The world is suspended in an extraordinary moment of geopolitical limbo, on edge for a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine amid conflicting signals in Moscow, confusion in Kyiv and dire warnings from Washington.
Already extreme tensions rose even further as one of the most dangerous moments in Europe since World War II stretches nerves and leaves everyone – apart perhaps from President Vladimir Putin – wondering what is next.
On Monday, there were signs of a possible last-minute openness to a diplomatic off-ramp in the Kremlin, but the spectacle of an estimated 130,000 troops on high alert outside Ukraine’s borders suggested a feint as much as a blink by Putin. And Russia announced Tuesday that some of its troops would return to their bases after completing recent drills, but stressed that major military exercises would continue. It was not immediately clear how many troops were involved, following weeks of military buildups. Still, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said signs from Moscow showed that “diplomacy should continue.” He added: “This gives grounds for cautious optimism. But so far, we have not seen any sign of de-escalation on the ground.”
Tuesday’s developments saw confusion reigning – not for the first time – in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, as President Volodymyr Zelensky, a young leader facing the highest stakes, sarcastically dismissed Western projections of a possible Russian invasion on February 16. And in contrast with the foreboding signs elsewhere, couples flocked to Kyiv’s bars and restaurants to celebrate Valentine’s Day despite the looming threat of war.
In Washington, the mood music grew even darker. While believing that Putin hasn’t finally made up his mind, multiple officials suggested Russia could move against Ukraine at any moment. And one source familiar with the matter predicted an invasion was more likely this week than not – and said Moscow could maintain its current force posture for quite some time even if it doesn’t cross the border.
There is a palpable sense that Russia and the West have reached a historic fork in the road. Down one route lies a return to the confrontation and tensions that prevailed for decades during the Cold War. Down the other might lie a diplomatic fudge that no key player seems able to frame given stark Russian demands.
A crisis America doesn’t need
At a moment when many Americans are facing rising prices for basic goods and gasoline and are exhausted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Ukraine crisis seems distant and esoteric. But a Russian invasion could force up energy prices even more and rock stock markets, on which many rely for their retirements.
The crisis is largely a creation of Putin and his personal and disputed version of history that holds that Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union until its breakup in 1991, should be part of greater Russia. It also stems from his deep resentment about how the Cold War ended and the admission of former Warsaw Pact nations, which had been aligned with Soviets, into NATO. In effect, Putin is holding Ukraine hostage with a demand for the withdrawal of those NATO forces from Eastern Europe – a concession that would contradict 70 years of the West’s doctrine that independent nations choose their own destinies.
If America’s long support for democracy and free-market capitalism is to mean anything in a new era when its power and example are being challenged by autocracies like China, it has no alternative but to stand up for Ukraine.
Waiting on Putin
In essence, the world was left wondering and worrying Monday what one man – Putin – will do next. There are plenty of reasons why the Russian leader may step back at the brink. An invasion might swiftly overcome Ukraine’s forces. But the country is bigger than Germany or France and an insurgency – perhaps supported by US weapons and funds – could be a disaster for Russia. The sight of Russian troops being killed could further hurt Putin’s declining popularity. But a burst of nationalism triggered by war abroad could boost his standing in a nation he rules with an iron fist.
And Putin is not shy about wielding military might for political advantage, for instance against separatists in the Russian republic of Chechnya and in his annexation of Crimea – in Ukraine – in 2014.
But some analysts believe that he has already achieved many of his objectives – effectively setting back any aspirations Ukraine may have of joining NATO in the future. He has inserted Russia, disdained by many leaders as a declining power, back into the spotlight and is welcoming a parade of foreign leaders and ministers to Moscow. On Tuesday, Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, will visit the vastly more experienced Putin in a test of his resolve stiffened by a White House visit last week.
The continuing diplomatic dance is a reason for hope that war could be avoided. But the fact that Putin has built such a massive force around Ukraine, in Russia, Belarus and in the Black Sea means that a decision not to invade may be seen as a loss of face. The former KGB officer, who was in East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell, also feels the humiliation of the Soviet collapse deeply. He seems to believe that NATO, a defensive alliance, is an offensive threat to Russia, one that may require him to build a buffer around Russian territory by invading Ukraine – which has borders with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania – all NATO members once behind the Iron Curtain.
The US will not send troops to Ukraine, because it’s not a NATO member. But if Putin invades, troops from the US and Russia, the world’s two top nuclear powers, could soon be in close proximity in Europe, with the alarming possibility of miscalculations.
Hope for diplomacy?
A day that saw glimmers of hope and ended with even more chilling warnings from the United States started in Moscow, where Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had what appeared to be a scripted on-camera event.
“I must say that there is always a chance,” Lavrov said, referring to the prospects for diplomacy. Putin had earlier asked Lavrov whether efforts to talk Russia down were “just an attempt to drag us into an endless negotiation process that has no logical resolution.” His comment was ironic since many in the West believe this is exactly Putin’s game and that talks are just a bluff until the moment is right to move on Ukraine. Still, the appearance could indicate Putin is finally seeking a diplomatic off-ramp, though NATO would never accept his demands to leave Eastern Europe.
“Signals today suggest that they may be looking at some last-minute diplomatic maneuvers,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut told CNN’s Becky Anderson in an interview. “I do think as Putin gets closer to pulling the trigger here, he is better understanding the costs.” Washington and its allies have threatened the most crippling sanctions ever on Russia’s economy if Putin invades.
Michael Bociurkiw, the former spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, also expressed tempered hope.
“It’s hard to know what to believe coming out of Mr. Lavrov’s mouth,” Bociurkiw said on “CNN Newsroom” but added that the airing of his encounter with Putin on Russian state TV was significant.
“To me, it indicated that they’re willing to hold off on a possible military solution to their Ukraine issue. There are more foreign ministers coming later in the week. … So that was their way of saying, ‘We’re open to more dialogue.’ “
Dark warnings from Washington
Still, if US sources are to be believed, the photo op in Moscow was all for show.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Putin “continues to add to” his “menu of options” with new land, sea and air forces. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the US had closed its Kyiv embassy “due to the dramatic acceleration in the buildup of Russian forces.” A source familiar with the matter told CNN’s Natasha Bertrand that a Russian attack on Ukraine is more likely this week than not, and if it doesn’t happen on that timetable it doesn’t mean that the threat has passed.
Senators emerging from a briefing with national security adviser Jake Sullivan were equally pessimistic. “This is a very dangerous situation,” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters. The committee’s chair, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, added: “The forces the Russians have massed, they could launch at any point. Nothing I heard today dissuaded me from that.”
Grim US rhetoric continued a trend of remarkably frank US and Western commentary on the situation based on declassified information, apparently designed both to increase pressure on Putin and to smoke out any attempt by Moscow to fake an incident as a ruse to justify an invasion.
But all along, there has been a gap between Washington and Kyiv on the possibility of an invasion. Zelensky sent shock waves all the way to the US on Monday when he named February 16 a day of national unity, while referencing foreign fears of an invasion. But when CNN asked Mykhailo Podoliak, a presidential adviser, how to take his comments, he replied: “Of course, with irony.” It seems an odd time for sarcasm. But Zelensky is a former comic actor and might feel justified in dark humor given the circumstances.
This story has been updated with additional developments and reaction.