Leaders and analysts across Europe are increasingly worried that, after three failed diplomatic meetings between the U.S. and Russia last week, the first full-blown military showdown on the Continent in three decades may soon erupt as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to amass fighters and weapons on the periphery of Ukraine.
On Monday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin over Russia’s ongoing “unexplained and unjustified” military buildup along Ukraine’s borders, describing the current situation as a “defining moment for European security” and warning that “any further aggression will come with a high cost for Moscow.”
With 100,000 Russian troops already gathered along the border with Ukraine and more soldiers, tanks and missiles heading to Belarus for joint military exercises, Putin paints NATO and the U.S. as the aggressors in the current showdown, demanding that NATO permanently block Ukraine from joining the alliance and kick out those Eastern European members that have joined since 1997. Those demands were shot down last week during diplomatic meetings between Russia and the U.S., NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, further darkening hopes that Putin might pull back from the brink of war with Ukraine.
On Friday, after the Kremlin signaled that continuing talks was useless, 70 Ukrainian government sites were hit in a massive cyberattack. Microsoft later warned that malware, yet to be activated, was implanted in government computers during the attack, which Kyiv accuses Moscow of orchestrating.
With the U.S. warning of an imminent attack possibly triggered by false flag operations, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is heading to Ukraine and will also stop in Berlin to discuss the sanctions that EU countries will impose if Russia goes ahead with an invasion. On Friday, he'll meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva.
In anticipation of an attack, the U.K. has flown short-range antitank weapons to the Ukrainian government, while families of Russian Embassy staff in Kyiv have reportedly evacuated to Moscow. Yet the mood in the Ukrainian capital is anything but panicked.
When Alex Danylyuk, the country’s former finance minister, recently led reporters on a tour, stopping Kyivians on the street to ask how worried they were about a Russian attack, he was shocked by their responses. “For the majority, it’s not a priority — it’s not a real threat,” he told Yahoo News. “It’s absurd when our international partners are more concerned than we are.”
Ukrainian investigative reporter Tanya Kozyreva concurs. “People are not well informed” about the possibility of a Russian incursion, she told Yahoo News, adding that most citizens “don’t believe Russia would invade.”
While Kozyreva has been advising friends in Kyiv to carry their passports and plenty of cash wherever they go, few are listening. “Nobody’s running to the store to stock up on supplies,” she said. “People are tired of being afraid of Russia and war.”
Like Danylyuk, she thinks that while Ukraine’s military is prepared, the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky is purposely downplaying the increasing likelihood of war. “They’re acting like the government in ‘Don’t Look Up,’” she said, referring to a recent movie about a looming disaster, though in Ukraine, it’s more “Don’t Look North, South or East.”
Bohdan Nahaylo, editor in chief of the independent newspaper Kyiv Post, attributes the current reaction to battle fatigue. “You have to remember that Ukraine has been under attack from Russia since at least 2014,” he told Yahoo News, referring to the year Putin’s forces annexed Crimea and kicked up an ongoing proxy war along Ukraine’s eastern border that has killed over 14,000 Ukrainians. The current buildup at the border, he said, “is a threat that’s taken very seriously by the government. But on the other hand, there is an attempt to downplay it so that there’s no mass panic.”
“Most of us don’t believe that an [attack by Russia] is going to happen,” said public relations consultant Lesia Donets. However, she saw levels of concern shoot up last month after the Ministry of Defense ordered women of selected professions, such as engineering and medicine, to register for the draft. Another jolt occurred when the Kyiv City Council published a map of bomb shelters, a move that prompted her to actually discuss contingency plans with her friends.
When Kozyreva visited the bomb shelters, most of which date back to World War II, she found that many of them have since been converted into hair salons and restaurants.
U.S. and European officials, analysts and former officials, meanwhile, are alarmed at Russia’s escalation of military manpower and equipment. Few now believe that the buildup is merely a bluff to try to extract NATO concessions.
“This looks like a very serious threat,” Nigel Gould-Davies, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Yahoo News. With so many troops at the border, he said, “it would be irresponsible to assume these forces will not be used to fight. Putin’s use of military power has surprised the West several times before. This, though, would be on a far greater scale.”
Many analysts worry that even though Putin surely knew that his demands would be rebuffed, the Kremlin’s inability to garner concessions in last week’s talks only increased the likelihood that Russia will strike. “Now they’ll want to show that they tried the diplomatic route and that didn’t work, and now is the time for another option, and those options include military and cyberattacks,” Agnieszka Legucka, senior research fellow on Russia at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, told Yahoo News.
The question will be how Moscow will seek to legitimize an attack to the world and to the Russian people.
David Stulík, Russia expert at the European Values Center for Security Policy, a think tank in Prague, has observed how the Kremlin is reframing the conflict, portraying Ukraine as being infiltrated by the U.S. and NATO, which have missiles with chemical payloads pointing at Moscow. “One of my friends was present at the meeting last week between NATO and Russia,” Stulík told Yahoo News. “Russians were asked a couple of times to specify how Ukraine is threatening their national security. And the Russians were not able to provide a rational response to that.” That tracks with what he’s been seeing on Russian state media, that Russia “is being threatened by NATO, which would start an aggression against Russia from Ukraine.”
Other scenarios predict that Russian operatives in Ukraine would threaten ethnic Russians living there, giving Moscow a reason to invade to protect them, or even release chemical weapons to justify an invasion. “It’s not impossible,” John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told Yahoo News, “to imagine Putin ordering Russian special forces in Ukraine, which we think may be there already, to launch some sort of chemical attack designed to look like the Ukrainians did it.”
If Putin does attack, there’s equal consternation about his endgame.
“I've been saying since Moscow began its war in Ukraine [in 2014] that Putin's foreign policy is focused on Ukraine — but his ambitions are much greater,” added Herbst. “He is pursuing a revisionist foreign policy designed to change what was established when the Cold War ended. And that means Russian control of some kind over the post-Soviet space.”
Indeed, Russia’s neighbors are jittery, said Emil Avdaliani, a professor at the European University in Tbilisi and director of Middle East Studies at Geocase, a Georgian think tank. “Russia has occupied or annexed various neighboring territories more times than any other country over the past decades. It constantly manipulates its gas resources to garner influence over the West. It’s clear that Russia is a geopolitical threat of varying degrees to the neighboring or distant European states.”
NATO’s eastern flank, which includes Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, is on high alert since the buildup began, Legucka said.
Evelyn Farkas, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, looks at what is happening with grave concern. She believes that Putin is trying to rearrange the world order.
“Americans should care,” she said, “because if Putin gets away with what he’s doing in Ukraine, he’ll turn his attention to other states that were in the Soviet sphere of influence,” such as the Baltics — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — and Poland, all NATO members. “And then he will start threatening their sovereignty. And the U.S. will have an obligation to protect those countries under NATO’s Article Five. If we don’t, then NATO will fall apart. And if NATO falls apart, then Putin will do everything he can in Europe, and then all the Europeans will have to fend for themselves.”
Brussels-based Roland Freudenstein, vice president of GLOBSEC, concurs, but he thinks Putin is gambling heavily on Russia’s skills in hybrid war and on his revamped military — and may have boxed himself into a corner. Depending on how the world reacts, and how Russians react to soldiers returning in body bags, any military incursion into Ukraine could blow up in Putin’s face, he said. Freudenstein also noted that part of Putin’s demand that NATO stop adding members was to prevent Finland and Sweden from joining.
“That was suddenly a hot topic last week again, with both Finland and Sweden saying that they weren’t applying for NATO membership now, but they totally rejected Russia’s demand that they declare they would never join NATO.”
Freudenstein and others believe that Putin may in fact be driving Finland and Sweden right into NATO’s arms, just one bit of blowback from Russia’s renewed aggression. “I think the end of Putin may be closer than we think,” he said. “He may just about be digging his own grave here.”