Western governments are steeled for a prolonged confrontation with Russia as Moscow continues to reinforce its military on Ukraine’s borders in a build-up many fears will lead to a full blown invasion or a new era of cold war-style aggression that is neither war nor peace .
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, this week described the situation as Europe’s “new normal” in which “Moscow has made it clear that it is prepared to contest the fundamental principles that have underpinned our security for decades. . . by using force ”.
“We don’t know what will happen, but we know what has already happened,” Stoltenberg said, pointing to the up to 190,000 troops the US says Moscow has now massed. “That’s the reason why we need to also consider longer term adjustments of NATO’s posture,” including “potential new battle groups in the east.”
Moscow has repeatedly denied that the invasion is on the cards and has ridiculed western intelligence assessments warning that it plans a series of “false flag” operations to serve as a pretext for military intervention, calling them “provocations”.
“What can we get out of invading?” said one former senior Kremlin official. “It’d be very unpopular domestically because so many people have relatives there, and you can’t hold the territory because of partisan warfare. . . Any realistic politician sees it is madness. ”
Yet Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has been more cryptic as he continues to insist that NATO withdraws its forces from eastern Europe and the Baltics, and at least Ukraine from joining the military alliance.
“As for how Russia will act – we will act according to plan,” Putin said on Tuesday. “What’s it going to develop from? The real situation on the ground. Who can say how the real situation will develop? Right now, nobody can. It doesn’t just depend on us. “
Meanwhile, that “situation on the ground” has become ever-bleaker, even as Western leaders pursue their diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions.
This week Kyiv experienced what it called its biggest ever cyber attack and watched with dismay as Russian naval deployments in the Black Sea effectively blocked its ports – the latest manifestations of the aggression Ukraine has faced since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
On Friday, Moscow-backed separatists in Ukraine’s breakaway Donbas region also announced a “mass evacuation” of civilians to Russia, heightening fears that Moscow is seeking to create a pretext for further aggression there.
“Putin is putting pressure on all fronts, trying to exhaust Ukraine,” said Oleksandr Danylyuk, Ukraine’s former national security chief. “The population is getting tired. It’s very difficult to live feeling that war can start at any moment. “
US President Joe Biden warned on Thursday that Russia was on the brink of invading Ukraine within “several days”. Buttressing that possibility is the fact that Putin cannot, for logistical reasons, indefinitely sustain Russia’s current level of military threat and needs to act soon while his demands for a radical overhaul of Europe’s security order have most leverage.
“Putin has marched his troops to the top of the hill. So now what? ” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security. “But Russia can keep this up for many more weeks. He can easily build more barracks and warehouses to house troops and military equipment. I think Putin can and will maintain the pressure for a while. ”
A senior German official agrees. “Putin can maintain his troops on the border for months. He can withdraw some and mass more again quickly. He can turn on a dime: he is more agile than his 30 [Nato] adversaries, who all have to co-ordinate their responses with each other. ”
Western analysts and officials also say Russia has in place an extensive network of secret agents who are primed to destabilize Ukraine from within.
“If you sit down with Ukrainian counter intelligence, they give you a very detailed sense of the degree of infiltration,” said Jack Watling, a research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute in London and co-author of a new report on Russian spy networks in Ukraine.
“For the moment, it is an open question in Moscow about whether Russia can undermine Ukraine solely using covert measures, or if there needs to be military action as well.”
Whether there is an invasion or not, western officials and analysts say Europe faces a new era of cold war-style confrontation with Russia that it must prepare for.
“Ukraine is under siege and we need to think about a Plan B,” said Mathieu Boulègue, research fellow at the Chatham House think-tank in London. “If we are really talking about war in Europe, we need to act like there is one.”
For Ukraine, “that means more economic assistance,” added Orysia Lutsevych, head of Chatham House’s Ukraine Forum. “If Russia is seeking to destabilize Ukraine, then we need everything that can help stabilize it.”
But the impact extends far beyond Ukraine. The west has prepared an “unprecedented” series of sanctions should Russia invade. While the EU has so far avoided defining the triggers for those sanctions, as that could guide Putin’s behavior, it is prepared to pay what German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called on Friday the “high economic price” if they are enacted.
Putin said on Friday that sanctions against Russia were “inevitable” but added that he hoped they would collapse. “Sooner or later this boil will pop,” he said.
After almost three decades of scrimping on defense spending, NATO is also beefing up its military presence on its eastern flank and France has called for a radical revamp of what it calls Europe’s “nearly obsolete” security framework.
The consequences of Stoltenberg’s “new normal” may even extend to the European public’s mindset.
“For a generation, many in Europe have not even had to engage with the speculative prospect of war on the eastern front,” said one senior western diplomat. “The possibility was literally unthinkable.”