With something like 100,000 Russian troops lurking on the Russia-Ukraine border, Western intelligence officials are increasingly convinced that the Vladimir Putin wants to take control of a larger swath of Ukrainian territory, and the U.S. has warned our allies of a possible “incursion” (as the New York Times puts it).
Russia wasn’t poised to invade Ukraine when Donald Trump was president because Trump projected strength. Joe Biden projects weakness and incompetence, especially after the Afghanistan fiasco. Hence, the heightened risk of Russian aggression.
I love the headline to this opinion piece by David Ignatius of the Washington Post — “The U.S. is warning Russia on Ukraine. So far, the message isn’t getting through.” I’m pretty sure the message is getting through; it’s just not being taken seriously.
And why would it be? The Russians have to consider the source.
The tense Ukraine standoff is a case study in diplomatic signaling that, thus far, hasn’t worked. For weeks, senior U.S. and European officials have warned Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull back what looks ominously like an invasion force — or face harsh consequences from a U.S.-led coalition.
The warning message hasn’t connected. Instead, Putin seems to be relishing the West’s anxiety. He claimed [last] Thursday that the United States and its allies were ignoring Russia’s “red lines” and “escalating the situation” with shows of force. . . .Putin’s goal seems to be restoration of Moscow’s Soviet-era hegemony over Kyiv.
Nearly 100,000 Russian troops have massed along the border, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. This faceoff continued Thursday. U.S. officials didn’t detect any change in the Russian military presence, up or down.
Maybe the problem is the vagueness of Biden’s “warning” to the Russians. Ignatius reports that “Washington’s most emphatic warning about the Russian buildup was a Nov. 10 statement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken” in which Blinken described America’s commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity as “ironclad,” but “avoided specifics about what the United States would do in the event of an invasion.”
Ignatius also reports that CIA Director William J. Burns told Russian officials that an invasion of Ukraine would bring severe economic reprisals. That warning is more specific, but less emphatic. Indeed, it can be viewed as meaning that the U.S. would not actually defend Ukraine.
Ignatius says that “administration officials were disappointed that Burns’s cautionary message didn’t seem to register with the Kremlin.” My guess is that it registered, but is as likely to encourage an attack as to deter one.
I agree with Ignatius that Russia would rather scare Ukraine into abandoning its aggressively pro-western stance and submitting to Moscow than achieve these goals through fighting. I also agree that Ukraine is not easily cowed.
But with Biden in charge, and eager to promote what Ignatius calls “strategic stability” and a “predictable relationship” with Russia, Ukraine can only view its position as precarious and even desperate.