Russia continues to apply maximum pressure and play a duplicitous game. On one hand it continues to preach a diplomatic solution, despite its unreasonable demands, while simultaneously threatens Ukraine with the prospect of a full-scale open war.
In recent days, Moscow has claimed that it is carrying out a military withdrawal, however its actions suggest otherwise, especially with the expulsion of the number two of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
Furthermore, the Kremlin continues to use the Donbas as a testing ground and springboard for its aggression against Ukraine. Recently, the pro-Russian rebels have conducted heavy artillery fire on populations and civilian infrastructure along the entire so-called "line of contact" in Donetsk and Luhansk with a total of 60 violations of the ceasefire, according to the Special Monitoring Mission of the OSCE, when two and eight violations are typical on a daily basis.
In this charged atmosphere of pre-war tensions, the Ukrainian government is trying to weather the geopolitical storm, calling for calm between blocs. Although a full-blown conflict has yet to materialize, the Ukrainian economy today remains the biggest victim as the normality of doing business and conducting commerce is immensely challenging.
HAS SOMETHING CHANGED?
Tens of thousands of soldiers are still deployed along the entire border with Ukraine, from the westernmost territory of Belarus to Crimea.
The situation remains polarizing, while Moscow affirms that all its troops are returning to their bases and that it is releasing pressure on the border, and in the Black Sea, NATO continues to be very concerned about supposed gestures that it describes as propaganda. According to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg “There are signs from Russia that diplomacy should continue. This gives grounds for cautious optimism, but so far we have not seen any sign of de-escalation on the ground in & around Ukraine.”
Within these non-existent gestures of de-escalation are actions that point in the opposite direction to a strategic withdrawal, like the construction of new military bases, field hospitals, installation of new battalions and air squadrons near the border, etc. These types of actions are being viewed with concern not only in Kyiv but also in Washington where senior figures in the Biden Administration have expressed suspicions that Russia is indeed not pulling out. Consequently, American Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, pointed out that: "The evidence on the ground is that Russia is moving toward an imminent invasion. This is a crucial moment."
A VERY UNPREDICTABLE FUTURE
The situation this Friday, is especially worrying, mainly in Donetsk and Luhansk where there have been records of ceasefire violations in the so-called "line of contact" between the pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian troops with a total of 60 ceasefire violations logged. This escalation in violence has taken the form of heavy 120mm artillery fire that has reached local populations and civilian infrastructure along the line of contact.
The current strategy of Vladimir Putin indicates that he is waiting for any alleged aggression against the Russian-speaking minority in Eastern Ukraine or to prompt an attack by Kyiv on the breakaway provinces so that he can use it as an excuse to justify an intervention. Other options that have been pointed out as potential precursors to open conflict would be a false flag operation to which Moscow has previous experience utilizing.
The two most likely scenarios of actions that may occur in the coming days and that may eventually lead to an open start of hostilities with Russian intervention on Ukrainian soil are either false flag operations, or any military move by Kyiv as proof of armed action. The common and increasingly aggressive cyber-attack strategies that this week hit Ukrainian banks and public administrations should also be recognized.
In any case, the diplomatic route remains the priority, especially for the United States and Europe where leaders such as German Chancellor Scholz and French President Macron have recently met with President Putin. This route must be exhausted to the maximum, but the continued military provocation like the current one on the border, could still produce an unpredictable outcome.
REACTIONS IN IN NEIGHBOURING COUNTRIES
In recent weeks the United States has increased its number of troops to Eastern Europe, strengthening NATO's Eastern flank with significant deployments in Poland. At the same time, Warsaw is also strengthening its defence capabilities through recent purchase of advanced equipment from Washington. The US State Department has approved the sale to Poland of 250 Abrams M1A2 SEPv3 tanks, the latest version of the vehicle, the Polish defence minister announced on Friday. The tanks, with an estimated purchase price of $6 billion, are part of a programme to modernize the Polish armed forces.
As for Slovakia, the Slovak parliament recently approved a defence agreement with the United States. President Zuzana Čaputová has already ratified the agreement, but the move has drawn much criticism in the country's political sphere.
WHAT IS IT TO COME?
Recently the British press has drawn attention to the fact that Putin has made the decision to invade Ukraine and that almost half of the Russian military forces are within 30 kilometers of the Ukrainian border.
Despite this, this weekend the Munich Security Conference (MSC) will take place, which will be attended by notable participants like US Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, NATO Secretary General of Jens Stoltenberg and Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky. However, the Russian government has declined the invitation to attend. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said, "It is a pity that Russia does not take advantage of this opportunity for dialogue." She also said, "We will use Munich to send a message of unity: we are ready for a serious dialogue on the security of all."
Despite not attending in Munich, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet next week with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. They will meet at a place yet to be determined in Europe provided Russia does not invade Ukraine, according to Washington. Joe Biden will meet virtually today with the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Britain, EU and NATO.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, President Putin and Belarussian President Lukashenko have met after the apparent end of the maneuvers that have been carried out jointly in recent weeks on the borders with Ukraine, military exercises that have aroused alarm in the West due to their magnitude and proximity to the border. Russia has threatened this Thursday to take "military-technical measures" if negotiations with the United States on Ukraine and a new international security architecture fail.
Ultimately, this is precisely what Putin seeks, not to annex a low strategic value area of Ukraine, but through these diplomatic and military pressures, to renegotiate a new global security scenario in which Russian priorities are recognized. However, the dangerous move could be very costly for the Kremlin.