Update 2 on the Ukraine-Russia-NATO crisis

20 February 2022

This week saw competing narratives of events unfolding in and around Ukraine - one claiming the withdrawal of Russian troops from the borders and another proclaiming that an attack is imminent. The United States now estimates that Moscow has deployed 169,000-190,000 personnel “in and near” Ukraine (up from estimates last week of about 135,000 personnel) – and many Western analysts and political leaders are saying that all the necessary elements are in place for an attack (although some said the same thing last week). NATO Defence Ministers issued a statement on the crisis in an around Ukraine. US Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have agreed to meet next week suggesting that diplomacy has not yet been exhausted. Despite rejecting Moscow’s main security demands, the US and NATO have agreed to engage in talks about other security measures previously proposed by Russia. Some diplomats and experts think that a Ukrainian declaration of neutrality is a way out of the crisis. Another slightly different model is military non-alignment for Ukraine, girded by support from other European non-aligned and neutral states, as well as by the UN Security Council. This option is discussed here and will be explored in more detail in a new paper shortly. This news brief provides an update on developments in the crisis in the past week.

Further reading on a people-centred peace process and other positive proposals for deescalating the crisis:

Almut Rochowanski, What would real peacebuilding in Ukraine look like? Open Democracy, 7 February 2022

Thomas Shea and Kateryna Pavlova, Austria escaped crisis by declaring neutrality. Ukraine could follow that lead, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 7 February 2022

Ray Acheson, Militarism Cannot Prevent War: An urgent call for de-escalation, demilitarisation, and disarmament in relation to Ukraine and beyond, Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom, 14 February 2022

Independent American and Russian Women Call for Peace, The Nation, 15 February 2022 (also published in the independent media outlet Novaya Gazeta) - a letter written by American and Russian women participating in a dialogue and peacebuilding initiative founded in 2021 by Women Transforming Our Nuclear Legacy and the American Committee for US-Russia Accord

European Leadership Group statement, Younger Generation Leaders Network (YGLN) Group Statement on the West-Russia crisis, 15 February 2022

European Leadership Group statement, The Expert Dialogue on NATO-Russia Risk Reduction: Seven recommendations, 16 February 2022

Hall Gardner, The NATO-Russia-Ukraine train wreck: Options for peace, Wall Street International Magazine, 18 February 2022


Russian nuclear exercises in Belarus and Western calls for unity at the Munich security conference (19 February)

Russia announced plans to stage massive drills of its nuclear forces, including multiple practice missile launches, in joint exercises with Belarus.

At the Munich Security Conference—an annual conference on international security policy that has been held in Munich since 1963—the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stressed the importance of a strong transatlantic bond for European security, and called on Russia “to change course, to step back from the brink, stop preparing for war and start working for a peaceful solution”; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on Western powers to drop their policy of "appeasement" towards Moscow and urged allies to do more; US Vice President Kamala Harris reinforced key US messages that there would be a "swift, severe and united" response if Russia invades Ukraine and that retaliatory measures would include "significant and unprecedented" economic costs; and UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson said “we stand on the brink” of war in Europe at “very dangerous moment”. The focus of the conference this year is on how to “overcome collective helplessness and the rising tide of crises”, but Russia is not officially represented. (See the conference agenda and accompanying report).

NATO relocated Ukraine-based staff from the capital Kyiv to Lviv in the west of the country and to Brussels for safety reasons, a NATO official confirmed.

US estimates on Russian troop numbers (18 February)

The United States estimated that Russia has amassed up to 190,000 military personnel “in and near Ukraine” according to a statement by the US mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The statement outlined US claims that Russia “is intent on creating a pretext to justify an invasion into Ukraine. We have reports from multiple sources that provide detail on Russia’s efforts to fabricate supposed ‘Ukrainian provocations’ and shape a public narrative that would justify a Russian invasion”. The statement also pointed to an “uptick” in Russia’s cyberattacks against Ukraine’s defence and banking sectors.

UN Security Council discusses Ukraine crisis (17 February)

The Washington Post reported that US intelligence regarded the military pullback in Ukraine announced by Russia as a “deliberate ruse” and that despite Russia’s claims that it decreased its military presence, the US alleged that Russian forces increased along the Ukrainian border. President Biden told reporters that the threat of Russian invasion remained “very high” and that “every indication we have is they’re prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine”. Biden added that he expected the invasion to happen within the “next several days”.

As Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region accused each other of violating a ceasefire agreement, there was a debate on the crisis in the UN Security Council (UNSC). US Secretary of State Blinken repeated the claims that Russia was preparing a ‘false flag’ operation in his address to the UNSC: “Russia plans to manufacture a pretext for its attack” while acknowledging that “we don’t know exactly the form it will take. It could be a fabricated so-called terrorist bombing inside Russia, the invented discovery of a mass grave, a staged drone strike against civilians or a fake — even a real — attack using chemical weapons”. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin in his address to the UNSC criticised Blinken’s claim that Russia would carry out a false flag operation as “baseless insinuations”. He also reiterated that “Russian forces have been and remain on the Russian territory. The day before yesterday, some units started to move back after the exercises to places of their permanent deployment on the Russian territory. Russian officials repeatedly said, and I join them in saying that our country is conducting military exercises on its territory in a manner we find appropriate”. China blamed NATO expansion for the ongoing tensions.

On the second day of their meeting in Brussels, NATO Defence Ministers met with their Ukrainian and Georgian counterparts to discuss the deteriorating security situation. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said “Allies confirmed that NATO’s door remains open; any decision on NATO membership is for NATO allies and aspirant countries to take; nobody else”. “We cannot accept a return to an age of spheres of influence, where big powers bully, intimidate, or dictate to others. There can be no decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine; and no decisions about Georgia without Georgia,” the Secretary General added.

Cyberattacks on Ukraine; NATO defence ministers issue a statement (16 February)

Ukraine accused Russia of launching a series of distributed denial of service (DDoS) cyberattacks against government sites and critical services. The attacks disabled the web portal of the Ukrainian defence ministry and also disrupted banking and terminal services at large state-owned lenders. Ukraine’s deputy prime minister said in a statement that “This attack is unprecedented, it was prepared in advance. And the key goal of this attack is destabilization, it is to sow panic, to do everything so that a certain chaos appears in our country”. Russia denied any involvement in the cyberattacks. Meanwhile, US security agencies announced that Russian state-backed actors hacked into the systems of US defence contractors and acquired sensitive information about the development and deployment of US weapons. Cybersecurity officials have been warning of a potential wave of Russia-backed cyberattacks that could destabilise NATO countries.

At the start of the NATO Defence Ministers meeting in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the Russians have sent mixed signals: "I think the message and the signs we heard from Moscow yesterday provides some grounds for cautious optimism because that was a message about diplomacy" he said. "At the same time, we have not seen any withdrawal of Russian forces", Stoltenberg continued. "That contradicts the message of real diplomatic efforts. It remains to be seen whether there is a Russian withdrawal. We are monitoring very closely what Russia does in and around Ukraine. They have increased the number of troops and more troops are on their way. So far, there is no de-escalation".

In a statement the NATO Defence Ministers called for Russia to reverse its troop build-up and engage in further talks: "We urge Russia, in the strongest possible terms, to choose the path of diplomacy, and to immediately reverse its build-up and withdraw its forces from Ukraine in accordance with its international obligations and commitments. We remain committed to our dual-track approach to Russia: strong deterrence and defence, combined with openness to dialogue".

The United States also disputed Moscow’s claims of a partial pullback of Russian troops from the Ukrainian border. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that there is no evidence that Russian troops are leaving the border: “Unfortunately there’s a difference between what Russia says and what it does …. And what we’re seeing is no meaningful pullback. On the contrary, we continue to see forces—especially forces that would be in the vanguard of any renewed aggression against Ukraine—continuing to be at the border, to mass at the border”. The US sent F-35 combat aircraft to Germany to strengthen NATO forces in Europe.

China accused the United States of exaggerating the Russian threat toward security in Eastern Europe. A spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry told reporters that the United States is “playing up the threat of warfare and creating tension” between Russia and NATO. The spokesperson added that “Such persistent hyping up and disinformation by some Western countries will create turbulence and uncertainty to the world full of challenges, and intensify distress and division”.

Russia claims to have withdrawn some forces (15 February)

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow had withdrawn some troops from the Ukrainian border and was open to renewed diplomacy. Putin said, “We need to solve this issue today by peaceful means through a diplomatic process. We want our partners to hear our concerns and taken seriously”. Ukrainian officials expressed scepticism at the announcement. US intelligence suggested that Russian state-sponsored hackers broadly infiltrated Ukrainian military, energy and other critical computer networks to enable Russian forces to have the ability to disrupt the systems in the event of an invasion of Ukraine.

UN Secretary-General declares that “there is no alternative to diplomacy” (14 February)

The UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed his concern over the heightened tension and said that “abandoning diplomacy for confrontation is not a step over a line, it is a dive over a cliff”. During their meeting, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy sought to reduce tension with Russia by playing down talk of NATO membership for Ukraine. The US announced the closure of its embassy in Kyiv and the temporary relocation of remaining diplomats to a city in western Ukraine amidst the “dramatic acceleration  in the buildup of Russian forces” on the border. NATO and Ukraine held a workshop on national resilience at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. The workshop brought together experts from NATO and Ukraine to discuss and help strengthen Ukraine’s national resilience system. Russia refused to participate in a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) called by the Baltic states to discuss the “unusual military activity” in Belarus.

A warning from Biden to Putin (12 February)

President Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin via phone call that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would lead to “swift and severe” consequences, diminish Russia’s standing and cause “widespread human suffering”.