Ukraine Update 22 February, 2022 (600PM EST)

This afternoon President Biden gave remarks at the White House, laying out the next phase of the US response to Russia’s recognition of the DPR and LPR. He called the recognition a clear violation of international law. After much confusion and hesitancy about how to label Russia’s actions in the last twenty-four hours, Biden declared them to be the start of an invasion and will be regarded in that manner. He repeated his oft used warning that Russia will face severe sanctions if its forces enter Ukrainian territory. The first wave of US sanctions has already been released and they mainly target a handful of Russian banks and financial institutions.

Biden also announced the movement of Europe-based US military forces into the Baltic States to bolster defenses in NATO’s easternmost member-states. An airborne infantry battalion from the 173rd Airborne Brigade based in Italy and AH-64 Apaches from Germany will deploy, as well as eight F-35A Lightning II fighters that are forward-deployed at Spangdahlem Airbase at the moment.

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Volodymyr Zelenskiy has ordered a call up of Ukrainian reservists but stopped short of a full mobilization. A move that expansive would require a declaration of martial law according to Ukrainian law. Operative level 1 and 2 (OR1, OR2) reservists only will be affected. But do not be fooled, OR1 and OR2 reservists still number at 150,000 men and women.

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The planned talks between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have been cancelled. The two senior diplomats were set to meet on Thursday, but the meeting was contingent upon Russia choosing to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis rather than an invasion.

Note: I’m going to try and spend some time tonight away from Ukraine and recharge my batteries. So, unless something major develops, this will be the last update for the day. Next one will be up tomorrow morning. –Mike

Ukraine Update: 17 February, 2022 (PM)

With the focus of the world locked directly on Ukraine for the last forty-eight hours, awaiting the start of a Russian invasion labeled ‘imminent’ unheeded warnings and frustrations are starting to appear. The United States is attempting to plug the dikes with fresh batches of information intermingled with predictions. Today it was President Biden’s turn to keep the heat maintained. He said indications continue to point towards a Russian invasion in the next few days and claims Russia is preparing a pretext to justify military action. Biden’s remarks came after Ukrainian forces and separatists exchanged fire in eastern Ukraine earlier Thursday. The Kremlin responded by accusing the US of ignoring Russia’s security concerns and threatened unspecified “military-technical measures.” The Russian Foreign Ministry followed up by expelling the US Deputy Chief of Mission from Moscow.

The latest fighting in eastern Ukraine is raising alarm bells, as it could very well be the first sign of Russia’s justification for military action starting to take form. Intent to offset a pretext or justification from gaining steam, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke at a UN Security Council meeting on Ukraine. He outlined a number of scenarios where Russia could construct to justify military action. Russia’s response was unusually sharp. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin distributed a letter to the Security Council accusing Ukrainian authorities of “exterminating” civilians in the east. This comes on the heels of Vladimir Putin’s comments earlier in the week about alleged genocide taking place in Donbass. Vershinin also called Blinken’s remarks ‘regrettable’ and repeated the Russian government’s claims that military units are beginning to withdraw from the border areas, something the US and other countries dispute.

Author’s Note: I’ve been out of the loop for much of the day and will try and post a second update this evening.

Latest North Korean Missile Test Raises Eyebrows

While much of the world’s attention is focused on Ukraine and Russia, North Korea has conducted a string of missile tests over the last month. The most recent test firing came yesterday, and was the nation’s most powerful test since 2017. It was an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) that reached an altitude of 2,000 kilometers before descending into the Sea of Japan. The tests this month have defied the UN ban on ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests by North Korea.

Sunday’s test was condemned by Japan, South Korea and the United States. Aside from words of condemnation and warning, however, there has been no concrete response from regional powers or from the US. South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in did remark that this round of missile tests is similar to 2017 when the North conducted nuclear tests and fired powerful missiles, some of which flew over Japan.

As for the reason behind these tests, there are a variety of opinions floating around. Some colleagues believe the tests are a signal to the world. A demonstration of North Korea’s military prowess to create a position of strength from which Pyongyang can use to its advantage. Then there is the timing of these tests. The Winter Olympics are set to start soon in Beijing and the South Korean presidential election is scheduled for March. Kim Jong Un might want to influence both, or at the very least remind the world North Korea is still there.

While I believe the reasons above are viable theories, conditions in North Korea are likely the main driving force behind the January surge of missile tests. The economy continues to struggle from a combination of factors; economic sanctions, COVID-19, and thirty-plus years of gross mismanagement on every level. These have combined to place the government in a precarious position. Kim Jong Un might be gambling that the US and other world powers realize the North is growing desperate and needs relief before the situation comes to a head. North Korea has employed this strategy before without success. Why Kim Jong Un would opt to try again is unclear.

Ukraine Update 24 January, 2022: Pieces of the Puzzle

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.

Tuesday’s Biden-Putin Phone Call Could Determine Ukraine’s Future

Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden are set to hold a video conference on Tuesday. With large numbers of Russian troops massing in close proximity to the Ukrainian border and US-Russian tensions ascending rapidly there’s an increasing feeling tomorrow’s talk between the two leaders might be the final chance for the US to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine in the near future. As discussed the other day, the core of this crisis is NATO’s eastern expansion, which Russia has long considered to be reckless. Putin will enter tomorrow’s digital summit looking for a guarantee from Biden that NATO will not expand into Ukraine. The former Soviet republic is the final straw, in Putin’s view. A failure by the US and NATO to respect Russia’s sphere of influence runs an inherent risk of unleashing a Russian offensive.

Moscow wants a written guarantee that NATO expansion will cease and is applying significant pressure to force Biden and other Western leaders to give in. Washington has made no indication that it would even consider such a move. Doing so would effectively leave Ukraine isolated and at the mercy of Russia.  Biden has warned of ‘serious consequences’ if Russia invades. These refer mainly to economic sanctions which would probably not be enough to deter Putin from moving. The present crisis is not centered on economic gain or loss, but on security and influence, namely Russia’s.

Putin is hoping Biden approaches Russia’s concerns in a sincere and competent manner. If this is the case, he believes progress will be made and the threat of a military offensive no longer necessary. Yet for Biden to reach an agreement on limiting further NATO expansion, he’d have to accept the severe consequences such a move would have for NATO and US influence and prestige in Europe and around the world.