Even if a Russian invasion of Ukraine does not occur in the coming days, the crisis has reached a tipping point, with European stability and the future of East-West ties in jeopardy.
A confluence of events this week might determine whether the impasse is resolved amicably or if Europe goes to war. The post-Cold War security architecture of Europe, as well as long-agreed restrictions on the deployment of conventional military and nuclear weapons, are at danger.
“The next 10 days or so will be crucial,” said Ian Kelly, a former career diplomat and US ambassador to Georgia who now teaches international affairs at Northwestern University.
According to intelligence obtained by the US, an invasion might occur at any time, with a likely target date of Wednesday, and Washington was evacuating practically all of its diplomatic workers in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.
President Joe Biden’s phone discussion with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday accomplished nothing to defuse tensions. On Sunday, Biden and Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, chatted.
Analysts see this week as vital for Ukraine’s future even before the recent US threats and diplomatic initiatives.
“The clash of interests between Russia and the United States on the future structure of the European order is nearing a pinnacle,” Timofei Bordachev, chairman of the Center for European Research at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, stated. “The parties may conduct actions against each other that go well beyond what was previously thought permissible,” he said in a recent analysis.
After rejecting Moscow’s primary security requests, Washington and NATO are awaiting a formal response from Moscow this week, and massive Russian military drills in Belarus, which are part of a deployment near Ukraine, are set to halt. The fate of Russian forces now stationed in Belarus will be crucial in determining the Kremlin’s objectives.
At the same time, the Winter Olympics in China, which have been touted as a possible deterrent to urgent Russian action, are set to end on February 20. Despite the fact that US authorities fear an invasion may occur before then, the date is still significant.
Next weekend, Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and top European officials are expected to attend an important international security conference in Munich.
Putin has warned the West that he would not relent in his desire for Ukraine to be excluded from NATO. Despite Ukraine’s long-standing desire to join, the alliance is unlikely to extend an invitation.
Nonetheless, he believes that if Ukraine joins NATO and attempts to retake the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow took in 2014, it would provoke a confrontation between Russia and NATO.
Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, has requested Western countries to clarify how they understand the concept of “indivisibility of security” inscribed in international treaties. The Russian Foreign Ministry stated on Friday that a collective reaction from the European Union and NATO would be unacceptable, and that each country must respond individually.
To counter NATO’s claim that each country has the right to pick its allies, Moscow has alleged that NATO has broken the principle and put Russia’s security at risk by expanding eastward.
“Russia’s aggressive demands, and the United States’ equally forthright rejection of them, have pushed the world agenda toward conflict more than at any time since the Cold War’s peak,” Bordachev said.
He said that tighter ties with China had bolstered Moscow’s position. “Whatever aspirations Russia might have now, it can prepare its future in the event of a complete break with the West,” Bordachev added.
Russian officials have underlined that the United States is solely responsible for negotiating a settlement in Ukraine, and that Western allies just follow Washington’s orders.
Russia has previously attempted to establish tight relationships with France and Germany in the belief that cordial relations with Europe’s two largest economies would help counter US pressure. The poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2020, who spent five months in Germany recovering from what he said as a nerve agent assault blamed on the Kremlin, damaged such ties. Russia has denied any participation in the incident.
More recently, Russian officials have chastised France and Germany for their roles in the delayed peace talks in eastern Ukraine, accusing them of failing to persuade Ukrainian authorities to grant the Russia-backed separatist territory extensive autonomy, as needed under a 2015 accord.
Last October, the Russian Foreign Ministry broke diplomatic standards by publishing secret letters exchanged by Lavrov with his French and German counterparts in an attempt to demonstrate their inability to assist make progress in discussions.
Dmitry Kozak, a Kremlin official, decried the inability of French and German envoys to persuade Ukraine to commit to a conversation with rebels, as stated in the accord, following the last unsuccessful round of those negotiations.
Despite the difficulties with both Paris and Berlin, Putin met with French President Emmanuel Macron for more than five hours on Monday and will meet with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday. Putin expressed gratitude to Macron for his efforts to find a solution to the tensions, and the two agreed to meet again.
Moscow has also just reopened a window for diplomatic communication with the United Kingdom, hosting the foreign and defense ministers for the first round of discussions since former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned in the United Kingdom in 2018.
While Lavrov’s meeting with Liz Truss was tense, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace’s meetings with Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, were more businesslike, with both sides underlining the importance of maintaining frequent communication in order to minimise the risk of military accidents.