The buildup of Russian forces along Ukraine’s border has reached the stage where President Vladimir Putin now has a full range of military choices, including steps short of a full-scale invasion, according to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
“While we don’t believe President Putin has made a final decision to utilize these forces against Ukraine,” Austin said at a Pentagon press briefing.
Putin warned French President Emmanuel Macron that the West has failed to take Russian security concerns into account, according to the Kremlin, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a radio interviewer that Russia does not desire conflict but sees no opportunity for compromise on its demands.
According to Austin, Putin could use any part of his 100,000-strong force to seize Ukrainian towns and “important territory,” as well as engage in “coercive or inflammatory political measures,” such as the recognition of breakaway entities within Ukraine.
He urged Putin to lower tensions and appeared to caution Moscow against what the White House previously described as Russia’s intention to portray Ukraine as the aggressor through a “false-flag operation” to justify an assault.
“We’re still focused on Russian disinformation, which might be used as a pretext for a new invasion or strikes in Donbas,” Austin added. “This is directly out of a Russian playbook,” says the author. “They aren’t deceiving us.”
In what were their first significant public statements regarding the issue, Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signaled a subtle shift in the administration’s approach to public communications about the developing situation. While both have met with their NATO and Ukrainian counterparts on a regular basis, the public debate has centered on the diplomatic efforts.
The United States has placed 8,500 troops on high alert for possible deployment to reinforce and reassure NATO partners, and Austin and Milley both stated on Friday that no US forces have been deployed or relocated across Europe.
President Joe Biden, on the other hand, has hinted at a move in the near future. Biden was asked when he returned to Washington from a trip to Pennsylvania on Friday if he had made up his mind about when he will move.
“In the near future, I’ll be dispatching US soldiers to eastern Europe and NATO countries. “Not much,” Biden stated. Biden hinted earlier this week that he would move them sooner rather than later, “simply because it takes time.”
Austin and Milley said the US has considered the possibility that any troop movements could exacerbate the situation, but emphasized the importance of reassuring its friends.
Due to travel and logistical constraints, moving large troops with heavy equipment and weaponry often takes longer.
Milley provided a bleak image of Russian military capabilities in Ukraine, claiming that they include not just combat forces, navy and air forces, but also cyber and electronic warfare capabilities, as well as special operations personnel.
He said the buildup is the largest he’s seen in recent memory, and he urged Putin to take a diplomatic approach rather than a confrontational one.
“An invasion of Ukraine by Russia will not be cheap in terms of casualties and other severe consequences,” Milley added.
He was referring to Russian costs, while also pointing out that Ukraine’s military forces are more capable today than they were in 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and engaged in support of pro-Russian separatists in the country’s eastern industrial heartland.
Putin warned Macron on Friday that the West has failed to address Russia’s essential demands of halting further NATO expansion, ending the deployment of alliance weapons near Russian borders, and withdrawing its military from Eastern Europe, according to the Kremlin.
The US and NATO formally rejected such requests this week, while Washington did highlight areas where talks may take place, giving hope that a peaceful solution could be found.
Despite this, US President Joe Biden told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday that Russian military action against the former Soviet state is a “clear possibility” in February. Russia has denied having such plans on several occasions.
Zelenskyy attempted to downplay the war worries, claiming that Western fears of an invasion have caused many investors in the country’s financial markets to flee.
At a press conference, he added, “We don’t need this panic.” “It cost Ukrainians a lot of money.”
According to a Kremlin account of their conversation, Putin informed Macron that Moscow will examine the US and NATO responses before making its next move. The Russian president has made no public comments about the Western response, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov believes there is little hope of striking an accord.
“While they declare they will not modify their stance, we will not change ours,” Lavrov said in a live interview with Russian radio stations. “I don’t think there’s any room for negotiation here.”
“As far as the Russian Federation is concerned, there will be no conflict; we do not desire a war,” he stressed. “However, we will not stand by and let our interests to be trampled on.”
“We applaud Lavrov’s words that Russia does not desire war,” a senior Biden administration official said, “but this must be backed up with action.”
We need to see Russia withdraw some of the troops it has stationed near the Ukrainian border and do other de-escalation measures.” Because he was not authorized to speak publicly, the official spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The US urged the two sides discuss about limits on the deployment of intermediate-range missiles, military training restrictions, and procedures to prevent mishaps involving warships and aircraft, according to Lavrov.
He claimed that the Russians had proposed discussing those concerns years ago, but that Washington and its allies had never taken them up on their offer until now.
He also said that those concerns pale in comparison to Russia’s fundamental concerns regarding NATO. He claimed that international agreements state that one nation’s security must not come at the price of others’, and that he would write letters to his Western colleagues demanding an explanation for their failure to uphold that vow.
If Russia invades Ukraine, Washington has threatened Moscow with crippling sanctions, including penalties against top Russian leaders and important economic sectors. Moscow had warned Washington that penalties would result in the complete cutting of ties, according to Lavrov.
Meanwhile, NATO announced that it was strengthening its deterrence in the Baltic Sea region.
Military drills involving motorized infantry and artillery troops, bombers in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, and dozens of warships in the Black Sea and the Arctic have begun in southwestern Russia.
Russian troops are also in Belarus for joint training, stoking fears in the West that Moscow could launch an invasion from the north on Ukraine. The Belarusian border is only 75 kilometers (50 miles) away from Kiev, Ukraine’s capital.
President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus declared there would be no conflict unless Belarus or Russia were attacked, and he accused the West of attempting to “drown our Slavic brothers in blood.”
Despite the worrisome rhetoric, Ukrainian officials have tried to maintain a cool demeanor.
The decision by the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, and Canada to withdraw part of its ambassadors and dependents from Kyiv was a “mistake,” according to Zelenskyy, who believes that domestic destabilization is the greatest threat to his country.
He also decried NATO’s inability to provide Ukraine with a path to membership, arguing that the organization should express explicitly if it does not intend to embrace Ukraine rather than making ambiguous pledges.
“We aren’t witnessing any escalation bigger than previously,” Zelenskyy said, dismissing US threats of an impending Russian attack. He believes the Russian buildup is part of Moscow’s efforts to apply “psychological pressure” and create panic.
The number of Russian troops approaching Ukraine, according to Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, is equivalent to Moscow’s military buildup last spring, when Moscow eventually pulled its forces back following large exercises.