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Russian troop movement on the Ukrainian border has led to talk of invasion. With forces massing in four locations, in some cases with tanks and artillery, U.S. intelligence believes the Kremlin is planning a multi-front offensive against its smaller neighbor involving up to 175,000 troops, The Washington Post reported Friday. It could begin as soon as early next year, sources told The Post.
This ominous threat of major ground war in Europe hangs over President Biden’s call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday. Though the virtual summit was only announced over the weekend, Kremlin officials have stressed that the issues in the relationship have been brewing for some time. “The Augean stables in our bilateral relations can hardly be cleaned out over several hours of negotiations,” Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russia’s TV Channel One on Monday.
Forget the allusion to myth — the Russian position on Ukraine is mired in realpolitik. Putin has staked out that Ukraine is part of its sphere of influence and is betting that the Kremlin cares more about its neighbor than the United States does. The United States has threatened sanctions, but to some in Moscow, that’s nothing: Russia is already sanctioned to the hilt and has prepared for worse to come. For Putin, if it’s a gamble, it’s a calculated one.
My colleagues Isabelle Khurshudyan and Paul Sonne report that Putin is expected to issue Biden an ultimatum during their video meeting Tuesday: NATO should never expand into Ukraine. But the Western military alliance has repeatedly suggested Ukraine should be allowed to choose its own future and Biden has pushed back on the ultimatum publicly. “I won’t accept anybody’s red line,” the U.S. leader said Friday.
And so Putin’s hand looks dicey indeed.
Would Putin really go to war with Ukraine? The long-standing Russian leader, in control of Russia in some way for more than two decades, remains as inscrutable as a sphinx. After being caught out on the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, many analysts are hesitant to suggest that his actions along the Ukrainian border are just for show.
“Putin doesn’t bluff,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center and the head of the R.Politik think tank, in a call with journalists. “He has put on the table this option of military operation toward Ukraine, and he is intending to implement it if he fails to obtain what he would like to obtain from the United States.”
However, even if the threat of war is real, it could still be motivated by a desire for negotiations. Last spring, when there was a similar, though smaller, buildup of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine, the United States responded by offering Putin an in-person summit in Geneva. Though that event was carefully managed to avoid giving Russia the upper hand — Putin, frequently late in meetings with other world leaders, was arranged to arrive first at the venue — the fact that it happened at all showed the Kremlin had made Russia a priority for Biden’s foreign policy.