On Tuesday I guessed that Russia’s chatter about deescalation was an empty gesture and that the invasion had been postponed, not canceled, probably just to foil America’s warning that the invasion was set to begin on the 16th.
Wrong! Nothing happened on the 16th. But, a day later, an invasion suddenly appears imminent.
Biden said as much to reporters outside the White House this morning:
Q: "How high is the threat of a Russian invasion right now?"President Biden: "It's very high…every indication we have is they are prepared to go into Ukraine….Yes, my sense is it will happen within the next several days." pic.twitter.com/2xY3vkQemR
— CSPAN (@cspan) February 17, 2022
Why so pessimistic? For starters, U.S. sources whispered to the media last night that they’d seen no evidence yet of Russian troops withdrawing from the Ukrainian border, something Moscow had claimed was in motion on Tuesday. To the contrary, satellite imagery and other intel suggested Russia had added another 7,000 troops in recent days. UK intelligence has also seen no evidence of withdrawal:
INTELLIGENCE UPDATE: Russia has claimed that some units will be returning to bases following the conclusion of drills.
We have seen no evidence that Russian forces are withdrawing from Ukrainian border regions. Russia could conduct an invasion without further warning. pic.twitter.com/nUXNAVMzE8
— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) February 17, 2022
Russia’s response to that was that troop withdrawals are under way, they just … take time. Meanwhile, coincidentally, shelling has already reportedly begun:
— Anastasiia Lapatina (@lapatina_) February 17, 2022
According to Ukraine’s president, the other side’s targets aren’t exclusively military:
The shelling of a kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska by pro-Russian forces is a big provocation. It's important that diplomats & the @OSCE remain in 🇺🇦, their monitoring activities are an additional deterrent. We need an effective mechanism for recording all ceasefire violations.
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) February 17, 2022
Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in Donbas are each claiming that the other started shooting first. Raise your hand if you think Ukraine would initiate hostilities knowing that 100-150,000 Russian troops poised on their border, itching for a pretext to advance.
Russia also responded to the U.S. and NATO this morning by listing its demands for peace. These are total nonstarters, needless to say, and Putin knows it:
Russia’s response to US security guarantee proposals- RIA pic.twitter.com/R9GQ1O85dd
— ELINT News (@ELINTNews) February 17, 2022
NATO countries aren’t going to stop weapons shipments to Ukraine on Moscow’s say-so and they certainly aren’t going to withdraw NATO troops from eastern European countries, which would risk dissolution of the alliance under threat. The demands will be rejected, as expected, requiring a “military-technical” response from Russia:
Russia’s reaction to Washington’s response to Moscow’s original demands: “US side did not give a constructive response to the basic elements of the draft treaty…on security guarantees.”
“Russia will be forced to respond, including through military-technical measures.” https://t.co/GP39Vws0kq
— Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) February 17, 2022
But that’s not all. Russia also expelled the deputy U.S. ambassador this morning, a signal that the window for diplomacy is almost closed. “Mr. Biden’s aides came up with a plan of constant engagement, setting up a series of negotiations — in Brussels and Geneva, at many different levels — on the theory that while Russia was talking with the West, airing its grievances and making its demands, it was unlikely to invade,” the NYT reported yesterday. Kicking out a top U.S. diplomat may be Moscow’s way of declaring that that strategy has now conclusively failed and the time for talk is over.
This doesn’t portend near-term serenity in Kiev:
Either the Russians are massively burning documents (first time since 2014 that chimneys are so busy) or they are voting for a new pope. Video is from yesterday see https://t.co/iZcY1TnMZY pic.twitter.com/KZHncVKknt
— Mattia Nelles (@mattia_n) February 17, 2022
The rhetoric from U.S. diplomats has turned dire:
Our goal is to convey the gravity of the situation. The evidence on the ground is that Russia is moving toward an imminent invasion. This is a crucial moment. Today’s Council meeting should not distract us from that. It should focus on what is happening right now in Ukraine.
— Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield (@USAmbUN) February 17, 2022
And this tweet from a foreign diplomat is notable:
Ukraine has the sovereign right to seek NATO membership, to choose its course.
We will not guarantee otherwise to Russia.
— Emily Haber (@GermanAmbUSA) February 16, 2022
That’s the German ambassador to the U.S. Germany has tried to mediate this dispute but Haber’s message suggests that the opportunity for mediation is ending and it’s time to choose sides. It seems Berlin is still on Team NATO.
Antony Blinken is headed to the UN today to address an emergency meeting of the Security Council requested by Ukraine. Expect Russia to accuse the Ukrainians of “genocide,” a ludicrous charge but one that might help shore up support for the war among the Russian population. Many Russians appear to be in deep denial that war will happen, convinced by state media that the prospect of a looming conflict has been manufactured by western enemies. One survey taken of Russian opinion in December found just eight percent think their country should send troops to fight Ukraine. Putin needs a way to turn public opinion in favor of action quickly, and so:
So the outlines of Russian strategy are appearing. State Investigation Committee today opened criminal case re mass graves in Luhansk + Donetsk. It looks like it will be genocide, genocide, genocide, folks — as a way of turning Russians against Ukrainehttps://t.co/tYkQYqGbdf
— Oliver Carroll (@olliecarroll) February 16, 2022
Is there any realistic concession the western alliance could make that might get him to call off the dogs? Read this Times piece about a U.S. missile base in Poland that has Russia spooked. The missiles there are allegedly defensive, not offensive, and are supposedly aimed to counter a threat from Iran, not Russia. But not all experts are so sure. The base is just 100 miles from the Russian border and 800 miles from Moscow, putting the Russian capital within range if the facility includes an offensive capability. And even if it doesn’t, the defensive capability risks neutering Russia’s trump card against any invasion from the west, its gigantic nuclear arsenal. Shutting down the base isn’t in the cards but apparently NATO has offered a “transparency mechanism” — i.e. inspections — to Russia to assure them that they’re not in the crosshairs. It seems hard to believe at this stage that even decommissioning the base would stop a massive Russian invasion of Ukraine but some sort of deal on reducing the western missile threat might be a prerequisite to averting disaster.