Fears of Russian invasion of Ukraine rise despite US push for diplomacy

·6 min read

U.S. officials are raising alarm that Russian threats of war against Ukraine are spiking dangerously despite the conclusion of a week of diplomatic meetings aimed at avoiding the outbreak of open conflict.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan warned Thursday that Russia is preparing a "false flag" operation to use as a pretext to launch an offensive against Kyiv on top of its buildup of more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine's eastern border.

In addition, the U.S. envoy to the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe issued a stark warning on Thursday that the "drumbeat of war is sounding loud."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that Washington is prepared to continue dialogue with Moscow to address its security concerns, but is prepared, along with allies in Europe, to impose severe costs if Russia attacks Ukraine.

Russian officials appear undeterred, calling the efforts at diplomacy a "dead-end" following three successive meetings in Europe. Russia has engaged in talks with U.S. in Geneva, NATO in Brussels and the OSCE in Vienna. However, they have dismissed the benefit of returning to the table.

Russia and the West are at an impasse over Moscow's demand that NATO cease expansion, close its door to Ukraine's application and provide other security guarantees.

The U.S. and its allies have rejected closing NATO's "open-door policy," but opened the door to "reciprocal" actions that both sides can take to increase transparency about military movements on the continent and limit weapons proliferation.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Kremlin is demanding written answers from the U.S. and NATO to its security demands, suggesting a ticking clock.

"We won't wait forever," he said in a news conference on Friday.

Further raising the stakes, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov floated the idea of Moscow positioning troops in Cuba and Venezuela should tensions with the U.S. increase, a radical statement that U.S. officials have criticized as "bluster."

Moscow's dark tone followed what's being described as a massive cyberattack against Ukraine that temporarily took down multiple government websites on Friday.

While the perpetrators of the attack are yet to be identified, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian foreign ministry told Reuters that Moscow has previously carried out similar attacks.

The Biden administration also released an assessment that found the Russian government has pre-positioned a group of operatives to stage an attack against its proxy forces that are fighting in eastern Ukraine and blame it on Kyiv, using the "false flag" operation as a pretext for war.

"We are concerned that the Russian government is preparing for an invasion in Ukraine that may result in widespread human rights violations and war crimes should diplomacy fail to meet their objectives," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday.

"As part of its plans, Russia is laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for invasion."

Republican lawmakers are slamming President Biden's strategy as appeasing and emboldening Russian President Vladimir Putin to threaten Ukraine without consequence, warning the longtime Russian leader seeks to expand his hold on the former Soviet state beyond the Kremlin's occupation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Senate Democrats' opposition on Thursday to a sanctions bill against a Russian gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, has further fueled the GOP's criticism that the president is pulling his punches against Moscow.

"Putin invaded Ukraine to take Crimea. Inadequate consequences - including Biden lifting Nord Stream 2 sanctions - beget further aggression," Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), tweeted on Friday. "Now is the time for us and our allies to tell Putin precisely what severe consequences will follow further aggression or another invasion."

The administration stressed it did not anticipate any breakthroughs with Russia following the week of discussions, but that they served as a starting point for both sides to lay their security concerns on the table.

"We've been very clear with Russia throughout this. There are two paths, and they can decide which path to follow. There is the path of diplomacy and dialogue, and we're committed to that," Blinken said in an interview with NPR on Thursday.

"On the other hand, if they choose confrontation, if they choose aggression, we're fully prepared for it."

This includes sanctions against Russian financial institutions, blocking exports and blacklisting key industries, enhancing NATO force posture near Russia's border with Europe and increasing defensive military support to Ukraine.

William Taylor, a former ambassador to Ukraine and vice president for Strategic Stability and Security at the U.S. Institute of Peace, echoed the administration's assessment that aggressive Russian rhetoric is "bluster" and that the performance of the U.S. delegation to Europe and projection of unity with NATO allies and partners in Europe sent a strong signal of deterrence.

"The United States and NATO didn't blink, and they won't blink and the Russians will figure that out, and they will come back to the negotiations that have been offered. That's what I hope will happen, and I think that will happen," he said.

"If war breaks out, it's Vladimir Putin's decision, I think we have to be crystal clear about that."

Still, he said the cyberattack on Ukraine provides the administration an opportunity to "put a stake in the heart of Nord Stream."

"That's been a problem ever since it was proposed and this would be a great opportunity to shut it down. This [cyber] attack... it is an attack on a NATO partner, on a U.S. partner and this would be a good opportunity for the Germans to just shut Nord Stream down," he said.

Biden in May waived sanctions on the pipeline's parent company, Nord Stream 2 AG, in an effort to preserve relations with Germany, which supported the pipeline.

An agreement reached in July between Washington and Berlin stated that Germany would impose costs on Russia should it take aggressive action against Ukraine or use the pipeline to hold energy delivery to Europe hostage.

Yet Germany's Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht on Thursday sought to separate the pipeline from the tensions with Moscow.

"We should not drag [Nord Stream 2] into this conflict," Lambrecht told the broadcaster RBB in an interview, Reuters reported.

"We need to solve this conflict, and we need to solve it in talks - that's the opportunity that we have at the moment, and we should use it rather than draw a link to projects that have no connection to this conflict."

John Herbst, senior director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center and a former ambassador to Ukraine, said the German defense minister's remarks revealed the failure of Biden's decision to waive the sanctions.

"The administration has coddled the Germans, they've let the Germans take them to the cleaners," he said. "The administration's policy has just been weakness, weakness, weakness on Nord Stream 2."

A Republican-led effort in the Senate on Thursday to pass legislation that would override the president's waiver and impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG failed to garner the 60 votes needed to overcome the filibuster. The final vote was 55-44, with six Democrats voting for the legislation.

Herbst pushed for the Biden administration to carry out actions that it says it would only do if Russia further invaded Ukraine, such as increasing U.S. troops in Europe in NATO countries and sending Ukraine defensive military assistance.

"None of these things that we're talking about - weapons to Ukraine or the force posture of NATO - is an aggressive act against Russia," he said. "They would be taken for defensive purposes."

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