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.
The official US response to Russia’s security concerns and demands was hand-delivered to the Russian Foreign Ministry earlier today. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken insists the reply offers a “diplomatic path forward, should Russia choose it.” He was not clear on what direction the path would lead Russia, however, it was likely a reference to a path out of this crisis. There were no concessions made by Washington and the Russian government understood from the start there would be none. As I have mentioned many times in the past weeks, Russia needs a US refusal in order to move forward. Its laundry list of demands was crafted to appear unacceptable to the US. Now Vladimir Putin has a ripe justification accompany any future action against Ukraine or a former Warsaw Pact nation in Eastern Europe.
Now begins the waiting game. Russia has promised retaliation if its demands were not met. Geopolitical blackmail which has somehow gone either unnoticed or not taken seriously by Western diplomats and leaders. The ball is effectively in Vladimir Putin’s court and the world is waiting tensely to see what his response will be. And where it will fall.
The Kiev Express is ramping up as it becomes more evident to the West that Russia is poised to launch an invasion of Ukraine at any moment. Diplomats and other politicians from NATO countries continue to arrive in Ukraine for discussions with the Zelensky government, tours of Ukrainian defensive positions in the east and firm warnings to Vladimir Putin. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will be in Ukraine tomorrow before doubling back to Berlin for discussions with his German counterpart. Then on Friday, Blinken will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva. Friday’s meeting seems to be an eleventh-hour encounter that will be the last opportunity for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis. Blinken will feel Lavrov out to determine how much, if any, Russian interest there is in a diplomatic approach to deescalating the situation. Last week’s talks were aimed at finding that approach but ended in failure. Thus far, Russia has been insistent that a drawdown of its forces poised along the Ukrainian border needs to be tied to NATO accepting its security demands. The alliance has been insistent that it will do no such thing.
The White House has changed its language and tone regarding Ukraine and Russia. Earlier today, the White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters the US believes Russia is prepared to launch military operations against Ukraine at any time. An alarming statement given the more reserved public demeanor of the administration with regards to Ukraine and Russia recently. Last week, US officials raised concern about the possibility of a Russian operation to manufacture an incident which Moscow could use as a justification for military action. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan then stated that US intelligence was uncertain if Vladimir Putin had made a final decision on invading Ukraine. The new tone of voice from the White House this afternoon indicates the US intelligence assessment might’ve changed.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are now in Asia for discussions with their South Korean and Japanese opposites. US/South Korea military exercises are now underway in South Korea, and Pyongyang has resumed its cryptic rhetoric. The stage appears set for North Korea to conduct a weapons test to check the waters, so to speak, and to serve as a reminder to the US about what the future could hold if economic sanctions are not lifted. Ove the past 15 years or so, North Korea has traditionally conducted weapons tests and other types of provocative actions in the early days of new US and South Korean administrations. In light of the events mentioned above, and the fact that the Biden administration is only two months old, a weapons test by North Korea now would not come as a surprise.
On Monday, Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong released a rather cryptic statement. “We take this opportunity to warn the new U.S. administration trying hard to give off [gun] powder smell in our land. If it [the U.S.] wants to sleep in peace for the coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.” The statement is the first official North Korean reaction since Joe Biden took office. The Biden administration’s attempts to resume talks with North Korea have so far been unsuccessful. Pyongyang has been radio silent, so to speak. However, with senior US administration officials now in the region to discuss, among other topics, North Korea, Kim Jong Un might decide this is a convenient time to stage a weapons test. A move which will serve to inform the Biden administration that more work is needed before discussions between the two nations can pick up again.
China’s rhetoric has become noticeably sharper, and more bellicose in recent days as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continues his tour through Asia. The goal of Pompeo’s trip has been to build more support for containing China. Predictably, this has angered Beijing and represents another thorn in US-China relations, which have deteriorated considerably over the last 12 months. Now Taiwan is offering another outlet for China to vent its anger towards. On Tuesday, the Taiwanese Kuomintang Party (KMT) started applying pressure on the Taiwanese government to reestablish formal relations with the United States.
“The only way forward is for the mainland to fully prepare itself for war and to give Taiwan secessionist forces a decisive punishment at any time,” Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Chinese state-sponsored Global Times, wrote in Wednesday’s column. “As the secessionist forces’ arrogance continues to swell, the historical turning point is getting closer.”
While the Global Times is not a mouthpiece for the Chinese government, it is in alignment with its policies. So the column should not be taken lightly by Taipei, or Washington.
China has been relentless with the amount of military pressure it has applied against Taiwan lately. On a regular basis Chinese warplanes and other types of military aircraft have challenged Taiwan’s air defense identification zones. PLAN and PLAF aircraft approach Taiwanese airspace, forcing Taiwan to scramble fighters and intercept. China is hoping the frequent flights is having a negative effect on Taiwan’s military readiness, however, it is fair to surmise that they could be having the opposite effect.
Taiwan is hoping for a Trump reelection victory in November. The Trump administration’s criticism of China’s expansionism and human rights violations have proven to Taipei that it has a genuine friend in President Trump. A Biden victory, given his soft record on China, could encourage Beijing to strangle Taiwan economically, in preparation for a military move against the island at some point after.