US hopes to deter Russian invasion of Ukraine
MUNICH — President Biden and his top aides acknowledge that they are jeopardizing American credibility by constantly renewing the alarm that Russia is only “days away” from unleashing an unprovoked ground war in Europe that could killing tens of thousands of Ukrainians in its opening hours, and throwing the world back into something akin to the Cold War.
But Mr Biden’s aides say they are willing to take that risk.
They’d rather be accused of hyperbole and fearmongering than be right, they say, if that’s what it takes to dissuade Russian President Vladimir V. Putin from going ahead with an invasion they fear will does not stop at the borders of Ukraine.
“If Russia does not invade Ukraine, then we will be relieved that Russia has changed course and proven our predictions wrong,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told the United States Security Council Thursday morning. United Nations, in a speech given by Mr. Biden had asked him to give only a few hours before. “It would be a much better result than the course we are on now. And we’ll gladly take any criticism anyone throws at us.”
“I am not here today to start a war, but to prevent one,” he said, an indirect reference to the famous but false case of Colin L. Powell, also presented at the United Nations, on the reasons why the United States and its allies had disarmed Saddam Hussein.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Blinken make no secret that they suspect their increasingly desperate and last-ditch efforts to deter calamity will likely fail. Their pessimism was reinforced on Thursday by a series of escalations. Russian-backed forces in the Donbass region appeared responsible for bombing a school, and later claimed they had come under fire from Ukrainian forces, exactly the kind of incident Mr Blinken warned of. it could be used as a pretext to justify an invasion.
Mr. Biden will hold a phone call Friday afternoon with transatlantic leaders about the reinforcement of Russian military troops on the Ukrainian border and continued efforts to continue deterrence and diplomacy.
Russia admitted on Thursday that it expelled the No. 2 diplomat from the US embassy in Moscow and sent a contradictory note to Washington in which it mocked claims it planned to invade. He said no such action was planned, then warned he would use “measures of a ‘military-technical character’ if the West failed to meet its security demands with ‘legally binding safeguards’. (It’s not entirely clear what “military-technical” means to Mr. Putin, but Washington officials think it could encompass everything from cyber weapons to relocating nuclear weapons closer to home. ‘Western Europe or the United States.)
While Mr Biden insisted that “everything indicates that we have that they are ready to enter Ukraine”, a growing number of diplomats and leaders traveling to Munich for an annual security conference said that they thought the best they could hope for was not an invasion. — but a long siege of Ukraine. In this scenario, Mr. Putin could do anything but send his troops across the border – cyberattacks, assassinations, coup plots, disruption of trade – in the hope of overthrowing the government without triggering sanctions.
“My feeling is that he will avoid an overt border crossing with Russian troops and pursue short-term options,” former deputy national security adviser and former US ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute said Thursday.
“He likes this job,” Mr. Lute said. “Everyone is paying attention to him, like they haven’t in years. And he feels in control.
Everything happens on the surface. Behind the scenes, Mr Biden’s aides are looking to Mr Putin’s comments for evidence that he feels he may have overplayed his hand – that his troop gathering succeeded in unifying the 30 normally restive nations that make up the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Mr Putin has reinvigorated an alliance that spent years not understanding its purpose once it lost the adversary it was meant to contain, the Soviet Union. Now the lockdown is back. And European allies have largely aligned themselves, albeit reluctantly, behind a sanctions plan that would cut off technology from Russian industry and separate its major banks from global financial markets.
While the Russian leader has worked hard to insulate his economy from the shock of the sanctions – the government has a large war chest and little debt – Mr Putin may well be looking for cracks to exploit without risking his economy.
Mr Biden continued on Thursday to take advantage of the fact that this is the first major geopolitical crisis to unfold in a world of open-source intelligence, making it easier to expose Russian deceptions.
Americans don’t need the photographs of spy planes John F. Kennedy showed them in 1962, when he exposed the Soviet missile buildup in Cuba as a way to coerce Russian leader Nikita S. Khrushchev , to conclude a secret agreement.
In this case, some of the best evidence is in the unclassified world. On television, on news sites and on Twitter, satellite photographs of private companies like Maxar help settle the debate over whether Mr. Putin is really sending forces into retreat or whether, as the Americans, he adds to the more than 150,000 troops Mr Biden said are massing on the border, along with tanks and a fearsome range of missiles.
So there is no real debate about what is happening at Ukraine’s borders. The firepower is there to see, and it’s part of Mr. Putin’s strategy of coercion. The only mystery remaining is what Mr. Putin intends to do with it. At first, US officials believed he planned to use them to intimidate the Ukrainian government, force it to give up its ambitions to join NATO at some unspecified point in the future and stop its drift towards the West.
Understanding the escalation of tensions over Ukraine
Then, after Mr Putin released a proposed ‘treaty’ in December, it seemed he had a bigger plan: to expel US and NATO forces from former Soviet bloc countries that joined NATO, and roll back the world order created after the Soviet collapse 31 years ago. Two weeks ago, the US assessment changed again: Mr. Putin, intelligence and military officials said, was targeting Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, after concluding that cyberattacks and subversion alone were unlikely to move the government. Only a full-scale invasion would do that.
So the Biden administration is trying to test Mr. Putin’s results. If the problem can be solved by negotiating a new arms control pact that addresses Mr Putin’s concerns about two anti-missile sites in Poland and Romania, or rules regarding military exercises organized by Russia and NATO, then there is room for an agreement, the two men said. And they said it was possible to renegotiate the Minsk agreement, a set of commitments made by Ukraine and Russia after the annexation of Crimea. These were selectively ignored, on both sides.
But it seems unlikely to longtime US officials and many European diplomats filtering through Munich that Mr Putin went to all that expense and effort, and put his legacy on the line, just to paint inside. rows of the existing order. . He wants to overthrow it.
Since Mr. Putin came to power 20 years ago, “Russia has challenged this system,” Angela Stent, a Brookings Institution fellow and former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs. “The current crisis is ultimately about Russia redrawing the post-Cold War map and seeking to reassert its influence over half of Europe, based on the claim that it guarantees its own security. .”
That doesn’t mean there is no way out.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest to nuclear annihilation in the Cold War, Mr. Khrushchev finally brought his missiles home, in exchange for a secret promise – which Mr. Kennedy kept months later – to withdraw the American Jupiter missiles. from Turkey, where their nuclear warheads were within range of the Soviet Union.
It was a historic example that languished in the background of Situation Room debates over how to negotiate with Mr Putin, according to two participants, who described the debates on condition of anonymity. When Mr. Blinken offered in his speech on Thursday to meet with his Russian counterpart in Europe next week, and ultimately to convene “a summit of key leaders, in the context of de-escalation, to reach an agreement on our mutual concerns in security”, ‘ it was part of the search for a modern analogue.
Mr. Biden is no stranger to such compromises. He is perhaps the last remaining politician in Washington who played a key role in debates over how to resolve disputes over long-forgotten arms control treaties with the Soviets, known as SALT I and SALT II. He has already noted, at a press conference in January, that Ukraine will not be accepted into NATO for a long time, a signal to Moscow that there is room for negotiation.
And there may be. But by next week, a senior administration official said late Thursday that it might be too late.
Michael D. Shear contributed reporting from Washington.