WASHINGTON — Even if a Russian invasion of Ukraine doesn’t happen in the next few days, the crisis is reaching a critical inflection point with European stability and the future of East-West relations hanging in the balance.
A convergence of events over the coming week could determine whether the impasse is resolved peacefully or whether Europe is at war. At stake is Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture and the long-agreed limits to the deployment of conventional military and nuclear forces there.
“The next 10 days or so will be critical,” said Ian Kelly, a retired career diplomat and former US ambassador to Georgia, who now teaches international relations at Northwestern University.
The Biden administration said on Friday an invasion could happen at any time, with a possible target date of Wednesday, according to intelligence gathered by the United States, and Washington was evacuating nearly all of its embassy staff to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.
A phone call between President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Saturday did nothing to ease tensions. Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke on Sunday.
Even before the latest warnings and diplomatic moves by the United States, analysts viewed this week as a critical week for Ukraine’s future.
“Russia and the United States are approaching a peak of conflict of interest regarding a future shape of the European order,” said Timofei Bordachev, director of the Center for European Research at the Moscow Higher School of Economics. . “Parties can sue each other that will go much further than what was considered admissible just recently,” he said in a recent analysis.
In the coming week, Washington and NATO are awaiting an official response from Moscow after rejecting its main security demands, and major Russian military exercises in Belarus, conducted as part of a deployment near Ukraine, are due terminate. The fate of the Russian troops currently in Belarus will be decisive in judging the Kremlin’s intentions.
Meanwhile, the Winter Olympics in China, often cited as a potential deterrent to immediate Russian action, will end on February 20. Although US officials have said they believe an invasion could take place before that date, the date is still considered significant.
And a major international security conference is taking place in Munich next weekend, which Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and top European officials plan to attend.
Putin has warned the West that he will not back down on his demand to keep Ukraine out of NATO. While Ukraine has long aspired to join, the alliance is not about to offer an invitation.
Yet he argues that if Ukraine were to join and try to use force to reclaim the Crimean peninsula annexed by Moscow in 2014, it would draw Russia and NATO into conflict.
Its Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has asked Western countries to explain how they interpret the principle of “the indivisibility of security” enshrined in the international agreements they have signed. The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Friday it would not accept a collective response from the European Union and NATO, insisting on an individual response from each country.
Seeking to counter NATO’s argument that each nation is free to choose its alliances, Moscow has accused NATO of violating the principle and jeopardizing Russia’s security by expanding eastward. .
“Russia’s bold demands and their equally blunt rejection by the United States have pushed the international agenda toward confrontation more than at any time since the height of the Cold War,” Bordachev said.
He argued that closer relations with China had strengthened Moscow’s position. “Whatever goals Russia might pursue now, it can plan its future under conditions of a complete severance of ties with the West,” Bordatchev said.
Russian officials have stressed that negotiating a settlement on Ukraine is entirely up to the United States and that Western allies are merely following orders from Washington.
In the past, Russia had sought to establish close contacts with France and Germany in the hope that friendly ties with Europe’s biggest economies would help offset American pressure. But those ties have been strained by the 2020 poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who spent five months in Germany recovering from what he described as a nerve agent attack he blamed in the Kremlin. Russia has denied its involvement.
More recently, Russian officials have criticized the position of France and Germany in the peace talks in eastern Ukraine, holding them responsible for the failure to persuade the Ukrainian authorities to grant a large autonomy to the Russian-backed separatist region, as required by a 2015 Accord.
In a break with diplomatic rules, the Russian Foreign Ministry last fall published confidential letters that Lavrov exchanged with his French and German counterparts in an attempt to prove their inability to advance the talks.
Speaking after the last unsuccessful round of such talks, Kremlin representative Dmitry Kozak lamented the failure of French and German envoys to persuade Ukraine to engage in dialogue with the separatists, as stipulated in the ‘OK.
Despite tensions with Paris and Berlin, Putin spent more than five hours meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron last Monday and will host German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday. Putin said he was grateful to Macron for trying to help broker a way to ease tensions and said they would talk again.
Moscow has also just reopened a window for diplomatic contacts with Britain, hosting the foreign and defense secretaries for the first round of talks since ties were severed by Britain’s 2018 poisoning of the former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter.
Lavrov’s meeting with Liz Truss was frosty, but British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace’s talks with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu seemed more pragmatic, with the parties stressing the need to maintain regular contact to reduce the threat of military incidents.