A Premonition of War

Rhetoric is usually the herald of war. Thus, something about it: because we are approaching the turn of the year, and many military experts place the timing of the Russian attack on Ukraine in January-February, when the winter freeze will not prevent the movement of armoured heavy military equipment.

It should be recalled that the Russians, as in spring, have again concentrated some 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border and are not talking about withdrawing them.

The German daily Bild in its December 4th issue reported, citing a NATO source familiar with Western intelligence, that the Russians were planning a military invasion of Ukraine in three steps in early 2022.

The aim is to seize two thirds of the Ukrainian territory, including the capital Kiev.

According to the newspaper, the planned attack has been known since mid-October, when the US Central Intelligence Agency intercepted reports from the Russian military. According to them, Vladimir Putin was planning to use 175,000 troops for the attack, but has not yet made a final decision on whether or not to go ahead with the plan.

The Washington Post was the first to report this news on the morning of 4 December, and Bild has now fleshed out the details of the planned operation of the Kremlin.

The news provoked (by analogy with the rolling of a snowball that is turning (or rather, has already turned) into an avalanche, a wave of narratives, which is still ‘developing’.

On 14 December, the official spokeswoman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia Maria Zakharova, in a commentary to the Russian business daily Kommersant on the subject of the information provided by Bild and The Washington Post (and not only by them, but also by practically the entire international press), said that the United States were deliberately creating tensions around Ukraine and at the same time blaming it all on Russia.

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky stated in an interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica on 13 December that the Russians had not withdrawn their forces from his country’s border following talks between Presidents of Russia and the United States (which took place on 7 December, formally at the initiative of US President Joe Biden). Moreover, an additional area of tension has been created in the Sea of Azov, where Moscow controls and has ‘blindly’ closed 70% of the area to shipping from other countries.

Although the entire political class of the democratic world – from the US President, to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (UK) Boris Johnson, to the Head of the European Union (EU) diplomacy Joseph Borel – has been repeating over the past weeks, as if in a frenzy and almost on a daily basis, that in the event of an aggression on Ukraine, Moscow would pay an incredible, if not unbearable, price.

For example, Chris Murphy, Connecticut Senate Democrat, a member of the U.S. Congressional Foreign Relations Committee, stated on CNN Sunday programme State of the Nation (05 December) that in the event of an aggression, Ukraine could be a second Afghanistan for Russia, and that it was the job of the members of the Congress to be the potential attacker’s diplomatic, political and military partners.

President of the European Commission (EC) Ursula von der Leyen said on 15 May: ‘The EU wants good relations with Moscow, but is ready to take unprecedented measures in the event of aggressive actions of Russia in Ukraine’.

The narrative emanating from the West is aptly summarised by the statement of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland Zbigniew Rao on 14 December that the EU, like the Euro-Atlantic community as a whole, must seek to reduce tensions around Ukraine through deterrence of Russia.

The President of Russia also has something to repeat. Also on 14 December, in a telephone conversation first with the President of Finland Saul Niinistö, which is not part of NATO and then with the leader of France, an influential member of the Alliance Emmanuel Macron, Vladimir Putin indicated to both of them (not for the first time) the need for immediate international negotiations on guarantees that NATO would not expand eastwards and that the countries bordering Russia, above all Ukraine, would not be equipped with weapons that would threaten it.

As the topic has developed, it has become clear that it is not only Ukraine that is the problem in the Russian interpretation of the events of the last few weeks. A new deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Ryabkov indicated in an interview with the Novosti news agency on 13 December that Russia was ready for an armed and technical response after NATO and America failed to give Moscow guarantees not to deploy new weapons across Europe.

President of Estonia Alar Karis told the TV channel ERR portal on 10 December that on the eve of a telephone conversation with the leaders of the eastern European NATO members, the U.S. President had promised to deploy additional Alliance forces to these countries if necessary.

The same was reiterated by the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on 13 December if Moscow did invade Ukraine.

Ukrainians themselves are also adopting uncompromising rhetoric. The Minister of Defence of Ukraine Oleksiy Reznikov, in a commentary for Politico on 14 December, said that after the attack on his country, Russia would send its army to Europe to show what it can do. War will come to the whole of the Old Continent.

Former Speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament (Rada) Dmytro Razumkov told the TV channel Ukraine 24 on 12 December that the talks between Presidents Joseph Biden and Vladimir Putin did not remove the possibility of aggression by Moscow, and that the details of the talks remain a mystery to Ukrainians.

On 7 December, CNN quoted the Minister of Defence of Ukraine as saying that Russia would not win a war against his country, but that Russian soldiers would return in coffins in the event of a conflict.

In an article published on 3 December ‘Europe’s Future will be Decided in Ukraine’ for the Atlantic Council, Washington’s centre for geopolitical analysis, Dmytro Reznikoff pointed out that the world needs to convince the Russians that the cost of an attack on their country will be too high.

Another statement by the Minister of Defence in the publication: in the event of a war, three to five million Ukrainians will flock to Europe to escape aggression of Moscow, and the refugee problem will be just one of many facing the Old Continent.

According to leader of the Ukrainian party Power and Honour and former Head of the State Security Service Ihor Smeshko, Russia is keeping its military machine in combat readiness, like a horseshoe around Ukraine – all the necessary military training has been carried out, and plans for invasion are definitely in place. The West could therefore help Ukraine to strengthen its defences in a more meaningful way.

Many analysts have brought the phrase ‘Eastern Front’ back into the current rhetoric, a phrase that has not been used since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.

A former NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow from 2012 to 2016, pointed out in a virtual discussion at the Kiev Security Forum and the Atlantic Council that Vladimir Putin might start a limited aggression against Ukraine in order to avoid a massive NATO response.

A member of the European Parliament Estonian Riho Terras during the program of Delfi told that he believed that the President of Russia would not let go of the option to attack Ukraine, regardless of any sanctions.

In the politician’s view, the timing is just right, with presidential elections looming in France, a new chancellor in Germany, and unsuccessful performance of the U.S. President (probably referring to his conversation with his Russian counterpart on 7 December – A.S.).

According to the member of the European Parliament, aggression of Russia against Georgia in 2008 could have been foreseen at least six months ago. Although the aggression against Ukraine in 2014 initially seemed unrealistic, the first signs of preparations for it could be seen as early as December 2013.

Then nothing was done, simply there was no prevention at all. What prevents the Kremlin from trying to repeat it?

Especially when the objective of Moscow is not limited to the so-called ‘near abroad’. The Russian ruling class wants to reshape the security architecture across Europe in such a way that Moscow can exert influence on its neighbours and have a buffer zone from the Western democracies, with, for example, no NATO or American military presence in the Baltic States.

That is some very tough and very uncompromising rhetoric in just one week or so in December. And that is just pars pro toto.

On the other hand, the international rating agency Fitch, by affirming relatively high BBB debt rating of Russia on 4 December, signalled that it does not believe that the tensions on the Ukrainian-Russian border will escalate into a full-fledged war. The agency’s analysts merely pointed out that the build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine is increasing geopolitical and sanction threats.

The Russian economist Vladislav Inozamtsev says quite categorically that there will be no invasion of Ukraine, even if Kiev tries to regain the east of the country (the Donbas) by military means. What the Kremlin can do most is to strengthen the separatist military forces in the east of Ukraine.

Of course, Vladimir Putin is deeply annoyed by what is happening on western borders of Russia, because in his world view, in the spirit of Yalta (the 1945 conference between the victors of  World War II, the US, the Soviet Union and the UK, de facto consolidated the division of spheres of influence), it must be ‘clear’ who is who. Let’s say he doesn’t see NATO missiles in Belarus, and he is satisfied.

But nothing is clear about Ukraine, from the point of view of the leader of Russia. He is therefore inviting the West, and above all the U.S. President, to a dialogue in his own way (by mobilising troops near Ukraine), in the hope of raising his own international weight.

But it is too risky for Russia to go to war, and the Kremlin is well aware of this.

It is, however, perhaps too hopeful.

The logic of the events of recent weeks can be summarised in the assessment of Valeriy Chaly, a Ukrainian diplomat and former envoy to America. The imperative of the President of Russia for NATO not to expand eastwards ultimately raises the question of the Alliance’s very existence (no one ‘from the outside’ can tell it where and how to expand), and is therefore unenforceable in advance.

From the point of view of the Kremlin, Ukraine is its territory, where it is fighting with the West to move the ‘front’ away from Russia. Amazingly and surprisingly, Russia actually considers NATO to be its real threat.

Ukraine must therefore be prepared for all scenarios, especially as the subject of the sanctions ‘sting’ has become obsolete, and Moscow is probably even prepared to cut itself off from the SWIFT international settlement system.

In fact, the decision to accelerate the development of a ‘sovereign’ payment system, confirmed by a virtual conversation between Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on 15 December, confirms this.

And finally, according to Valeriy Chaly, aggressive actions of Vladimir Putin against Ukraine have so far achieved nothing, on the contrary, they have only stimulated NATO’s eastward activity, with the Alliance not only promising, but also redeploying forces from the West to Eastern Europe.

This is why the President of Russia needs to ‘demonstrate his muscles’ – to show that he is the indispensable leader of the country. Recent history shows (aggression against Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014) that this can be achieved through small victorious wars.

Therefore, not only in January-February, but maybe even for the next few years, we will have to live in tension.

And in Russia itself, over 75% of Russians polled by the Levada Center, a non-governmental polling and sociological research organisation, said they do not rule out the possibility that tensions between Russia and Ukraine could escalate into war. There is no end to international tension.

Arūnas Spraunius

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