On 14 January, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that “Russia is laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for the invasion [of Ukraine], including through sabotage activities and information operations, by accusing Ukraine of preparing an imminent attack against Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.”
She added that Russia’s military planned to begin these activities several weeks before a military invasion, “which could begin between mid-January and mid-February.”
To give more credibility to what Psaki said, Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby, in a press briefing on 14 January, called the intelligence about the operation “very credible.” He pointed out that the word “operatives” “could represent a blend of individuals inside the Russian government, whether it is from their intelligence communities, their security services, or even their military.”
Denying the US accusations, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitri Peskov told the Russian news agency TASS that “so far, all these statements have been unfounded and have not been confirmed by anything.”
The above statements by the US and the Russian official denial by the Kremlin came in the wake of the third meeting between the US and Russia in the framework of the strategic stability talks that took place on 9-10 January in Geneva at the deputy foreign minister level.
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and her Russian counterpart Sergei Rybakov headed the US and Russian delegations to the talks. As I wrote last week in Al-Ahram Weekly, they were followed in Brussels by a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on 12 January and a meeting of the Permanent Council of the Organisation for European Cooperation and Security in Vienna on 13 January.
The successive meetings aimed at deescalating tensions on the Russian-Ukrainian border and at addressing Russian security concerns. May be the three meetings were occasions for each side to air their concerns and to draw up red lines, but their respective positions on these serious security concerns have not changed.
Sherman said after the strategic stability talks on 10 January that the US and Russia now had a better understanding of each other’s concerns and priorities. She said that if “Russia stays at the table and takes concrete steps to deescalate tensions, we believe we can achieve progress.”
Talking about possible sanctions against Russia if Russian troops cross the Ukrainian border, she said the costs would include financial sanctions that would target key financial institutions, export controls that would aim at industries, the enhancement of NATO forces near Russia’s western borders, and increased military assistance to Ukraine.
She said that she had told the Russian delegation that the US was open to discussing the future of certain missile systems in Europe related to the former Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), from which the US withdrew in 2018 because of Russian violations of the treaty, according to the former Trump administration.
In order to exercise more political and psychological pressure on Moscow, both US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and chair of the joint chiefs of staff Mark Milley have recently warned their Russian counterparts in telephone calls that a “bloody insurgency” would probably follow if Russian forces enter Ukrainian territory reminiscent of the Afghan War against Soviet forces in the late 1980s.
This sad reminder will be more effective than threats of severe sanctions in leading Moscow to weigh and think deeply about the pros and cons of ordering an “invasion” of Ukraine, if this is the plan, as US and Western statements claim it is.
The Ukrainian crisis poses a threat to international peace and security if all sides do not ponder their future steps calmly and avoid any warmongering. As Sherman said after the strategic stability talks in Geneva last week, “we must give diplomacy and dialogue the time and space required to make progress.”
Neither side would like to be drawn into a military conflict around Ukraine that would destabilise Europe for years to come. Ukraine or Georgia becoming members of NATO should not be a prize worth risking war with Russia for. Neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor any other Russian president would accept NATO forces on the borders of Russia.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.