Putin Masses Troops to Tell NATO to Stay Out of Ukraine
(Bloomberg) -- Vladimir Putin has a message for the U.S. and its allies: Moscow won’t tolerate creeping expansion by their armed forces into Ukraine.
That’s what he’s told German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other western officials who’ve called in recent days to warn him about what they say is a new accumulation of tanks and troops near the border with his neighbor that has Washington and some other capitals worried that the Russian president could be planning a repeat of the 2014 invasion.
In Moscow, senior officials and others close to the leadership say the Kremlin aims to make clear that any further western steps to provide weapons or expand military facilities in Ukraine would cross Russia’s red line.
Putin accused NATO last month of threatening Russia with a military expansion into Ukraine. On Saturday, the Russian leader said the U.S. and NATO are waging a pressure campaign against him with naval drills in the Black Sea and support for drone strikes in the Ukraine conflict zone.
“It seems that we are simply not allowed to relax,” Putin said in an interview on state television. “Well, let them know that we are not relaxing.”
The high-stakes brinkmanship over Ukraine comes as the Kremlin has clashed with Europe over energy supplies and migrants trying to enter the EU from its ally Belarus. The moves reflect a deep conviction in Moscow that the declining power of a U.S. riven by domestic division and the imminent exit of Merkel, once Europe’s dominant voice, limits the potential for a coordinated western pushback, according to the people close to the Russian leadership.
“It’s a great concern,” U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters Friday night, in response to a question about the situation at the Belarus border. “We communicated our concerns to Russia. We communicated our concerns to Belarus. It’s a problem.”
Russia doesn’t intend to start hostilities with Ukraine now but wants to show it’s ready to use force if necessary, the people said. For Putin, the prospect of North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces on Ukrainian soil is a nightmare scenario that he’ll do anything to stop, a person close to the Russian leadership said. Recent U.S. rhetoric on the issue and Ukraine’s use of a Turkish-made drone have added to the sense of alarm.
“Russia will apply pressure where it can,” said Andrey Kortunov, head of the Kremlin-founded Russian International Affairs Council. “There’s real concern about NATO’s activities in Ukraine. This is a preventive measure.”
Russia last conducted a major buildup near Ukraine in the spring, drawing warnings from the West. The Kremlin announced a pullback after Biden called Putin and agreed to a summit meeting, which took place in June.
This time, the U.S. has warned its European partners about the risk of a new military operation, though the number of troops so far appears to be well below the roughly 100,000 involved in the spring. The latest U.S. assessment is based on publicly-available evidence, according to officials familiar with the administration’s thinking. Some European governments aren’t as sure that an invasion is an imminent threat, however, and see Moscow’s primary goal as intimidation, European officials said.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Friday he plans to speak to Putin in the coming days on the Ukraine crisis. France’s foreign and defense ministers told their Russian counterparts in a meeting in Paris earlier Friday that any new attack on Ukraine would have “serious consequences,” according to a statement.
After seven years of steadily increasing western sanctions and with financial reserves at record highs, the Kremlin so far has shown it can withstand all but the most severe penalties the West could dish out, according to people close to the leadership. A years-long crackdown on opponents has eradicated any political threats at home.
Spokesman Dmitry Peskov Friday dismissed reports of U.S. concerns about a planned invasion as “empty and unfounded efforts to exacerbate tensions,” repeating earlier statements that troop movements on its own territory are an internal matter.
“The presence of Russian troops near the border allows us to offset the risks,” said Svetlana Zhurova, deputy chairwoman of the International Affairs Committee in the lower house of parliament. “It’s a deterrent.”
A senior western intelligence official said Friday that Russia’s intentions remain unclear, but with the forces close enough to the border to be used quickly and Moscow’s history of military action against its neighbors, the U.S. and its allies must consider all possibilities.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. remains concerned about the troop buildup. “I can’t speak to Russia’s intentions. We don’t know what they are,” he said Friday. “It would be a serious mistake for Russia to engage in a repeat of what it did in 2014.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “We call for an immediate restoration of the July 2020 ceasefire and we stand with our partner Ukraine and condemn Russian aggression against Ukraine in all forms.”
While Ukraine isn’t a NATO member and there are no alliance troops permanently based there, officials in Moscow cite what they see as a string of recent worrisome signs of closer military links between U.S. and its allies and the former Soviet republic.
On a visit to Kyiv Oct. 19, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said “no third country has a veto over NATO’s membership decisions.” Later last month, Ukraine used a drone made by NATO member Turkey for the first time to attack a Russian-backed separatist howitzer in response to a strike that killed one soldier and wounded another one.
This week, Russian officials have complained of what they say are stepped-up operations by western warships in the Black Sea and reconnaissance aircraft along its borders.
“There is military escalation on both sides,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the Kremlin. “Russia is signaling that no matter how much Ukraine steps up its military potential, it can’t win this war.”
In contrast to the fairly open buildup in the spring, the recent Russian deployment is covert, often taking place at night and is by elite ground units, according to Janes defense-intelligence firm. Russia is continuing to move more tanks, self-propelled artillery, infantry-fighting vehicles and troops to areas close to Ukraine, London-based Janes said Friday.
Still, the risks for Russia of a large-scale military offensive would be immense, likely triggering punishing new economic sanctions and protracted fighting in Ukraine, officials and analysts in Moscow concede.
For now, Russia may be satisfied that it’s already got the Biden administration’s attention, said Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat who’s now a Moscow-based foreign policy analyst.
“Russia has redeployed forces in ways that would allow for quick military action,” he said. “There are still no signs of preparations for an immediate major offensive.”
According to Russian leader, the use of drones by Ukraine against separatist regions is a major violation of existing agreements and could be another move leading to escalation of military conflict.
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