Update on the Ukraine-Russia-NATO crisis

13 February 2022

Western analysts estimate Moscow has deployed more than 135,000 troops on the borders of Ukraine, both in Russia and in Belarus – and some now believe nearly all the necessary elements are in place for an attack. Some diplomats and experts think that a Ukrainian declaration of neutrality is a way out of the crisis. On 7 February President Emmanuel Macron of France met with President Vladimir Putin to discuss the situation, and according to The Economist President Macron subsequently indicated that it was “one model on the table”, but insisted that creative negotiators would have to “invent something new”. Russian diplomats have said they might entertain the idea. Another slightly different model (and certainly not a new one) 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.

Macron and Biden continue talks with Putin (12 February)

US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked by phone for over an hour in what reports described as a final attempt to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine which the US has warned could start as early as 16 February. A statement said that during the call Biden made clear if Russia undertakes a further invasion of Ukraine the US and allies “will respond decisively and impose swift and severe costs on Russia”. (These include further economic sanctions on Russia and bolstering NATO’s military capacity on its eastern borders). It added that the US was “prepared to engage in diplomacy” but “are equally prepared for other scenarios”. Putin apparently told Biden that the US response to Russia’s main security demands had not taken into account key concerns and that Moscow would respond soon, Russian official Yuri Ushakov said the phone call took place against a backdrop of “hysteria” in the west about an impending Russian invasion that he said was absurd.

Earlier in the day, following the French president Emmanuel Macron’s discussions with Putin in Moscow on 7 February (see below), in a 90-minute telephone call Macron and Putin discussed ways to move forward on the implementation of the Minsk Agreements as well as conditions for security and stability in Europe. Macron told Putin that sincere negotiations are incompatible with an escalation in tensions over Ukraine.

During a call between the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, Blinken warned of “a resolute, massive and united Transatlantic response” to any Russian aggression. Lavrov said the US and EU have ignored Russian proposals on security and accused the US of a “propaganda campaign” about possible Russian aggression. The US State Department ordered non-emergency staff from the US embassy in Kyiv to leave.

US presidential warning (11 February)

US president Joe Biden warned that “things could go crazy quickly” in Ukraine and again urged American citizens to leave immediately in an interview with NBC News. Biden reiterated that under no circumstances would he send US troops to Ukraine, even to rescue Americans in case of a Russian invasion. “That’s a world war. When Americans and Russians start shooting one another, we’re in a very different world”, he said. British troops helping with training in Ukraine will leave the country this weekend, the UK armed forces minister James Heappey said as he warned that Russia could launch an attack “at no notice”.

Dialogue of the ‘mute with the deaf’ (10 February)

UK foreign secretary Liz Truss held talks with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow. The two-hour meeting did not appear to go well, as Lavrov described speaking with his British counterpart as “disappointing” and “was like a conversation of “the mute with the deaf”. Lavrov also reported that Russia’s buildup of troops around Ukraine posed no real threat and that Moscow’s security demands have been ignored by the West. The UK foreign secretary disputed Lavrov’s claims that NATO’s more recent expansion eastward posed a threat to Russia. Truss said, “No one is undermining Russia’s security. That is simply not true”.

Ukraine’s foreign ministry accused Moscow of showing a “blatant disregard for the rules and principles of international law” by planning missile tests in the Black Sea that Kyiv said would prevent shipping navigation there and in the Sea of Azov. Russia also started 10 days of joint military exercises with Belarus forces, inside Belarus. Western officials fear that the military exercises involving an estimated 30,000 new Russian troops will escalate the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia and Belarus reported that the purpose of the exercises is to test the readiness of their forces in neutralising military threats and securing borders.

In Berlin, talks in the Normandy Format (involving officials from France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine) failed to reach any breakthrough in ending the eight-year separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. It had not been possible to “overcome” Russia and Ukraine’s different interpretations of the 2015 Minsk agreement aimed at ending fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces, said Russian envoy Dmitry Kozak. His Ukrainian counterpart, Andriy Yermak, said both sides agreed to keep talking. “I hope that we will meet again very soon and continue these negotiations. Everyone is determined to achieve a result,” he said.

During a visit to NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the Ukraine crisis had entered “the most dangerous moment”, adding “our intelligence remains grim” but also indicated that he didn’t think a decision has yet been taken by President Putin to order an invasion. “This is probably the most dangerous moment. I would say that in the course of the next few days, in what is the biggest security crisis that Europe has faced for decades, we’ve got to get it right”, Johnson said. The UK has put 1,000 troops on standby in case of a humanitarian crisis. The NATO Secretary General said “this is a dangerous moment for European security. The number of Russian forces is going up. The warning time for a possible attack is going down”. (He had said the same thing during an interview on CNN the previous day). He underlined that while NATO is prepared for the worst, it is still committed to finding a political solution. He reiterated once again his invitation to Russia to continue dialogue in a series of meetings in the NATO-Russia Council. At the same time, the Secretary General emphasised that NATO will not compromise on core principles: the right of each nation to choose its own path and NATO’s ability to protect and defend all allies. The Secretary General also announced that the next meeting of NATO Defence Ministers (on 16-17 February) will assess options to further strengthen allied security, which includes the possibility of additional battlegroups in the south-eastern part of the Alliance

Meanwhile, Ukraine is training its citizen-soldiers for guerrilla warfare

Evacuation plans announced (9 February)

The White House approved a plan for US troops in Poland to help evacuate Americans from Ukraine if Russia invades. US troops will begin setting up checkpoints, tent camps and other temporary facilities along the Ukrainian border to prepare to assist Americans fleeing the country. US officials report that the troops are not authorised to cross the border into Ukraine and are not permitted to evacuate Americans or conduct aircraft missions from inside the country.

Macron-Putin summit (7 February)

French President Emmanuel Macron met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss the security crisis. Macron reported that Europe was at a “critical crossroads”. At the start of the meeting, Putin praised Macron for trying to resolve the “fundamental questions of European security”. Macron reported that the dialogue was “essential, more than ever, to ensure the security of the European continent”. After the five-hour meeting President Macron reported that the situation remained “extremely tense” and Putin said that the meeting could create “a foundation for our further steps”. Putin also reported that Russia is working on a new written response in its correspondence with NATO about security demands. He predicted that the dialogue between Russia and the West would likely continue despite NATO’s rejection of Moscow’s demands.

After meeting with the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, President Biden announced that if Russia invades Ukraine, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project (an $11 billion 750 mile-long undersea pipeline that would deliver natural gas directly from Russia to Germany) would not go forward. While the German Chancellor remained vague about whether he would agree to terminate the pipeline project if Russia were to wage war on Ukraine, Biden reported that he and Scholz were “absolutely united” on the decision. Germany appears to be the most reluctant of US allies to commit to lethal aid for Ukraine. The country sent helmets instead of weapons to the Ukrainian military and refused to allow Estonia to send German-made howitzers. 

US reinforcements arrive in eastern Europe (6 February)

The first US troops landed in Poland and Romania, after the US announced on 2 February that it was deploying and repositioning more than 3,000 troops to strengthen Eastern European allies and bolster NATO’s capabilities in the region amid the heightened tensions. NATO’s annual Winter Camp military exercise in Estonia ended. The exercise which commenced on 29 January involving close to 1,400 soldiers was the largest winter exercise for the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) Battlegroup.