With the Russian military deploying by land, sea, and air, in numbers not seen since the height of the Cold War, there is a growing sense that the Ukraine crisis is fast approaching tipping point. But as Foreign Editor David Pratt reports, the signs that war can be avoided are not good
We’ve been here before of course, but one still can’t help getting the feeling that the crisis over Ukraine is finally coming to a head. Just what that means exactly though remains anybody’s guess except perhaps for Russian President Vladimir Putin and those closest to him in the Kremlin and his country’s military.
Both on the ground and in the diplomatic corridors of power the signs that war can be avoided are anything but good. Since last Thursday, Russian troops began ten days of manoeuvres in Ukraine’s neighbour Belarus, adding another potential front on which Ukrainian forces would have to respond in the event of hostilities breaking out.
On its second day of exercises, the Russian military announced field training on land and in the air. Fighter jet crews practiced destroying approaching aircraft, and Russian motorised rifle units paired with Belarusian special operations forces to attack mock troop formations, the Russian Defence Ministry said.
Meanwhile in the Black Sea and Mediterranean, Russia was pulling together warships and submarines from across the world as part of the one of the largest displays of naval firepower since the Cold War.
Last week, a detachment of six Russian landing ships arrived at the Sevastopol port in Crimea. The ships typically are used for unloading troops, vehicles, and equipment. Some were used in Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008.
“We haven’t seen a movement like this in recent history,” in the Black Sea, said retired Admiral James Foggo, who commanded all US and NATO naval forces in Europe until retiring in 2020.
For its part, the Ukrainian government in Kyiv could only look on as the vast naval task force effectively blocked the country’s shipping lanes.
Last Thursday Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry protested the maritime closures, calling the notice of live-fire exercises just off Ukraine’s coast “unprecedented” as they make navigation in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov “virtually impossible.”
Ukraine’s seaports of Odesa, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Mariupol and Berdyansk, which could be disrupted by the Russian military exercises, are gateways for the vast grain exports from Ukraine’s black earth farming zone, along with coal, steel, and other commodities vital for the country’s economy.
Few places are more nervous of the naval blockade than the port city of Odesa on the Ukrainian Black Sea coast where many residents worry it could become a key target for Russian forces if war breaks out, and that parts of the population might even welcome a Russian invasion.
This after all is a city with a large ethnic Russian population and a place that erupted into communal violence back in 2014 when tensions in the region spilled over.
“Odesa is clove in two,” was how Boris Khersonsky, a well-known poet, psychology professor and intellectual, summed up the mood the other day in an interview with the Financial Times (FT), adding that there were many Odesa citizens who would “definitely welcome” the Russians.
Surrounded by Russian peacekeepers deployed to the north-west in the separatist Moldovan enclave of Transnistria, to the south-east meanwhile sits Crimea full of Russian arms, while to the south is the Russian Black Sea fleet.
“Odesa is highly vulnerable,” said Volodymyr Dubovyk, director of the centre for international studies at the city’s main university speaking also to the FT last week.
“The fear is that it could be targeted in an amphibious assault, possibly combined with paratrooper landings. It’s geographically very easy to invade.”
But if Moscow has yet to unleash its big guns on the battlefield, then the same cannot be said of the diplomatic front, where the force that is Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has already unleashed his own barrage of sorts these past few days.
Lavrov is a ‘no prisoners’ kind of diplomat. A story goes that when once annoyed by photographers who started shooting pictures as soon as he raised a hand to adjust his glasses at a news conference discussing the fight against the Islamic State group in 2015, the Russian minister mumbled “f***ing morons.”
Never one to shy away from using expletives, when told back in 2008 by then British foreign secretary David Miliband that Russia should engage with then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Lavrov reportedly replied: “Who are you to f***ing lecture me?”
A few days ago, it was his latest British counterpart Liz Truss who found herself in the role of Lavrov attack fodder.
Characteristically pulling no punches Lavrov dismissed his talks with the British foreign secretary as a conversation of a “mute person with a deaf person,” asserting again that the West was not seriously addressing Russia’s most pressing concerns.
Dramatic as the diplomatic spats of the last days have been though, it’s events on the snowy winter ground bordering Ukraine on which all eyes are trained as what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described as “very troubling signs of Russian escalation” continued.
“As we’ve said before, we’re in a window when an invasion could begin at any time, and to be clear, that includes during the Olympics,” insisted Blinken on Friday, dismissing suggestions from some quarters that any Russian assault would not take place during the giant sporting event for fear of upsetting relations with China who are hosting the games until February 20.
That date though continues to feature in the analysis of many observers as a potential decision point for Moscow. For putting the close of the winter Olympics to one side for a moment, it also marks the end of Russian military drills with Belarus and is the anniversary of Moscow’s invasion of Crimea back in 2014. That last anniversary is a potent reminder that this conflict with Ukraine has persisted for nearly eight years now despite various global efforts at diplomatic mediation.
Blinken this weekend also reiterated that Washington was continuing to “draw down” its embassy in Ukraine and repeated a State Department call to American citizens in Ukraine to leave the country immediately. Earlier US President Joe Biden had issued a warning of his own saying that that “things could go crazy quickly” in the region.
Asked whether there was a scenario that could prompt him to send troops to rescue fleeing Americans, Biden’s reply was stark: “There’s not. That’s a world war when Americans and Russia start shooting at one another. We’re in a very different world than we’ve ever been.”
Here in the UK meanwhile, America was making moves of a very different kind with the arrival on Friday of four American B-52 long-range bombers at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, following the arrival of ground crew and logistics personnel two days earlier.
The iconic B-52, also known as the Stratofortress, is a long-range heavy bomber that has been in US military service since 1955 and rather ominously can carry nuclear or precision guided conventional weapons.
The giant jets, which took off from their home base US Air Force Minot in North Dakota before refuelling in Nova Scotia, are part of what has been described as a long-planned Bomber Task Force mission. But coming as their arrival does right now it has done nothing to steady nerves or reduce simmering tensions between the West, NATO, and Russia over Ukraine.
It’s against this edgy backdrop that French President Emmanuel Macron too has been shuttling back and forward between Moscow and Kyiv seeking to ease immediate tensions to reduce the likelihood of war.
Speaking after one round of negotiation last week, Macron described the tension in his talks with Putin at the Kremlin as “palpable,” and warned that the risk of “incandescence” on European soil was still real.
While Macron said he had obtained assurances from his Russian counterpart that there would be no “deterioration or escalation” of the crisis, many Western leaders remain wary of Russian promises.
The French argue that reviving what is known as the Normandy Format talks involving France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia is now the best way to find a diplomatic “off-ramp” for Putin. But in the longer run too, Macron wants to start a broader conversation about Europe’s “new security order”, particularly on its eastern flank.
This is something many NATO allies are cautious of, requiring as it probably would to somehow allay Russia’s fears of NATO expansion.
“For me, it was about arranging things to prevent an escalation and open up new avenues… and that aim has been fulfilled,” Macron told reporters accompanying him on one of his negotiating trips, while acknowledging that Putin was “determined, pretty sure of himself and making his own arguments”.
For its part Russia in response said Putin and Macron were “prepared to continue dialogue” on the French proposals but that the discussions had yet to assuage Moscow’s concerns or yield an agreement.
“It’s impossible because France is a member of the EU, and of NATO, where it is not the leader. A different country in that bloc is the leader. So how can we speak about any ‘agreements’?” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters a few days later once again sending out mixed messages from Moscow.
For the moment it’s hard to see any breakthrough in what has become a diplomatic stalemate. That makes this a dangerous moment indeed, a point made not just by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who said he feared Europe stood “on the edge of a precipice,” but also by NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg.
“This is a dangerous moment for European security. The number of Russian forces is going up, the warning time for a possible attack is going down. We must be prepared for the worst, while remaining strongly committed to finding a political solution,” Stoltenberg said.
The NATO secretary general confirmed too that defence ministers will this week assess options for further strengthening allied security, warning that the alliance “will not compromise on core principles,” including the “right of each nation to choose its own path and NATO’s ability to protect and defend all allies.”
With military analysts estimating that Russia has now massed more than 135,000 troops on the borders of Ukraine both in Russia and Belarus, some now believe nearly all the necessary elements are in place if Putin wanted to attack.
One US intelligence report cited by NBC news a few days ago is said to indicate that were a full invasion to get underway, it is likely that Russian forces could take nine different routes to get into the country and could reach the Ukrainian capital Kyiv within 48 hours.
According to NBC news, the report claims Russia has already deployed nearly 100 of its military’s 168 battalion-tactical groups, made up of 800 to 900 troops each, with more flowing in every day. It has also dispatched personnel and equipment from six of the seven Russian special operations units, called Spetsnaz, according to the assessment.
The report also outlines what it describes as the two most extensive invasion scenarios which would involve a simultaneous attack from multiple sides, a manoeuvre known as a pincer movement or double envelopment.
In one approach outlined in the assessment, the Russian military would take over most Ukrainian territory east of the Dnipro River, which includes about 50 percent of Ukrainian military forces, including their most capable units.
But by far the most terrifying part of the military assessment were estimates of civilian casualties in the event of a full-scale Russian invasion: as many as 50,000 civilians killed or wounded.
This weekend looking across the latest statements and observations made by Western leaders and their Russian counterparts, it seems that with every day that passes this crisis only deepens. Perhaps most tellingly of all is that messaging coming from Ukraine itself has changed.
Warning on Friday that Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east were also conducting military exercises, completing a near encirclement of Ukraine by hostile forces, there was a distinct shift in tone from Kyiv.
To date Ukraine’s government under President Volodymyr Zelensky has done all it can to minimise the threat of a Russian invasion and sought to reduce panic and maintain calm.
But in its latest commentary regarding the military manoeuvres by Russian-backed separatists in the country’s eastern Donbas region, there was a palpable sense of alarm at a level not witnessed in this crisis so far. This is indeed a dangerous moment, and the coming few days will determine whether Europe will once again have war in its midst or good sense will prevail.