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After crisis talks with Russia, the threat of war in Ukraine still looms. Here’s why.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/15/2022 Robyn Dixon
Members of the Kyiv Territorial Defense Unit are trained in an industrial area in Ukraine's capital on Jan. 15. © Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images Members of the Kyiv Territorial Defense Unit are trained in an industrial area in Ukraine's capital on Jan. 15.

BELGRADE, Serbia — Fears of a possible Russian attack on Ukraine have sharpened after no progress was made during talks in Europe seeking to deter Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine and convince Moscow to de-escalate.

Russian officials said the security talks this past week failed. One top official bemoaned a “dead end” situation, saying it was pointless to continue after the United States and NATO firmly ruled out Russia’s key demands: that Ukraine, Georgia and other nations — including Sweden and Finland — be forever barred from joining NATO.

If Russia invades Ukraine, a nation of more than 43 million that is almost the size of Texas, it would force NATO to face the fact that even a united front cannot stop an autocracy from trashing accepted international rules. Moscow denies plans for an attack.

Russian President Vladimir Putin now awaits written responses from Washington and NATO to Russia’s demands for sweeping security guarantees, including his stipulation that NATO withdraw forces from Eastern European and Baltic states.

Here’s what to know about the security crisis confronting Europe.

The talks failed. What now?

The failure of talks means the threat of war has increased, said military analysts, pointing to the recent movements of military logistical units and attack helicopter units that indicate Russia is serious about a possible fight. Russia has insisted it has no plans to invade Ukraine — nearly eight years after its forcible annexation of Crimea.

Russia’s military on Friday announced a snap check on the readiness of military units in the Far East to move long distances swiftly.

“The outlook, in my view, has grown worse,” Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at the Center for Naval Analyses, wrote on Twitter.

Russia’s warnings are unmistakable: It is ready to use military force to protect its security interests, including its insistence that “Ukraine never, never, ever becomes a member of NATO,” to cite Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Monday. He called this “mandatory.”

“We have run out of patience,” said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Six ways Russia views Ukraine — and why each should worry the West

What has Russia gained so far?

Putin has kept Western leaders off balance by concentrating forces near Ukraine and issuing sweeping demands for security guarantees that he knows Washington and NATO will never accept. Russia then threatened to end the talks unless the Western alliance agrees — in an unrealistically tight time frame.

Putin got NATO’s attention. He won concessions from the United States, which offered to put discussions of missile deployments and limitations on intermediate-range missiles in Europe on the table — potentially reviving aspects of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty, which Washington abandoned in 2019. But it wasn’t enough.

A Russian T-72B3 tanks fires as troops take part in drills at the Kadamovskiy firing range in the Rostov region of southern Russia on Jan. 12. © AP/AP A Russian T-72B3 tanks fires as troops take part in drills at the Kadamovskiy firing range in the Rostov region of southern Russia on Jan. 12.

“We have warned them, our partners, primarily the Americans, that this is not a menu. It’s a package,” Lavrov said Friday.


Video: Blinken accuses Russia of 'false narrative' on Ukraine ahead of talks (Reuters)

There was another unsatisfactory outcome for Putin: NATO’s new unity. Former president Donald Trump took a dim view of NATO, undercutting the alliance’s unity and purpose, even questioning the alliance’s central tenet — Article 5 — which obliges the alliance to defend an attack on any member, no matter how small. In 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron bemoaned “the brain death of NATO.”

But Putin’s demands for a say in NATO’s membership and military deployments revived the alliance’s commitment to basic principles — with key backing from the Biden administration.

Was it all a Russian pretext to go to war?

That is what analysts fear. Russia’s diplomacy has been odd: not the usual approach to complex, lengthy negotiations around security and arms control that normally take place behind closed doors.

Its release of sweeping demands that were obvious non-starters, and insistence on swift agreement to all of them, raised a red flag that Russia might be setting up the talks to fail, to build a pretext for military action. Russian officials cast doubt on whether they would keep on talking from day one.

U.S. officials say Russia has a track record of setting false-flag operations, as a pretext to invade.

“We saw this playbook in 2014. They are preparing this playbook again,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Thursday.

U.S. intelligence identified a group of Russian operatives in eastern Ukraine who were potentially positioned to mount attacks against Russian-backed separatist forces there as a false-flag operation, a White House official told journalists Friday. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 before backing separatists in eastern Ukraine.

A statement from Russia’s embassy to the United States on Saturday said the Biden administration offered “no evidence” for its claims, calling it part of the “incessant information pressure on our country.”

A Ukrainian soldier walks in a trench at the line of separation from Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on Jan. 9. © Andriy Dubchak/AP A Ukrainian soldier walks in a trench at the line of separation from Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on Jan. 9.

But other events may inflame Russian sentiment against Ukraine. Russia has issued at least 600,000 passports to residents in Ukraine’s separatist eastern regions, a possible pretext to intervene militarily. In December, Putin accused Ukraine of “genocide” there.

Russia’s Federal Security Service arrested more than 100 members of an alleged Ukrainian extremist group, MKU, in the past month, whom it alleged were planning terrorist attacks and mass killings. The group’s initials stand for “Maniacs. Cult of Murders,” according to Russian media.

Russia’s rifts with the West keep growing. How did we get here?

What form could an attack take?

It could start with cyberattacks and an information war. Analysts have reported an increase in cyber-intrusions against Ukraine recently and Kyiv on Friday reported a “massive cyberattack” that temporarily blocked and defaced government websites.

The analyst Kofman predicted a joint force operation involving massive use of artillery, multiple rocket launchers, air power and attack helicopters, in an online presentation at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation on Wednesday. He believes Russia would be likely to use overwhelming force in seeking to gain a swift capitulation from Kyiv, without Russia necessarily trying to hold on to territory.

Analysts have floated other possibilities: Russia could seize a chunk of territory in southern Ukraine, linking Crimea to Russia by land. Or, in the worst-case scenario, it could redraw the map permanently, with a sweeping multipronged attack aimed at splitting Ukraine in two and seizing all territory east of the Dnieper River that curves through the center of the country.

What would a major Russian attack mean for Europe?

The fallout would reverberate for years: punishing new sanctions designed to cut Russia off from the world financial system and hurt its economy; a complete rupture in Moscow’s relations with Washington; and a likely end to the $10.8 billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.

A major Russian attack on Ukraine would be a direct challenge to the international order that has underpinned European peace since the Helsinki Final Act, the 1975 treaty that affirmed that states were equal and should not use force or threats.

Russia has threatened to strike back at European security by stationing missiles closer to Europe if it is hit with new sanctions. That’s on top of existing plans to deploy new hypersonic missiles and push ahead with militarizing the Arctic. On Thursday, Ryabkov refused to rule out Russia deploying missiles to Cuba and Venezuela if tensions with Washington increased.

A sharp rise in tensions would increase the risk of a misunderstanding spiraling into catastrophic military conflict.

With Europe dependent on Russia for 41 percent of its gas, Moscow could squeeze its energy supply and look for other forms of pressure: cyberattacks, disinformation or possible engineered crises, such as renewing a flow of migrants to Europe.

Read more:

Russia planning potential sabotage operations in Ukraine, U.S. says

Ukraine’s official websites hit by hack amid high tensions with Russia

Russia says ‘no grounds’ for further talks on security amid heightened tensions

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