The US president’s need to state on Monday that there is “total unanimity” over how to deal with the Ukraine crisis, like the video call with European leaders which preceded it, was itself evidence of ongoing differences among western allies. There is no dispute about the threat: more than 100,000 Russian troops are now massed near Ukraine’s borders. The US has put 8,500 troops on standby to deploy to Europe to reinforce allies there, while Nato has reinforced its eastern borders with warships and fighter jets. A senior US official briefed on Tuesday that in the event of an invasion, sanctions will “start at the top of the escalation ladder and stay there”.
In addition to the clear deterrent message, talks continue: Dmitry Kozak, the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff, will meet French, German and Ukrainian officials in Paris on Wednesday, in the “Normandy format”. Set against that, Russia paid little price for the annexation of Crimea and fomenting the separatist uprising in the Donbas region in 2014. There is a credible case that Russia is set on a major military offensive – not merely pursuing coercive diplomacy – and that it is in Moscow’s interests to act before Kyiv receives further arms shipments. Above all, there is at present no visible off-ramp for Vladimir Putin. The very thing he says Russia must counter – Nato’s presence in eastern Europe – is growing because of his own actions. He might take an exit; it’s harder to see him beating a retreat.
So the risks are high and rising. But an attack on Ukraine is not inevitable. French officials have indicated that they regard recent US and UK briefing as alarmist; Kyiv itself is notably more cautious. An analysis by the Centre for Defence Strategies, a Ukrainian thinktank, says a full-scale invasion capturing most of the country in the next few months seems unlikely, given current Russian troop formations. But it also suggests that “hybrid invasion” is already being implemented, citing the recent cyber-attack. Moscow may believe that such methods, along with cross-border missile strikes, sabotage and political meddling, might be enough to effect a change of government. (The EU offer of €1.2bn in emergency financial assistance is designed to reduce pressure on Kyiv.)
What price would Russia pay? Its markets have already tanked; and it appears to have amassed a cash stockpile in preparation for sanctions. It believes its control of gas supplies give it asymmetric leverage, especially given Europe’s cost of living crisis. And it may count on distraction and disunity in the west. The stepping up of US rhetoric is in part an attempt to compensate for Joe Biden’s gaffe suggesting Nato division over how to respond to a “minor incursion”. Excitable UK briefing over the weekend comes as the prime minister hopes for people to look beyond his domestic woes. Germany, from history, principle (established policy against arms sales to war zones) and pragmatism (it gets more than half of its gas from Russia), is strikingly more muted; uncertainty persists over how far it would go, especially over the NordStream 2 gas pipeline.
Nonetheless, there are signs that the allies are moving closer after Monday’s call – US coordination with Qatar and other suppliers to address the energy shortfall is helpful – and are certainly more united than in 2014. The drumbeat of war is concentrating minds and encouraging solidarity. That must now be maintained and built upon.