Tensions have shot up again to a new high following White House national-security adviser Jake Sullivan's briefing on Friday night saying the invasion could come “any day”. US President Joe Biden even put a date on it: this Wednesday, February 16. Everyone is freaking out and the press is having a field day. Many of Ukraine’s leading oligarchs just took their families out on a flotilla of private jets according to reports.
I remain highly sceptical of seeing the start of a war this week for several reasons. The first is prosaic. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy went on telly after the warnings to say: “If you have 100% sure intelligence that an attack is about to happen, please share it with us.”
It seems incredible that the US could have sent Ukraine $2.7bn worth of defensive weapons in the last few years – $1.5bn in just the last six months – and have such astonishingly good intelligence that they can actually put an exact date on it, and not share that with Ukraine to allow it to get ready.
As our correspondent in Kharkiv reports, backed up by other reports from the regions, there is total calm and the government is making no significant preparations for an invasion, although everyone is clearly getting very nervous, according to the chatter in Kyiv and elsewhere.
The second, and more profound, reason is that remember Russian President Vladimir Putin forced these talks on us, not the other way round. The Kremlin wants to talk about a security deal and it has successfully tabled the topic. Top politicians are busily flying about to see if some sort of deal can be done. Macron was in Moscow two weeks ago and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is in Kyiv today and Moscow tomorrow. There is no way that the Kremlin will attack until diplomacy reaches a dead end. And that hasn't happened yet.
It could be done after Scholz' meeting with Putin on February 15, though. If the talks fail only then can I see the Kremlin contemplating using its military to set off a second round of diplomacy, but this time to stop a war, where part of the “peace settlement” could be exactly the same security guarantees the Kremlin is asking for now, or maybe a Minsk III deal, which is tantamount to the same thing.
It seems to me the US is ramping up the tension just ahead of the last meeting between the last significant EU country to meet with Putin to soften Putin up for a compromise. Putin did the same thing to the White House before his meeting with Biden in Geneva on June 16 last year by building up forces on the Ukrainian border then too. The February 16 date for the invasion looks suspiciously convenient, as it is the day after Putin meets the new German chancellor.
The flaring tensions also have the effect of giving the US back the initiative. As I have said elsewhere these talks were started with the US and in the January round of meetings that began in Geneva the EU was effectively excluded. The Kremlin made it clear it wanted to cut a bilateral deal with the White House and is expecting Biden to do the dirty work of getting the EU on board.
Macron’s meeting with Putin launched a new strand of EU diplomacy and took the initiative, and the Normandy Four talks resumed at a meeting in Paris on January 27 after a two-year hiatus that is a possible solution to the crisis. Part of Friday’s briefing was a call by Biden to all the top EU leaders to bring them back into the US fold and present a united front to Russia – led by the US of course.
Will the talks fail this week taking us into a new and even more dangerous phase? It’s not clear. The gossip I’m hearing from Kyiv is that there is not a lot of optimism that these last meetings will produce enough progress that Putin will be willing to continue. The gap between the two sides still seems to be too wide.
Against that the Normandy Four talks are one option that could stay the Kremlin’s hand. Scholz is specifically going to talk about that with Zelenskiy and Putin. The head of Ukraine’s presidential administration Andriy Yermak, who led the Ukrainian Normandy Four delegation, also said that the meetings would be “more frequent” following the last nine-hour marathon in Berlin last week. If those talks look fruitful the Kremlin will want to pursue them, as it is the cleanest and easiest way out of this crisis. Everyone (except Kyiv) wants them implemented.
Separately, Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK just told the BBC that Kyiv may be willing to give up its Nato aspirations to avoid a war, but it is not clear if Kyiv just blinked or if this was a personal opinion voiced on the fly.
It’s hard to imagine the Kremlin using force as, apart from the enormous costs, there are also so many other things Putin can do first that will freak the West out but won’t trigger those catastrophic sanctions, such as move some big scary missiles up to Nato’s borders or squeeze exports of key commodities.
But the wild card is that while Putin is a careful planner and usually moves extremely slowly – I believe he has been planning this showdown since the last effort to do a security deal was rebuffed in 2008 – the annexation of the Crimea shows that he can also make extremely dramatic and ballsy moves if he feels it is to the benefit of Russia’s national security.
Given this deal will determine Russia’s national security for a generation and probably much longer if he can get his deal, Putin must be considering everything and anything.
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