The buildup of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine, and on the Crimean Peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014, is prompting an intense debate among American and European policymakers about how to respond, say Western officials.
They are split over why Russian President Vladimir Putin is amassing troops. They are also wrestling with their options for deterring him from making any dramatic military moves on Ukraine and, separately, for responding if Putin does order his forces to seize more Ukrainian territory, most likely Mariupol on the coast of the Sea of Azov and its surroundings.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg cautioned Moscow last week against “any further provocation or aggressive actions” after U.S. officials warned that Russia might be preparing a winter offensive in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says Russia has amassed about 100,000 soldiers near Ukraine’s border.
Washington has warned European allies that the Kremlin may be “attempting to rehash” 2014, when it annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and Russia-backed separatists seized a large part of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, bordering Russia.
Accusations against Kyiv
Kremlin officials maintain that Russia is not getting ready to invade Ukraine and accuse Ukrainians of mobilizing military units along their shared border.
“Kyiv is itself building up its forces. Kyiv is being helped to build up its forces. Kyiv is being supplied with a significant number of weapons, including modern high-tech weapons,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Monday in Moscow.
Some former U.S. diplomats and officials believe Washington and its European allies should be ready to supply Ukraine with more high-tech weaponry, and sooner rather than later. They see the Kremlin’s anxiety over supplies of Western high-tech weapons as the best policy option to deter any Kremlin adventurism.
The question U.S. and European policymakers must answer is whether they are “going to help Ukraine with the weapons and the training it needs to defend itself,” said Daniel Fried, a former American diplomat who served as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs and was the U.S. ambassador to Poland from 1997 to 2000.
Fried, now an analyst at the Atlantic Council, a New York-based research group, ticks off a list of equipment that could be sent, including more Javelin anti-tank missiles, air defense and electronic warfare systems, artillery pieces and radars.
“That kind of stuff,” he said. “Ukrainians know how to use them. And I think the equipment needs to be delivered either now to deter the Russians or in the pipelines so the Russians know it can arrive very quickly.”
He said his preference would be for the equipment to arrive sooner rather than later.
“If you look at the military history of the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, the Georgians gave the Russians quite a bit of trouble when they used Israeli weapons that Tbilisi had purchased,” he told VOA. “The Russians had trouble combating them, and their casualties were pretty significant.
“The Georgians didn’t have enough of the Israeli weaponry. They were just overwhelmed. But it was an interesting lesson. The Russians are used to their own weapons. They may find the U.S. weapons much harder to deal with.”
The Biden administration has sent more weapons to Ukraine but far short of what it could dispatch. Two refitted former U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats arrived Saturday. And the Ukrainians received a large consignment of U.S. ammunition earlier this year, including some Javelin anti-tank missiles, prompting criticism from Moscow.
The administration is mulling sending more, officials say.
Republican lawmakers have been urging a significant step up in American military support, but some U.S. and European policymakers are anxious and counseling caution.
They fear that sending more arms supplies could backfire, escalate tensions and force Putin into a full-blown confrontation, when all along he may have just wanted to taunt and goad. Others fear a limp response from the West risks emboldening Putin, who might see it as an indication that Washington and Western European capitals will do nothing but wring their hands if he is more aggressive.
“When we call on Putin to be more transparent, what we are trying to convey to the Russians is that unpredictability increases the chances of inadvertent miscalculation,” a European diplomat based in Brussels told VOA, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“We are left in a quandary: Logically, Moscow can ill afford the economic costs of an incursion, and there seems no popular support in Russia for military action, and a high casualty toll would likely go down badly. But you could have said similar things in 2008 and 2014. Few predicted the war with Georgia or the moves on Ukraine,” he said.
“That makes deciding on our policy options especially challenging.”
Aside from what to do to deter Russia, Western policymakers are also wrestling with how to respond if Moscow does take aggressive action.
Some analysts argue the West has little room to add new sanctions on top of those imposed on Russia in the wake of the seizure of Crimea and others imposed after the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny, which the West blamed on the Kremlin. But former Ambassador Fried said he thought there was “significant room for escalating sanctions, especially in the financial sector.”
“We can go after Russian banks. We can sanction Russia’s metals and mining industries,” he said.
“The Russia sanctions that are currently in effect, while costly for the Russian economy, are far below the level that could be imposed,” Fried added. “While some in Europe and the United States have argued that there is little room to escalate these measures, there is in fact still a lot of space to do so.” His list would include targeting Russian state-owned banks such as VTB and Gazprombank, especially their investment arms. Neither bank has been sanctioned before.
The subsidiaries and capital market financing of energy giants Gazprom and Rosneft could also be blocked. Russia’s mining and metals sector, which has been mostly untouched in the current sanctions, could also be hit. Fried and others highlight the steel company Evraz, controlled by oligarch Roman Abramovich, and Alrosa, a state-controlled diamond concern.
On Monday, Russia’s stock market saw the biggest sell-off since August, plunging by 3.58%. Traders and market analysts cited geopolitical risks as one of the key drivers rattling investors.
The possibility of expanded sanctions has also prompted alarm in some European quarters. Objections include the impact they may have on ordinary Russians. Sanctions also wouldn’t be cost-free for Europeans. The Kremlin could retaliate by cutting off, or heavily reducing, natural gas supplies to Europe, which is already struggling with an unprecedented energy squeeze.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson focused on that worry last week, chiding Germany and others in a speech in London for being so dependent on Russian energy supplies, saying they should stop “mainlining Russian hydrocarbons.” In a warning to European countries heavily dependent on Russian gas, he suggested Putin could indeed be serious about restricting supplies from pipelines running through Eastern Europe if the West sought to defend Ukraine.
“We hope that our friends may recognize that a choice is shortly coming between mainlining ever more Russian hydrocarbons in giant new pipelines and sticking up for Ukraine and championing the cause of peace and stability, let me put it that way,” he said in the speech.
What would West do?
How much appetite European countries will have for a strong response in the event of a Russian incursion is a key question for policymakers and independent analysts. Putin and the Kremlin are likely expecting European weakness. That may “play into Putin’s calculations,” said Benjamin Haddad, senior director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council. “Putin may think this is the right moment to act, with Germany going through a political transition and France heading towards an election.
“But I do think that would be a miscalculation.”
Haddad said he expected the new center-left German government, led by Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat, would “want to show it can be a good transatlantic partner.” And regarding France, he noted that President Emmanuel Macron “spoke to Putin last week about Ukraine, and the messaging was pretty clear on French support for Ukrainian territorial integrity.”