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Will Russia invade Ukraine? Talks, timing, desire for a long fight factor into strategy

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 2/1/2022 Matthew Brown, USA TODAY
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WASHINGTON – Ukrainian soldiers patrolling snowy fields, NATO commanders mobilizing troops across eastern Europe and national security aides in the Biden administration are all fixated on one question: Will Russian President Vladimir Putin launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine?

As diplomats from the U.S. and Russia search for an off-ramp to war, military analysts – and millions of Ukrainian families – ponder whether a brutal war in Europe is imminent and, if so, how to respond.

“The situation just keeps getting worse and worse on the border,” said Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, a foreign policy think tank. Haring said "diplomacy seems to be on life support" as the Kremlin considers a written letter sent last week from the Biden administration responding to its security demands.

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Meanwhile, Ukrainian and NATO forces watch for how quickly the Kremlin could launch an attack – a scenario all sides are bracing for. 

“The timing depends on what type of military operation Putin decides to undertake. This is the only factor,” said Orysia Lutsevych, director of the Ukraine Forum, a policy journal out of the British think tank Chatham House.

Respect, fear, power: What's motivating Vladimir Putin to threaten Ukraine?

Where diplomacy stands

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were set to speak Tuesday, the State Department announced Monday. The meeting will be the first chance for the Biden administration to hear a response from the Kremlin to its message.

The threat of Russian invasion has loomed over Ukraine for weeks as the Kremlin marshals more than 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine and ramps up military exercises in the Black Sea and Belarus to Ukraine’s south and north.

President Joe Biden promised the U.S. will pursue "good faith" negotiations over Ukraine in a Monday statement before a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to address Ukraine. Biden cautioned, though, that if Putin attacks Ukraine, Russia "will face swift and severe consequences."

A Kremlin spokesperson on Monday accused the U.S. of promoting "hysteria" ahead of the meeting, calling for the West "to take a more constructive approach" in talks. 

Russia, US face off: Harsh words exchanged over Ukraine at UN

A convoy of Russian armored vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea. Russia has concentrated an estimated 100,000 troops with tanks and other heavy weapons near Ukraine in what the West fears could be a prelude to an invasion. © AP A convoy of Russian armored vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea. Russia has concentrated an estimated 100,000 troops with tanks and other heavy weapons near Ukraine in what the West fears could be a prelude to an invasion.

Is Russia ready to invade?

While the Russian presence near Ukraine’s border is the largest military buildup since the end of the Cold War, a full-scale invasion would require Putin to send tens of thousands more troops and weaponry at a scale still unseen in the standoff.

“Most analysts think that if he's going to go launch a major incursion, it won't happen till mid-February, that he could have everything in place by then,” Haring said.

A mild winter in Europe has worsened conditions for an invasion, meaning tanks would be slowed in Ukrainian mud. But mud is a manageable challenge when planning for war.

What's happening in Ukraine?: Russian troops at border raise new invasion fear

Is the Beijing Olympics a consideration?

“The opening ceremony of the Olympics, that’s a factor I would say is more significant than the weather,” Lutsevych said. “He would not want to upset China by stealing the headlines from Beijing.”

Putin appears to appreciate timing a conflict to make sure it doesn't upstage the international sports event. In 2014, he annexed Crimea from Ukraine shortly after Russia hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi, just down the Black Sea coast. 

Putin will attend the Olympics, according to Chinese and Russian state media. Though the two countries are not formal allies, they now enjoy the best relations in decades while working together to challenge U.S. global supremacy. 

"They view China as a competitor even if they occasionally conduct joint military exercises," said Jonathan Wood, a principal at Control Risks, a strategy risk consulting firm.

An invasion of Ukraine could prompt the West to effectively sever itself from the Russian economy, forcing Moscow much closer to Beijing. Rather than being a central timing issue on its own, the Olympics this year represents a broader question for the Kremlin about whether it is prepared to be a junior partner in a nascent alliance.

In the meantime, analysts say Putin is focused on how to best win the games he's still playing with the West.

"The more important factors are the diplomatic game: what Putin can squeeze out at the negotiating table, which is, so far, nothing. And, of course, the military factors," like when an invasion is most feasible, Haring said.

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After annexing Crimea, the Kremlin quickly moved to supply separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. Fighting there has killed at least 14,000 people.

Ukrainians have dealt with "a frozen conflict in the eastern part of the country, a quite lethal conflict" for nearly a decade now, Wood said.

"They are very vulnerable to disruption in a number of different dimensions," Wood cautioned, citing Russia's influence over Ukraine's natural gas supply and the potential for interference in key infrastructure like the power grid.

Analysts agree the Ukrainian government, with considerable military aid from the U.S. and NATO, has become much more battle-hardened since the 2014 annexation, though a full-scale Russian invasion would likely conquer the country in time. 

Everyday Ukrainians "are planning for contingencies where they could send their families, especially children, in case of escalation," Lutsevych said. 

Ukrainian soldiers take part in an exercise for the use of NLAW anti-tank missiles at the Yavoriv military training ground, close to Lviv, western Ukraine, on Jan. 28, 2022. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace says the U.K. has already delivered 2,000 NLAWs to Ukraine, a number he indicated might continue to rise. The missiles were London's way of providing defensive aid to Kyiv as Russian forces deploying around Ukraine's borders give the impression a new invasion may be imminent. © Pavlo Palamarchuk, AP Ukrainian soldiers take part in an exercise for the use of NLAW anti-tank missiles at the Yavoriv military training ground, close to Lviv, western Ukraine, on Jan. 28, 2022. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace says the U.K. has already delivered 2,000 NLAWs to Ukraine, a number he indicated might continue to rise. The missiles were London's way of providing defensive aid to Kyiv as Russian forces deploying around Ukraine's borders give the impression a new invasion may be imminent.

Could an invasion be avoided?

The Kremlin is also weighing whether it can achieve its goals through diplomacy and political interference instead of war.

"His goals are to end the Westernizing project in Ukraine, to pull NATO apart, to make the United States look impotent and weak and to rewrite the rules of the European security architecture," Haring said of Putin, whom she said she believes will ultimately choose to invade. "And if he can do that without a massive land invasion, then he's going to try that."

At the frontline: Ravaged by ongoing war, people in Ukraine's Luhansk region want the shooting to end

Lutsevych described a form of “full-spectrum warfare against Ukraine” by the Russian government that has already launched cyberattacks on Ukrainian government facilities and sought to sow misinformation and panic in Ukrainian society.

“This military posture of Russia has a direct economic hit," she said, an impact that hurts everyday Ukrainians and the government's defensive preparedness.

On Jan. 28, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described Russia’s campaign as a type of “psychological pressure” meant to destabilize Ukraine without firing a single shot.

"They will dial up the pressure gradually, while at the same time testing what they can get through diplomacy. It will be this kind of complex game of heavy-metal diplomacy," Lutsevych said.

It is no accident, Wood noted, that Moscow has "engineered this crisis during the European winter, when the EU is heavily dependent on natural gas imports from Russia," strengthening Putin's hand in negotiations.

But even the possibility of a diplomatic solution, kept alive by ongoing talks, pushes back the timeline on an invasion.

"The fact that the Russians said they are dissatisfied with the response, but they will keep the conversation going – that's important," Lutsevych said.

What a long-term battle could mean

The final consideration for Putin will be how arduous a conflict would be in the long term. Zelenskyy presides over an "increasingly pro-Western, pro-Ukrainian, but not necessarily anti-Russian" attitude in Ukraine, Wood said. That sentiment could mean long-term conflict the Kremlin would have to explain to everyday Russians.

The U.S. and NATO have said they are prepared to support an insurgency in the country that could cost Moscow a fortune in lives and resources, potentially hurting Putin's domestic standing.

"There will be a massive insurgency," Haring said. "And Putin knows this. He knows he can't take all of Ukraine." 

"Resolve will be much higher than in 2014 for one simple reason: because they have much more to lose," Lutsevych said, citing polls finding Ukrainians support their local governments and increased civil liberties at high rates.

"They are not dissatisfied, disengaged, disenfranchised citizens. They are citizens who have pride in their communities. ...  So that creates quite a strong network of us, a kind of social cohesion that it will be much harder for Putin to crack."

Follow Matthew Brown online @mrbrownsir.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Will Russia invade Ukraine? Talks, timing, desire for a long fight factor into strategy

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