Fears Russia is about to launch an invasion of Ukraine reached fever-pitch this weekend as the current crisis approached a moment of truth. No-one can say with any certainty what will happen Wednesday — the date of an attack reportedly given by U.S. President Joe Biden — but most independent Russian experts remain unsure a large military conflict is imminent.
- The course of events is looking more and more like real preparations for war — and less like diplomatic games. Among the more ominous developments: more than 30 countries have now recommended their citizens leave Ukraine, the U.S. embassy is relocating from the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, to the west of the country, and the Ukrainian government has been forced to find $600 million for the insurance of foreign airlines that are facing difficulties getting insurance for Ukrainian airspace.
- Russia continues to deny that it is intending to launch a military operation against Ukraine, and accuses the West — above all the U.S. — of ‘propagandizing war’ and ‘artificially ramping up tensions’. State-owned television channels have poured cold water on the statements by U.S. officials of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, claiming the whole idea is absurd.
- But official rhetoric does not stop Russia itself from contributing to a ‘ramping up of tensions’ in other areas (apart from massing troops on the Ukrainian border). For example, state news agency RIA Novosti published a report Friday that said Russian diplomats were preparing to leave Ukraine (the text hinted that this was because of fears about a possible Ukrainian offensive launched with Western encouragement).
- At the same time, there was some hope Monday that Putin might choose to continue a dialog with his Western counterparts. In a meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Putin concurred when Lavrov told him that “there was always a chance” of reaching an agreement with the U.S. over security guarantees. Shortly after, Putin also held a meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who said that many of Russia’s current military exercises would be over “soon”. Earlier Monday, the Russian parliament appeared to kick a proposal to formally recognize the rebel statelets in Eastern Ukraine into the long grass (many feared such a step would be a sign of the Kremlin’s determination to further escalate the situation). Simonyan suggested Monday afternoon that the crisis might be defusing, posting on Telegram: “Is it time for everyone to go their separate ways?”
- Nevertheless, there is still no clarity about a scenario in which the Kremlin could claim a diplomatic victory. Phone conversations Saturday between Putin and Biden, and Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron appeared not to provide any new results, or obvious ways forward.
Why the world should care: Russia’s main tactical success has been to force Western countries into guessing about Putin’s real plans. But this week looks like the week that could end months of speculation. The chances of an invasion will begin to fall from Sunday when major Russia-Belarus military exercises taking place on the Ukrainian border are scheduled to come to an end.