Ukraine Update 21 February, 2022 (3 PM EST): Putin Lays His Cards Out

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.

Russian Demands For Talks On NATO Expansion Continue

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.

Royal Navy Challenges Russia’s Post-Crimean Annexation Territorial Waters

Russia has announced it is prepared to target and engage foreign warships found to be violating its territorial waters following yesterday’s encounter between a Royal Navy warship and Russian air and naval units in the Black Sea. HMS Defender, a Type 45 destroyer sailed close to Crimea’s Cape Fiolent, using an internationally accepted sea lane. Russia regarded the maneuver as a deliberate attempt to challenge Russia’s annexation of Crimea and responded predictably, claiming it fired warning shots and swiftly drove Defender away from the area it was sailing in. Britain denied this version of events and insisted its warship was sailing in Ukrainian waters. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson supported Defender’s voyage, stating earlier today that  “The important point is that we don’t recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, this is part of a sovereign Ukrainian territory.”

Despite the maneuvering of warships and slightly sharp rhetoric, neither side is looking to spark an armed confrontation. Moscow understands the purpose behind Defender’s maneuvering was to offer a symbolic challenge. London, on the other hand, clearly predicted the Russian reaction and subsequent warnings issued by Moscow. Each side went to bat and publicly tried to frame its actions in a positive light while simultaneously painting the other nation’s actions as overly aggressive. It has happened before, and this is simply another example of the discursive statesmanship which has become more prevalent in international politics over the last decade or so. By all indications, we will be seeing more cases of this in the future and likely stemming from similar encounters.

Biden Arrives In Europe

US President Joe Biden has arrived in Europe today, kicking off the first overseas trip of his presidency. Before leaving, the ever-so-eloquent chief executive told reporters the goals for his trip to Europe will be “strengthening the alliance, making it clear to Putin and to China that Europe and the United States are tight.” Upon his arrival in Great Britain, Biden addressed US airmen at RAF Mildenhall and spoke further on the intended purpose of his European trip. Specifically with regards to Russia and his scheduled meeting with Vladimir Putin on 16 June in Geneva.

Before Geneva comes the G7 summit in Cornwall, England which will take place this coming weekend. The stated goal of the Biden administration has been to use the summit as a launching point to mend relations with European allies and roll back the rhetoric and actions of the Trump presidency that allegedly placed undue pressure on the US relationship with Europe. Climate change, creating a unified front in the face of China’s growing influence around the world, and the coming withdrawal of US and European troops from Afghanistan. The Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline will almost certainly come up in discussions. The US remains opposed to the pipeline in spite of Germany’s support for it. There is concern in Washington that the heavy German involvement in Nord Stream 2 can be used by Russia to drive a wedge into NATO in the event of a future crisis.

Between the G7 summit and Geneva, Biden will spend some time in Brussels at NATO headquarters. China and Russia will be discussed in deeper detail there, and the president is expected to press America’s NATO partners to contribute more to the common defense. This is hardly a new request and it is one that Biden’s predecessor addressed effectively. It will be interesting to see how NATO reacts to the new president and his somewhat recycled concepts and notions about NATO’s role in the future.

Christmas Weekend Update: Brexit Deal & Iran

Merry Christmas! Well, a slightly belated Merry Christmas, but a sincere greeting nonetheless. 😊  I hope that all of you enjoyed the holiday. I know this has not been the most typical Holiday Season, but most of us are trying to do the best we can, given the present circumstances. The last week has been active on the international front. As we look forward to the final full week of 2020, some long running dramas are coming to a close while hints of what may loom on the horizon are starting to show.

Foremost is the Brexit finality. Negotiators from Great Britain and the European Union have agreed on a Brexit deal with less than a week remaining before the transition period ends. With a deal now in place the prospect of a messy, disruptive no-deal Brexit can now be laid to rest. The majority of outstanding issues between the UK and EU have been settled and compromises reached.

Now comes the point in time for all of the pundits and talking heads to find a new angle that satisfies their “Brexit is Bad” bylines. Some journalists have made a career out of predicting for the past four years how Brexit would never come about for a myriad of reasons. Instead of admitting the were wrong, eating crow and moving on to a new subject, they’re going to beat the dead Brexit horse for the time being. Oh well, no surprise there.

Iranian proxy groups in Iraq have been busy over the past ten days. Responsibility for the failed rocket attack on the US embassy in Baghdad was placed on Iranian shoulders by the Trump administration. Tehran has, naturally, denied playing a role in the attack. Despite its insistence, Iranian involvement is very likely. The Iranian government has been seeking a way to strike back at the US following a year in which Iran has not been able to respond effectively to US, Saudi, and Israeli actions in the region. There’s growing concern that the Iranians are preparing to conduct a fresh wave of attacks against US and Israeli targets. The one-year anniversary of Qassem Soleimani could be used as an occasion to begin these attacks.