While Russia increases tensions with the massive mobilization of troops towards the Ukrainian border, the United States, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are debating whether to act with a military response or only activate sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s regime.
This Monday, January 24, the Pentagon announced the dispatch of 8,500 American troops to Europe, while asking its citizens to leave Ukraine “now.”
NATO has stated that its allies are putting their forces on “alert” and sending additional ships and fighter planes to Eastern Europe. Also, the United Kingdom announced the withdrawal of some of its embassy staff in Kyiv.
Since 2014, Kyiv and Moscow have been at loggerheads after the Russian president annexed to his country the province of Crimea, which at that time belonged to Ukraine. Although the Russian military presence on the border between the two countries has been frequent, the increase in troops in recent months has been exponential
Calculations by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense reveal that more than 114,000 Russian soldiers were deployed in the areas bordering Ukraine. The Russian military deployment has been of such magnitude that governments in the West are alert to a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, Putin denies such intentions.
Why is there a threat of a Russian invasion and why is Ukraine so important?
Russia is increasing troop deployments to the border while demanding that the West desist from its expansion by adding countries to NATO, including Ukraine. It also accuses the military alliance of trying to invade its backyard by having military ties to Kyiv.
Ukraine’s location is key for both the West and Russia because it is seen as a strategic and military ally.
Ukraine is not yet part of NATO or the European Union but has shown an inclination to become a member because the military organization has offered it full backing to preserve its sovereignty.
“Ukraine is too important for Russia, and Putin seems willing to go to a military conflict and bear the costs for Ukraine, unlike Westerners who don’t seem to have the same direction,” Cesar Sabas, an expert in international relations and international security, told El American.
“Putin has defined Ukraine as a red line, but the Western red line seems to be unclear,” he said.
What happens if Russia moves forward with an invasion of Ukraine?
“It becomes difficult to think that with all the current Russian deployment the incursion would be “minor”, in that case most likely Putin would order a full-scale invasion from multiple directions seeking to overwhelm the Ukrainian Army for an undisputed and quick victory. In that scenario I do not envision an armed NATO intervention in Ukraine either, but a political and economic response from the West would be practically obligatory,” Sabas explained.
“What we could see is a mobilization of troops to NATO countries close to Russia, now delimiting the West’s red line,” he added.
The ambiguous role of the United States
While Washington sees Russia threatening to invade Ukraine, it avoids referring directly to an armed confrontation with Moscow, although it has pledged military aid to Ukraine, as has the United Kingdom.
On several occasions, however, the United States has been heard to speak of “sanctions” rather than unrestricted military backing for Kyiv in the event of an invasion. “If Russia intervenes in Ukraine there will be a response,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted during his tour of Europe this week.
Blinken called on Russia to demonstrate that it has no intention whatsoever of invading its neighbor and noted that “a very good way to start would be to de-escalate, to push back those forces on the Ukrainian border.”
The Kremlin denies any warlike intent, but makes the military drawdown conditional on the signing of treaties guaranteeing the non-expansion of NATO and the withdrawal of the transatlantic alliance from Eastern Europe.
While relations are strained, Ukraine expresses displeasure at some U.S. attitudes and has criticized the downplaying of the situation. In fact, Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky responded to comments made by Joe Biden, who said that he does not rule out the possibility of a “minor incursion” by the Russian army.
“There are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones,” Zelenski responded to Biden.
Biden’s Weakness on the prospects of a Russian invasion
Former White House press secretary and Fox News host Kayleigh McEnany criticized Biden for showing weakness to Putin by referring to “a minor incursion.”
“Putin (…) is a shark who tastes blood in the water and senses weakness in his enemy. And his enemy, make no doubt about it, is the United States,” she said.
Professor Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, warned that the current negotiations are not taking place between equals because “Putin threatened war to get concessions.”
Sabas said it was a “grave mistake” for Biden to have referred to a “minor incursion” to what would be a “violation of the territorial integrity of one who is supposed to be his ally.”
“Biden’s erratic attitude is precipitating a possible bad outcome, since, on the one hand, he is not standing firm in a real support to the current Ukrainian government and, on the other hand, he does not seem to negotiate anything with Russia either, pushing Putin to look for a way out by force in the face of a Ukraine that would be little supported,” the specialist said.
“We know that in NATO there is no consensus on how to react to Russia, but this was not expected to be announced by the U.S. president,” Sabas added.
Sabas’ opinion coincides with Radoslaw Sikorski, former Polish foreign minister during Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 and the invasion of Crimea in 2014, who told the Financial Times that making divisions in the West public has further complicated the situation.
The powers announce the movement of troops, but do not yet rule out a diplomatic solution, while Russia’s position seems more radical in view of its main demand for a NATO withdrawal from Eastern Europe and a ban on Ukraine’s entry into the military alliance.