Do not be distracted by Russia’s announcement on Sunday of a troop withdrawal from the Ukrainian border. It may appear that Moscow is signaling, ahead of the just announced U.S.-Russia talks early next year, that it favors a diplomatic approach to resolving the current standoff with the U.S. and NATO over Ukraine. But in all likelihood it is just a ruse.
There’s a more than 50% chance that Putin will attack Ukraine in the coming weeks, regardless of the outcome of another round talks between Moscow and Washington planned for January 10 through 13.
Removing 10,000 troops from the region is more likely a redeployment rather than an actual withdrawal and does little to downgrade Russia’s battle-ready status. Putin has amassed up to 175,000 troops and a formidable arsenal of combat hardware in the area. By dialing up and down the war rhetoric and varying the force posture, Putin seeks to confuse Washington about his intentions in order to achieve tactical surprise when he launches his assault.
The evidence Putin is about to act is overwhelming.
The Russian authoritarian provided justification for striking Ukraine during his speech to his Ministry of Defense and his four-hour press conference, last week. Members of his cabinet have mirrored Putin’s belligerent tone since. Putin likely calculates that the risk of taking over at least eastern Ukraine now is lower, during the Biden presidency and while Ukraine is not a NATO member, than if he waited.
In his recent statements, Putin outlined the Kremlin’s concerns about Ukraine hosting NATO offensive weapons systems if it becomes a member of the Alliance, an outcome Moscow views as an unacceptable threat to Russia’s security.
On Sunday, Putin’s press secretary Dmitriy Peskov stated that NATO’s expansion aimed at incorporating Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, is a matter of Russia’s life or death. In an exclusive interview that aired on Russian state TV on Sunday, Putin said that Russia is being forced to say -- "perhaps in an unusual way . . . stop!" He added, "We have been pinned down against the red lines." That phrase invokes a legendary Russian World War II rallying cry for the troops to defend the motherland before a bloody battle. He also said that there was "nowhere to retreat."
Putin also said last Tuesday that even if Russia’s requirements for security guarantees are met, Russia cannot trust U.S. assurances.
The Kremlin’s recently proposed U.S.-Russia treaty on security measures is full of un-meetable demands that intentionally violate the fundamentals of U.S. foreign policy, which seeks to prevent Russia from emerging as a rival power in Eurasia.
Washington believes that post-Soviet states, such as Ukraine, have the right to develop as democracies, while Moscow views them as its security buffer and sphere of influence.
Putin is therefore building a case for taking action against Ukraine regardless of how the US responds to his demands. "We were lied to. Blatantly," Putin stated in his staged press conference with the Russian and foreign media.
He insisted that there were five waves of NATO expansion despite U.S. assurances that the Alliance will not move closer to Russia even "an inch." He said that Russia is fully justified in whatever action it takes because it is defending itself from NATO. He later ruled out any compromises because the U.S., with its offensive strike weapons, is on "Russia’s doorstep."
Putin likely is looking for a pretext to strike. In an unprecedented move, last week, Russian Defense Minister Shoigu accused the U.S. of preparing a provocation on Russian borders involving chemical weapons. On Christmas Eve, Moscow promptly accused Kiev of an "act of terrorism" after someone threw a Molotov cocktail bottle at the Russian consulate in Ukraine’s city of Lviv.
On Monday, Russian Deputy Defense Minister General Fomin stated that NATO was preparing for a large scale high intensity conflict with Russia. On the same day, Foreign Minister Lavrov accused the U.S. of trying to provoke a "tiny war" in Ukraine, in order to later blame Russia.
Putin also seeks to secure his legacy as a modern "Czar Vladimir" who restored the Russian Empire. He reveres his namesake, medieval Grand Prince Vladimir, who brought Christianity in the 11th century to the first Slavic state, Kievan Rus, which included the principalities of Russia, Ukraine, and some other neighboring areas.
Putin stated several times last Tuesday that Ukraine was never a separate country until it became one of the republics of the USSR, in 1922. Having always decried the USSR’s collapse, Putin has a visceral Russian nationalist imperial streak and would accept a high risk to achieve his personal ambitions.
Putin’s recent speeches resembled his address in the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea in March 2014. For example, he claimed then that Crimea was always an inseparable part of Russia, in people’s hearts and minds. This past July, he asserted that "Russians and Ukrainians were one people – a single whole."
The Russian leader is obsessed with fear that the United States seeks Russia’s collapse — similar to the demise of the USSR and believes he has a window of opportunity to act. He is worried that the risk of Kiev joining NATO will increase if a stronger U.S. leader, and one not preoccupied with domestic upheaval and COVID-19, comes to power. He also knows that the Pentagon is only beginning its transition from counter-terrorism operations onto a new footing focused on major states such as China and Russia.
Russian troops are primed to fight in the cold, as they always have been, and Putin likely believes the West won’t wade into the snow to help Ukraine. Emboldened by his ability to blindside the West, such as by previously invading Georgia and taking Crimea, and by extorting concessions from Joe Biden, Putin is positioning to outmaneuver Washington.
Regretfully, the Biden administration’s "experts," like Obama’s before them who fecklessly sought a "reset" with Russia, are likely to fall into Putin’s trap.