield and Nebenzia traded blows as they laid out the positions of their respective governments, yet there is no real prospect of formal action being taken by the UN Security Council since Russia holds veto power.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to have a telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin today, twenty-four hours before Johnson is set to visit Ukraine. Great Britain is defuse the current crisis through both diplomacy and deterrence. Defensive weapons are already being supplied to Ukraine and London has offered to increase the number of troops and aircraft it already has deployed on NATO’s Eastern Flank. Concurrent to this offer, legislation is being prepared which will levy a wide range of economic sanctions on Russia should Moscow choose to launch an invasion of Ukraine. Johnson’s own political future remains in doubt as reports of the prime minister having thrown parties during the COVID-19 lockdown have led to a government investigation into those reports. The findings are set to be released on Tuesday.