Far from buying into claims the Ukraine showdown is easing, the United States is cranking up its relentless informational warfare campaign against Russia, keeping the world on high alert for a possible invasion of Ukraine.
The Biden administration – seeking to maintain pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin and to keep its allies united – is categorically rejecting what it sees as Moscow’s misinformation and is warning the threat is only becoming more urgent. A senior official said late Wednesday that Russia had massed another 7,000 troops on the Ukrainian border in recent days, despite the Kremlin’s claims that some forces had returned to base in remarks seen as an opening for diplomacy, and US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Thursday that the “evidence on the ground is that Russia is moving towards an imminent invasion.”
The senior official had warned on Wednesday, “Every indication we have now is they mean only to publicly offer to talk, and make claims about de-escalation, while privately mobilizing for war,” reiterating that Russia could fake an incident as a pretext to attack using what President Joe Biden said Tuesday was around 150,000 troops.
The new US claims represented the latest gambit in a highly unusual public relations campaign using declassified intelligence meant to remove the element of surprise from Putin and to deprive Moscow of the usual advantage it secures with its mastery of misinformation tactics.
Inside Washington, there are few who doubt government claims Putin is ready to invade at any time. But the intensity of US warnings over a period of weeks may soon raise the question of how long Biden can maintain the state of alert, and whether the continued lack of an invasion despite ever-more alarming warnings could open gaps between NATO allies – and between the US and Ukrainian governments. Such stresses would play directly into Putin’s long-term strategic goals.
Both the US and Russia, the world’s two greatest nuclear powers, say they are ready to negotiate, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will deliver remarks at the United Nations Security Council meeting Thursday morning.
But the two sides remain far apart on Putin’s demands to rip up existing security arrangements in Eastern Europe with the departure of NATO troops from former Warsaw Pact nations.
The US’ game is not without risk, since it might push Putin over the edge – especially if, as some US officials suspect, he’s increasingly prone to a bunker mentality and getting little outside advice and perspective from officials willing to challenge his views.
Waiting on Putin’s next move
By definition, in combat waged with propaganda and dueling information, it’s hard to know what is really going on.
At this point it’s impossible to judge whether the US is genuinely flushing out preparations for an invasion or whether it is taking Putin’s bait by exposing troop movements he is ordering in the knowledge that they’ll be highlighted by Washington, and therefore increase the sense of insecurity in Europe and anxiety over what he might do next.
The showdown over Ukraine has become the most serious geopolitical confrontation in Europe since the end of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.
The US will not send troops to Ukraine to directly fight Russians. But Biden has rushed forces to reinforce US NATO allies in Eastern Europe. Putin is effectively holding Ukraine, a sovereign, democratic nation, hostage to demand the western alliance pull back from ex-Soviet satellite states like Poland, Romania and Hungary. And if Russia does march into Ukraine, there could be painful consequences for Americans back home, with rising gas prices and energy prices adding to existing inflationary misery.
The new US warning about secret Russian maneuvers came amid quickening efforts to keep up Western pressure on Moscow. The White House announced that Vice President Kamala Harris will meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the Munich Security Conference this weekend. The forum, also due to be attended by leading European officials and US lawmakers, is turning into a rallying point for the US and its allies as the NATO alliance faces its most serious test since the fall of the Soviet Union.
“We are in a very decisive moment,” the senior US official said, previewing the most high-profile foreign policy mission for the vice president so far.
This week has seen some hope that the crisis could be easing after Russia announced some of its troops were moving away from the border. But Blinken instead Wednesday told ABC News there had been no “meaningful pullback” and that Putin could “pull the trigger” at any time.
“He could pull it today. He could pull it tomorrow. He could pull it next week,” Blinken said.
Putin plays the long game
But in a fresh sign of discord between the US and Ukraine itself, an intelligence report in Kyiv shown to CNN insisted that the current Russian troop build-up is not enough for a “successful large-scale armed aggression against Ukraine.”
The differing assessments played into the uncertainty and confusion that characteristic of Putin’s Machiavellian methods. The Russian leader has observers split between those who believe he is merely seeking to destabilize the government in Ukraine, assert Russian power and assail the Western alliance and those convinced an invasion that could spell a dangerous new era in Europe is imminent.
Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday that the Russian leader’s intentions were almost certainly nefarious.
“I think they are running a disinformation campaign,” McCaul said.
The daunting truth is that while there will be questions of troop readiness, Putin can keep the campaign of pressure up almost indefinitely. In doing so, he could show Ukraine he will never allow it to join the European Union or NATO, dig divisions among Western allies and make a point that Russia must never be ignored again when it comes to security arrangements on the European continent.
The crisis has also fulfilled another goal – as a stream of leaders and diplomats has traveled to Moscow and Putin has spoken frequently to Biden, restoring Russia’s image as a great power, following years in which the US minimized its threat and built its foreign policy around confronting China.
Even if he doesn’t invade, the Russian President has the capacity to turn up the heat any time he feels Russia is not being respected. And days and weeks of prolonging the showdown could discredit US claims an invasion is imminent, weaken Western resolve and restore to Russia its element of surprise. In a long-term showdown, Russia would have the advantage because it cares far more about the fate of Ukraine, a former Soviet federated state, than the West does.
While this confrontation lacks the breadth and intensity of the Cold War, when Europe was divided by an Iron Curtain into free nations protected by the US and communist states dominated by Moscow, a geopolitical shift does seem to be taking shape with the possibility for another ossified confrontation.
Putin has been in power for more than 20 years, outlasted multiple US presidents and doesn’t play by the four-year clock between elections that dominates American politics. He is also willing to subject the Russian people – who have endured a grueling history – to more pain than a US President worried about reelection would countenance for theirs. It’s one reason why some experts believe he may be willing to risk the withering sanctions that would be triggered by an invasion.
‘The new normal’
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who will also meet Harris in Munich, fueled perceptions of more contentious era dawning in Eastern Europe that mirrored old Cold War divides.
“I regret to say this is the new normal in Europe,” Stoltenberg said in Brussels.
“We do not know what will happen in Ukraine. But the situation has already demonstrated we face a crisis in European security. Moscow has made it clear that it is prepared to contest the fundamental principles that have underpinned our security for decades and do so by using force,” he added.
The fact that the West will gather in Munich to steel itself for new confrontations is ironic since it was at the conference 15 years ago that Putin launched a savage attack on the US and the post-Cold War order that in retrospect was a playbook for his tactics culminating in the Ukraine crisis.
The Russian leader bemoaned an era of “unipolar” American power at a time when the US was fighting wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also lashed out at NATO expansion to include ex-Soviet satellite nations – the underlying cause of his belief that the West is threatening Russia and that he must prevent Ukraine from falling further under its influence.
“We have the right to ask: Against whom is this expansion intended?” he said, while hinting at a campaign of “many years and decades, as well as several generations of politicians” that would redress the balance.
For those who recall his Munich tirade, none of Putin’s hard, hostile turn against the United States, his incursion into Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, interventions in US elections and current thuggery toward Ukraine are a surprise.
Washington might think it won the Cold War 30 years ago. But recent weeks show the Russian leader is still waging something very much like it, because it is a way to demand respect for his country’s power, status and goals.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to more precisely describe the political relationship between Poland, Romania and Hungary to the Soviet Union.