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.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov promised today that Russia will take appropriate measures if the US and NATO response to its security demands are less than productive. “If we do not receive a constructive answer from the west on our security demands, Moscow will take appropriate measures,” Lavrov said in a statement. The US has said it will provide an official answer this week, though judging by the increasing tension in Europe, Washington appears to be deliberately dragging its feet. Russia’s demands center around two points; An end to NATO’s eastward expansion and a guarantee that Ukraine will never be offered membership in the alliance. Rolling back NATO influence in Eastern Europe and beyond has suddenly become the foundation of Russia’s foreign policy. The rapidly shifting position highlights the security dilemma Russia faces. Any action that is taken to increase its own security will invariably diminish the security of others and elicit a response. Moscow understands this, as well as the dangers that are attached to the security dilemma, which might explain the Russian government’s insistence on a point-by-point response to its security demands.
The United States has authorized its Baltic allies to send Stinger handheld surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine. Their arrival will not seriously deter Russia from using airpower in any future military action though. This move is largely symbolic in nature given the role that the Stinger played in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation there in the 1980s. No timetable was given for how long it will be until the Stingers arrive in Ukraine, but some sources within the militaries of the Baltic States have indicated several weeks will be required.
Just under 10,000 troops in the US are on alert for movement to Eastern Europe. Most of these are paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. On Monday, the division’s 3rd Brigade was ordered to prepare for possible deployment within 72 hours. Although much has been made about the growing possibility of a US troop movement to Europe, it needs to be stated that the US does already have military forces stationed across Europe and these forces will be utilized to reinforce NATO’s Eastern Flank too.
Predictably, Russia’s draft security proposal has not elicited a positive response from NATO governments. The terms embedded in the document include denying NATO membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet states, as well as reducing the amount of NATO troops and weapons presently deployed in Eastern Europe. The security proposal was crafted as a counterweight to NATO’s eastern expansion and the problems it has created for Russia’s own security dilemma. While NATO member-states discuss the proposal and consider the response, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said his country’s relations with the US and NATO have approached a “dangerous point,” and that the deployment of large numbers of NATO forces so near to the border raises “unacceptable risks” to Russian security. There has also been no formal response to Russia’s call for discussions with the United States and other NATO nations on its proposal. But NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said that any talks “would also need to address NATO’s concerns about Russia’s actions, be based on core principles and documents of European security, and take place in consultation with NATO’s European partners, such as Ukraine.”
Sources in the Biden administration are now speaking of a ‘four-week window’ to prevent Russia from launching large scale military action against Ukraine. Admittedly, some of these sources are privately admitting that efforts by the White House to deter Russia’s designs have not been successful. The flurry of diplomatic activity and threats of large-scale economic sanctions placed on Moscow were it to invade Ukraine, have been undermined by public admissions by the White House that no US troops will be deployed to Ukraine. Earlier this weekend, a similar public statement about British forces was made by British Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace. If anything, Vladimir Putin now has solid assurances that without the possibility of US and British forces being deployed to Ukraine, no other NATO member will dare intervene militarily should Russian forces cross the border in the coming days or weeks.