Russia Rejects Biden Warning of ‘Severe’ Actions if it Invades Ukraine

Russia Rejects Biden Warning of ‘Severe’ Actions if it Invades Ukraine

Russia on Wednesday rejected the prospect of U.S. sanctions against President Vladimir Putin, one of several proposed responses if Russian forces were to invade neighboring Ukraine.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that such sanctions would not be politically painful, but would be “destructive.”

U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday warned of “severe” and “enormous” consequences for Putin — including personal sanctions against Putin himself — if the Russian leader mobilizes the estimated 127,000 troops who stand ready to strike along the Ukrainian border.


“I have made it clear early on to President Putin that if he were to move into Ukraine, that there would be severe consequences, including significant economic sanctions as well as I’d feel obliged to beef up our presence, NATO’s presence, on the eastern front, Poland, Romania, etc,” Biden said, adding: “If he were to move in with all those forces, it would be the largest invasion since World War II. It would change the world.”

He also stressed that none of the 8,500 U.S. troops put on high alert this week would be moved into Ukrainian territory, and they would be deployed as part of a NATO operation, not a sole U.S. operation. He did not say when he might decide to order those troops into theater.

Biden said the United States has a “sacred obligation” to come to the aid of NATO allies that face threats. Ukraine is not a member of NATO — though it wants to be. However, neighboring Russia sees possible NATO membership as a threat and has demanded that the security alliance bar Ukraine from membership. Putin has said he has no intention to invade Ukraine but sees NATO’s eastward expansion as a threat.

“And I’ve spoken with every one of our NATO allies … virtually, and we’re all on the same page,’ Biden said. “We’ve got to make it clear that there’s no reason for anyone, any member of NATO, to worry whether or not … we — NATO — would come to their defense.”

Efforts to resolve the situation diplomatically involved talks last week among Russia, the United States, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.


Russia is awaiting a written response to its proposals, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told lawmakers Wednesday that if “the West continues its aggressive course, Moscow will take the necessary retaliatory measures.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy used a televised address Tuesday to urge calm at home.

“There are no rose-colored glasses, no childish illusions, everything is not simple. … But there is hope,” Zelenskiy said. “Protect your body from viruses, your brain from lies, your heart from panic.”

Zelenskiy said plans are being made for him to meet with the leaders of Russia, Germany and France. Officials from the four countries were due to hold talks on Wednesday in Paris.

French President Emmanuel Macron said Tuesday he would seek clarification about Russia’s intentions during a phone call with Putin scheduled for Friday.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, in a response to a question from VOA, said Tuesday that Russian forces have grown “consistently” but not “dramatically.”

“We have seen a consistent accumulation of combat power by the Russians in the western part of their country around the borders with Ukraine and Belarus,” Kirby said.


Earlier in the day, the United States warned Russia it would face faster and far more severe economic consequences if it invades Ukraine than it did when Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

“We are prepared to implement sanctions with massive consequences that were not considered in 2014,” a national security official told reporters in Washington. “That means the gradualism of the past is out. And this time, we’ll start at the top of the escalation ladder and stay there.”

The security official, speaking anonymously, said the United States is “also prepared to impose novel export controls” to hobble the Russian economy.

“We use them to prohibit the export of products from Russia,” the official said. “And given the reason they work is if you … step back and look at the global dominance of U.S.-origin software technology, the export control options we’re considering alongside our allies and partners would hit Putin’s strategic ambitions to industrialize his economy quite hard, and it would impair areas that are of importance to him, whether it’s in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, or defense or aerospace or other key sectors.”

The United States and its allies imposed less severe economic sanctions against Moscow after its Crimean takeover, but they ultimately proved ineffective, and the peninsula remains under Russian control.

Russia’s demand that Ukraine be barred from NATO has been dismissed by the West, where leaders have said they won’t give Moscow veto power over who belongs to the 30-country military alliance that was founded to counter Soviet aggression after World War II.

VOA White House correspondent Anita Powell and VOA Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report. Some information for this report came from the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

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Russian, Ukrainian Officials Take Part in Paris Talks Amid Tensions

Officials from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France are holding talks Wednesday in Paris amid tensions at the Russia-Ukraine border.

Western nations have expressed concern about the deployment of more than 100,000 Russian troops in the area and the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia denies it has such plans and has sought guarantees that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will not expand in Russia’s direction.

Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Wednesday that he hopes from the Paris talks “a good, open conversation will take place with the maximum possible result.”

Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, tweeted Wednesday that he hopes for a “constructive dialogue” in Ukraine’s interests.

The meeting follows several rounds of talks last week involving Russia, the United States, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Russia is awaiting written responses to some of its demands. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told lawmakers Wednesday that Russia would take “necessary retaliatory measures” if the West continues what he called an “aggressive course.”

Wednesday’s talks come as Russia said it was sending more troops and equipment to Belarus as those two countries prepare to hold military drills next month.

Peskov also said applying sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin would be counterproductive.

“Politically, it’s not painful, it’s destructive,” he told reporters Wednesday.

U.S. President Joe Biden said Tuesday that Russia would face “severe consequences” if it invades Ukraine, including economic sanctions that could include Putin himself.

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.

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Байден зустрінеться з лідером Катару на тлі енергетичних побоювань у Європі

Катар є одним з основних світових виробників скрапленого природного газу і входить до країн, які, як сподіваються США, можуть допомогти Європі у разі повномасштабного вторгення Росії в Україну

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Energy Contingency Plan in Motion Amid Russia-Ukraine Crisis 

The Biden administration has been working with European countries and energy producers around the world on ways to supply fuel to Western European countries should Russian President Vladimir Putin slash oil and gas exports in retaliation for sanctions imposed for an invasion of Ukraine. 

“We’ve been working to identify additional volumes of non-Russian natural gas from various areas of the world from North Africa and the Middle East to Asia and the United States,” a senior administration official said in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday. 

The contingency plan is aimed to reassure European allies concerned about the impact of Russia weaponizing its energy supply. Moscow provides approximately 40% of Europe’s natural gas, and European energy stockpiles have been significantly lower in the past few months because of reduced Russian supplies. 

A second senior administration official underscored that oil and gas exports make up about half of Russia’s federal budget revenues, which means that Moscow is just as dependent on its energy revenue as Europe is on its supply. 

“If Russia decides to weaponize its supply of natural gas or crude oil, it wouldn’t be without consequences to the Russian economy,” the official said. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to confirm reporting that Qatar is one of the countries that the U.S. and European allies are turning to.

“Our approach is not about any one country or any individual entity,” she said while briefing reporters Tuesday, adding that the administration is engaging with major buyers and suppliers of liquefied natural gas to ensure flexibility in existing contracts to enable diversion to Europe if needed. 

President Joe Biden is set to meet with Amir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar at the White House on January 31. According to the White House, ensuring the stability of global energy supplies will be one of the topics discussed by the leaders. 

While having a contingency plan is important, analysts say it won’t be easy to substitute for existing infrastructure, particularly under the current global supply chain crisis. 

“Think of a gas pipeline as a faucet. … It’s super-efficient,” said Kristine Berzina, a senior fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States. Berzina told VOA that a contingency plan would be “more of a bucket than it is a faucet.” 

US-Europe unity 

On Monday, Biden said there was total unity among Western powers on the issue of Russia’s pressure on Ukraine. 

“I had a very, very, very good meeting — total unanimity with all the European leaders,” Biden told reporters shortly after a videoconference with European leaders on the escalating Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

Some analysts, however, say Biden maybe overplaying talk of unity. 

“In Europe, people are not as gung-ho and trigger-happy as they are here in the United States,” said Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at The New School, in New York. 

For months, the U.S. and European allies have warned of swift and severe economic consequences if Putin invades Ukraine. But some European allies have been nervous about the impact on their economies, including on the supply of Russian natural gas — particularly during the winter months. 

Germany is especially reliant on Russian energy. Berlin has remained ambiguous about whether in the event of war it is prepared to shut down the just-completed Nord Stream 2 undersea pipeline, which will pump natural gas from Russia to Germany. 

“Despite all this conversation of the united West over Russia, it’s not as united,” Khrushcheva said. “And Putin knows that.” 

On Tuesday, Biden reiterated his position. “I made it clear to Putin early on if he went into Ukraine there would be consequences,” he said.

But analysts say that in moving forward with his harsh rhetoric on Russian sanctions, Biden needs to be mindful of the political calculation for European leaders. 

“The Western European population isn’t necessarily willing to suffer for Ukraine,” Berzina said. 

On Monday, the U.S. put 8,500 troops on heightened alert for possible deployment to Eastern Europe, amid escalating tensions in the crisis along the Russia-Ukraine border, where Putin has deployed 127,000 troops, according to U.S. and Ukrainian estimates. 

The Russian troop deployment is similar to Moscow’s move ahead of its 2014 annexation of Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea, which triggered a series of international sanctions against Moscow but ultimately failed to deter Putin’s land grab. 

“They have not only shown no signs of de-escalating — they are in fact adding more force capability,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said about the Russian military buildup during a press briefing on Monday. 

Both countries stepped up their military preparations Tuesday, with Moscow conducting a series of military exercises and Washington delivering a fresh shipment of weapons to Ukraine. 

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Explainer: What Post-unrest Reforms Is Kazakhstan Proposing?

Kazakhstan’s leader has trumpeted ambitious economic reforms following the worst unrest in the country of 19 million in three decades. The measures are aimed at reducing the state’s deep involvement in the economy, bridging the gap between the wealthy minority and the struggling majority — and eliminating triggers for further turmoil. 

Experts say the announced changes look good on paper, but they question whether the new government in the energy-rich former Soviet state will implement them. 

A look at the causes of discontent and the government’s promised reforms: 

What’s roiling Kazakhstan? 

On January 2, small protests broke out in an oil city in western Kazakhstan where residents were unhappy about a sudden spike in prices for liquified gas, which is widely used as automotive fuel. 

The demonstrations soon spread across the vast country, reflecting wider public discontent with steadily decreasing incomes, worsening living conditions and the authoritarian government. By January 5, the protests descended into violence, with armed groups storming government buildings and setting cars and buses on fire in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. 

To quell the violence, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev requested help from a Russia-led security alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The bloc of six former Soviet states sent more than 2,000 troops. 

Authorities arrested thousands of people, and more than 220 — mostly civilians — were killed. About a week after the protests began, order was largely restored.

Why were gas prices such a sore point?

The price of gas soared to $0.27 (120 tenge) per liter, a significant increase in the country where, according to Tokayev’s own admission, half the population earns no more than $114 (50,000 tenge) a month. The spike came about as the government moved away from price controls as part of efforts to build a market economy. 

Analysts say the increase came as a complete surprise. 

“All these decisions were made without transparency. … People woke up to a new gas price that was 2½ times higher,” said Kassymkhan Kapparov, an economist in Kazakhstan and founder of the Ekonomist.Kz think tank. 

The western region of Kazakhstan where the protests started also produces oil and gas. Residents were outraged that the price increased while their salaries remained stagnant, said Rustam Burnashev of the Kazakh-German University in Almaty, an expert on regional security in Central Asia. 

“They were saying, ‘Guys, we’re producing it, and now we (have to) buy it at astronomical prices?’ They agree that gas prices (all over the world) grow, but in that case (they say) that our salaries should too,” Burnashev said. 

How did Kazakhstan end up in this situation? 

Kazakhstan became independent when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In the first post-independence years, the country saw rapid economic growth and rising prosperity. For almost three decades, it was dominated by Nursultan Nazarbayev, its last Communist Party leader at the time of independence. 

The country profited from its natural resources, most notably oil. Foreign investors were welcome, money flowed into state coffers, and social spending helped keep abject poverty low. But key sectors such as mining, telecommunications and banking were dominated by state-owned companies and a few figures connected to Nazarbayev, either politically or through family ties. 

As time went on, Nazarbayev increasingly monopolized the country’s politics, suppressing opposition and introducing a highly personalized form of rule as “Elbasy,” or “leader of the nation.” Nazarbayev resigned in 2019 but until recently remained head of the ruling Nur Otan party and chair of the Security Council. Tokayev, the chair of the upper house of parliament, was appointed president and renamed the capital of Astana to Nur-Sultan, to honor his predecessor. 

What are the issues behind the public discontent? 

Discontent among ordinary people goes way beyond gas prices. People are aware of the immense economic privilege of those around Nazarbayev and the country’s striking level of inequality, in which 162 people control more than half the country’s wealth.

Meanwhile, the average monthly wage is around $558 (243,000 tenge), according to government statistics, although the cost of living is relatively low compared with that of Western countries. 

A recent report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project found that a charitable foundation created by Nazarbayev held assets worth $7.8 billion, including stakes in banking, shopping centers, logistics firms and food production. 

British authorities issued “unexplained-wealth orders” to Nazarbayev’s daughter and grandson, demanding the two reveal where they obtained funds for three London properties worth more than $108 million (80 million pounds). A judge threw out the orders. 

What approach is the current president taking?

Tokayev publicly acknowledged Kazakhstan’s rampant inequality and initially tried to quell the protests with a few concessions: He capped gas prices for 180 days, named a new Cabinet and ousted Nazarbayev from the National Security Council. 

The president outlined future reforms to “reset” the economy, remarking, “We need to define new ‘rules of play’ — fairer, more transparent and just.” 

Some of the ambitious measures he touted included reducing the government’s involvement in and oligarchs’ influence on business; reforming the Samruk-Kazyna sovereign wealth fund, which owns major companies; and ensuring fair competition, a better investment climate and the integrity of private property, in part by overhauling the country’s justice system. 

What chance of success do the proposed reforms have?

Kapparov, the economist, said important questions remain about the Samruk-Kazyna fund and its companies. 

“Will there be a privatization? On what scale? In which time frame?” he asked. “Will it be open to everyone, including foreign investors? These issues haven’t been mentioned.” 

The inner circle’s power and influence raise serious obstacles to any wide-ranging reform that would be required to privatize state companies and allow outside interests to compete in key sectors, said former World Bank official Simon Commander, now managing partner at emerging markets advisory firm Altura Partners. Tokayev’s speech, while interesting, is “certainly more radical than is likely to be possible. … Let’s hope he turns out to be a genuine reformer.” 

But he added: “I’m very skeptical. Their economic and political structure hems them in.” 

What about political reforms? 

During his years in office, Tokayev has also promised limited political reforms, including local elections. 

But the crackdown on protesters suggests authorities don’t intend to allow genuine political opposition, and without political reform, economic reform is difficult to imagine. 

Greeting discontent with more than 12,000 arrests “is a pretty good metric for how the regime thinks it needs to respond,” Commander said. 


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Biden Says He Is Open to Sanctioning Putin Personally if Russia Invades Ukraine

Russia says it is watching “with great concern” a U.S. move to put 8,500 troops on alert for possible deployment to Eastern Europe, amid fears a Russian invasion of Ukraine could be imminent. As VOA’s senior diplomatic correspondent Cindy Saine reports, diplomatic efforts continue as the U.S. and NATO boost their military deterrence.

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Capsized Boat Found Near Florida; 39 People Missing

The U.S. Coast Guard searched on Tuesday for 39 people missing for several days after a boat believed to be used for human smuggling capsized off Florida’s coast en route from the Bahamas. 

A good Samaritan called the Coast Guard early Tuesday after rescuing a man clinging to the boat 72 kilometers (45 miles) east of Fort Pierce, the maritime security agency reported on Twitter.

The man said he was with a group of 39 others who left the island of Bimini in the Bahamas on Saturday night. He said the boat capsized in severe weather and that no one was wearing life jackets. 

The Coast Guard is calling it a suspected human smuggling case. Officials said on Twitter that they are searching by air and sea over a roughly 218-kilometer (135-mile) area extending from Bimini to the Fort Pierce Inlet.

A cold front late Saturday brought rough weather to the Bimini area. Tommy Sewell, a local bonefishing guide, said there were 32 kph (20 mph) winds and fierce squalls of rain on Sunday into Monday.

Migrants have long used the islands of the Bahamas as a steppingstone to reach Florida and the United States. They typically try to take advantage of breaks in the weather to make the crossing, but the vessels are often dangerously overloaded and prone to capsizing. There have been thousands of deaths over the years. 

The Coast Guard patrols the waters around Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and the Bahamas.

For the most part, the migrants are from Haiti and Cuba, but the Royal Bahamas Defense Force has reported apprehending migrants from other parts of the world, including from Colombia and Ecuador earlier this month. 

On Friday, the Coast Guard found 88 Haitians in an overloaded sail freighter west of Great Inagua, Bahamas. 

“Navigating the Florida straits, Windward and Mona Passages … is extremely dangerous and can result in loss of life,” the Coast Guard said in a statement last weekend. 

Last July, the Coast Guard rescued 13 people after their boat capsized off Key West as Tropical Storm Elsa approached.

The survivors said they had left Cuba with 22 people aboard. Nine went missing in the water. 


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State Department Releases Annual Trafficking in Persons Report

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated human trafficking, the U.S. State Department said in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report released Tuesday. 

“This year’s Trafficking in Persons Report sends a strong message to the world that global crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and enduring discriminatory policies and practices, have a disproportionate effect on individuals already oppressed by other injustices,” U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in the report’s introduction.

“These challenges further compound existing vulnerabilities to exploitation, including human trafficking,” he said. 

In the report, Blinken calls for other countries to join the United States to improve “our collective efforts to comprehensively address human trafficking.” 

He said doing so requires mitigating “harmful practices and policies that cause socioeconomic or political vulnerabilities that traffickers often prey on.” 

The report said the COVID-19 pandemic has brought “unprecedented repercussions for human rights and economic development globally, including in human trafficking.” 

“Governments across the world diverted resources toward the pandemic, often at the expense of anti-trafficking efforts, resulting in decreased protection measures and service provision for victims, reduction of preventative efforts, and hindrances to investigations and prosecutions of traffickers,” the report said. 

The report explained that those involved in anti-trafficking efforts “found ways to adapt and forged new relationships to overcome the challenges.” It added that traffickers were also adept in altering their methods. 

Some specific cases mentioned in the report include examples in India and Nepal in which young poor girls left school to help support their families due to the pandemic’s economic impact. Some, the report said, were forced into marriage for money. 

The report cites incidents in the United States, the United Kingdom and Uruguay in which landlords forced female tenants who were economically hurt by the pandemic to have sex with them when the tenant could not pay rent. 

In Haiti, Niger and Mali, “gangs” working in camps for displaced people used lax security caused by the pandemic to force residents into sex-for-money acts. 

In Myanmar (formerly Burma), which has been roiled by COVID-19 and political unrest, the report said 94% of households saw a decline in income, leaving some members vulnerable to sex trafficking. 

“If there is one thing we have learned in the last year, it is that human trafficking does not stop during a pandemic,” Kari Johnstone, senior official and principal deputy director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said in the report’s introduction.

“The concurrence of the increased number of individuals at risk, traffickers’ ability to capitalize on competing crises, and the diversion of resources to pandemic response efforts has resulted in an ideal environment for human trafficking to flourish and evolve,” Johnstone said. 


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Макрон 28 січня проведе розмову з Путіним

Переговори стануть частиною «вимогливого діалогу» з Росією і дадуть можливість отримати «роз’яснення» з приводу намірів Москви щодо України, заявив президент Франції

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US Warns Russia Economic Sanctions Would Be Sharper Than in 2014

The United States warned Russia Tuesday that it would face faster and far more severe economic consequences if it invades Ukraine than it did when Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

“We are prepared to implement sanctions with massive consequences that were not considered in 2014,” a national security official told reporters in Washington. “That means the gradualism of the past is out. And this time, we’ll start at the top of the escalation ladder and stay there.”

The official, speaking anonymously, said the U.S. is “also prepared to impose novel export controls” to hobble the Russian economy.

“You can think of these export controls as trade restrictions in the service of broader U.S. national security interests,” the official said.

“We use them to prohibit the export of products from Russia,” the official said. “And given the reason they work is if you … step back and look at the global dominance of U.S.-origin software technology, the export control options we’re considering alongside our allies and partners would hit (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s strategic ambitions to industrialize his economy quite hard, and it would impair areas that are of importance to him, whether it’s in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, or defense or aerospace or other key sectors.”

The U.S. and its allies imposed less severe economic sanctions against Moscow after its Crimean takeover, but they ultimately proved ineffective, and the peninsula remains under Russian control.

The U.S. is also working with energy producers around the world, another security official said, to supply fuel to Western European countries in the event Putin cuts off Russia’s flow of natural gas to the West.

One of the U.S. security officials echoed President Joe Biden in saying that the U.S. and its Western allies are “unified in our intention to impose massive consequences that would deliver a severe and immediate blow to Russia over time, make its economy even more brittle and undercut Putin’s aspirations to exert influence on the world stage.”

Tuesday’s White House warning came as Russia said it is watching “with great concern” as the U.S. on Monday put 8,500 troops on heightened alert for possible deployment to Eastern Europe. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated to reporters Russian accusations that the United States is escalating tensions in the crisis along the Russia-Ukraine border, where Putin has deployed an estimated 127,000 troops. 


Biden met virtually Monday with key European leaders to discuss the ongoing threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.  

“I had a very, very, very good meeting — total unanimity with all the European leaders,” Biden told reporters after hosting a secure video call with allied leaders from Europe, the European Union and NATO.  

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office released a statement that supported Biden’s summation, saying, “The leaders agreed on the importance of international unity in the face of growing Russian hostility.” 

Biden has not decided whether to move U.S. military equipment and personnel closer to Russia. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in advance of the meeting with the European officials that the United States has “always said we’d support allies on the eastern flank” abutting Russia.  

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin placed 8,500 U.S. military personnel on “high alert” of being dispatched to Eastern Europe, where most of them could be activated as part of a NATO response force if Russia invades Ukraine.  

“It’s very clear the Russians have no intention right now of de-escalating,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters. “What this is about, though, is reassurance to our NATO allies.” 

Biden has ruled out sending troops to Ukraine if Russia invades the onetime Soviet republic but vowed to impose quick and severe economic sanctions on Moscow.  

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Putin ‘Playing Poker Rather Than Chess,’ Says Former UK Spy Chief

Why won’t Russia’s Vladimir Putin let Ukraine go? He might not be able to, according to a former head of Britain’s MI6 external intelligence agency, Alex Younger.  

In an interview Tuesday with the BBC, Younger said he cannot see how the Russian leader can back down as fears mount that Putin is poised to order a Russian invasion of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic.

Younger said the Russian president was “playing poker rather than chess” to create options for himself. But Younger added, “At the moment I cannot see a scenario where he can back down in a way that satisfies the expectations that he has created.”

He added, “It feels dangerous and it’s clearly getting more dangerous. It’s hard to see a safe landing zone given the expectations that President Putin has created.”

British officials Tuesday said elements of a “Russian military advance force” are already active inside Ukraine. “We are becoming aware of a significant number of individuals that are assessed to be associated with Russian military advance force operations and currently located in Ukraine,” said James Heappey, Britain’s armed forces minister.

His remarks coincided with Ukraine’s SBU security service saying in a statement it had broken up a group of saboteurs preparing a series of destabilizing attacks along Ukraine’s borders. The SBU said the saboteurs intended to target infrastructure “coordinated by Russian special services.”

Last week, the Pentagon accused Russia of preparing false flag attacks. “It has pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct what we call a false flag operation, an operation designed to look like an attack on them or Russian-speaking people in Ukraine as an excuse to go in,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington.

Russian officials deny any plans to invade Ukraine, despite their building up military forces along their neighbor’s borders, where Ukraine’s defense ministry estimates 127,000 troops have been deployed. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has dismissed accusations that Russia plans to stage an offensive, describing the charges as “hysteria.”

But as tensions soar in eastern Europe, some Western diplomats and analysts fear the geopolitical confrontation is approaching a point where it might be impossible to avoid conflict and Putin may have backed himself into a position where he has no off-ramp, if he is not to lose face.

Putin has long appeared set on challenging the outcome of the Cold War and eager to re-establish a Russian sphere of influence in eastern Europe. Maintaining influence over Ukraine and halting the country from joining NATO are crucial elements of that project.

“Vladimir Putin sees the current security architecture as both unacceptable and dangerous to Russia. It is unacceptable because it manifests a series of tightening military, political, and economic relationships between Ukraine and the West, and Putin sees the West as fundamentally hostile to Russia,” according to Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage of the German Marshall Fund, a Washington-based research group.

“What Putin wants is to unwind the tightening military, political, and economic relationships between Ukraine and the West. He realizes that this aim cannot be accomplished through persuasion alone,” they add.

Ukraine’s drift toward the West has long frustrated the Russian leader. In 2008, Putin told then-U.S. President George W. Bush, “You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country.” He has not shifted his view since. After annexing Crimea, and as separatist agitation encouraged by the Kremlin in eastern Ukraine intensified, Putin said, “Russians and Ukrainians are one people. Kyiv is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Russia is our common source, and we cannot live without each other.”  

Last year the Russian leader wrote a 5,000-word tract, titled, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” in which he argued Ukraine can only be sovereign in partnership with Russia and has been weakened by the West’s efforts to undermine Slav unity. One historian described the essay as a “call to arms.”

The rallying cry predates that essay, though. Back in November 2014 in Donetsk, newly arrived pro-Moscow fighters from Russia’s Caucasus region, mainly Chechens and Ossetians, were in no doubt as to why they were in Ukraine’s Donbas region, recently seized by a rag-tag collection of insurrectionists, separatists and unemployed youngsters.

As far as they were concerned, they were defending Mother Russia from NATO and reclaiming Ukraine. A bearded 28-year-old ethnic Ossetian, a bear of a man with a gnarled left ear and veteran of Russia’s 2008 five-day war against Georgia, told this correspondent, “Two of my grandparents were killed here in Ukraine during the Second World War fighting against the fascists, and I have to finish their work.”

He and his Ossetian comrades, seasoned combat fighters, claimed to be on leave from the Russian military. They said the Maidan uprising that toppled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of President Putin, nearly a decade ago, was the handiwork of NATO, the Americans and Europeans and all part of a plot against Russia.

“NATO bullied us in Georgia and now they are doing the same again here, and we have to stop them. This is the land of my ancestors, and I have to participate. If you don’t stop fascists, they grow, and when we have finished here in the Donbas, we will then go to Kyiv.”

The march on Kyiv never happened and the conflict remained limited to the Donbas, claiming from its outset more than 15,000 lives. Some fear Putin, who famously dubbed the collapse of the Soviet empire “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” might seriously be weighing an assault on Ukraine’s capital.

The Chechens, Ossetians and ethnic Russians arrived in large numbers in late 2014 to stiffen and organize local separatists and help them organize a pushback against a Ukrainian counter-offensive. They were parroting what they had heard from the Kremlin since Putin first took office in 1999, but which has led to a crescendo since 2008 that Russia is besieged by determined adversaries and was robbed when the Soviet Union collapsed, with the biggest theft being Ukraine.

That view, though, glides past the history of the breakup of the Soviet Union. It collapsed itself in the wake of a failed KGB coup to unseat Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev when Russia’s Boris Yeltsin and his counterparts in Ukraine and Belarus announced after meeting in December 1991: “the USSR as a subject of international law and geopolitical reality has ceased to exist.”

Western leaders had no hand in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, say authoritative historians, and it prompted the alarm of Western leaders, who worried about what would happen to the Soviet nuclear arsenal, which was spread out across Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Nonetheless, Putin “looks more determined than ever” to turn the clock back, says Frederick Kempe, president of the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based research group. He sees Putin as an opportunist testing the West but with a clear direction.

“The problem isn’t the nature of Putin’s next move but rather the troubling trajectory behind it, one that has included Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, its 2014 annexation of Crimea,” he says.

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