Washington: Spiking tensions in eastern Ukraine are heightening Western fears of a Russian invasion and a new war in Europe, with US President Joe Biden saying he’s “convinced” that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the decision to invade.
Nato countries fear that the volatile east, which has seen intense shelling in recent days and orders for civilians to evacuate, could be a flashpoint in their tensest standoff with Russia since the Cold War, providing the Kremlin with a pretext to invade Ukraine.
The United States upped its estimate of Russian troops for a possible invasion to as many as 190,000. Russia also plans to hold military exercises Saturday, including multiple practice launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles in a display of military might.
The United States and its European partners are keeping on with their strategy of diplomacy and deterrence, offering to keep talking with the Kremlin while threatening heavy sanctions if an invasion happens.
Here’s a look at what is happening where and why:
WHAT DID BIDEN SAY ABOUT PUTIN’S INTENTIONS?
After weeks of saying the US wasn’t sure if Putin had made a final decision to launch an invasion, Biden said on Friday he’s now convinced he has and it could occur in the “coming days.”
He said an invasion could include an assault on the capital, Kyiv.
Biden said he was confident in the new assessment because of the Americans’ “significant intelligence capability.”
In an interview with ABC News, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin backed up Biden’s claim. Asked about the potential for a Russian invasion, Austin said, “I don’t believe it’s a bluff.”
WHAT SANCTIONS WOULD RUSSIA FACE?
The US has decided to hold off on at least one of the most crushing financial options available to punish Russia if it invades Ukraine, Deputy National Economic Council Director Daleep Singh told reporters at a White House briefing Friday.
Booting Russia out of the SWIFT financial system that moves money around the world was one of the most damaging steps the US could take against the Russian economy, but it is opposed by some European allies for the spillover damage it would cause to their economies as well.
Asked Friday if Americans and their European allies — many of them more exposed to any collateral damage from sanctions hitting Russia’s economy — were on the same page on specific financial penalties, Biden said he expected “slight” differences.
Singh described sanctions against Russian financial institutions and state-owned enterprises, as well as US export controls that would deny Russia advanced technology it seeks for its industry and military.
At a time of high oil and gas prices, the US also did not intend to try to block Russian energy from reaching global markets, he said, but gave no details.
Italy, which is heavily reliant on Russian gas, has pushed for energy to be kept out of any sanctions. Italian Premier Mario Draghi told reporters Friday that he laid out his government’s view at a European Council meeting in Brussels a day earlier.
WHAT’S HAPPENING IN EASTERN UKRAINE?
In Ukraine’s Donbas region, where fighting since 2014 between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels has killed some 14,000 people, the rebels announced in videos posted online Friday that they were ordering an “immediate evacuation” to Russia because of the unrest.
But metadata embedded in the video files showed they had been created two days earlier.
A group of international monitors in eastern Ukraine that is tasked with keeping the peace reported more than 500 explosions in the 24 hours ending Thursday midday.
On Friday, a car exploded outside the main government building in Donetsk, but no casualties were reported, and a UN Refugee Agency convoy came under shelling.
The rebels accuse Ukraine of preparing to invade the region, which Kyiv denies. The unrest may be part of Moscow’s suspected playbook of portraying Ukraine as the aggressor, thereby giving Russia grounds to invade.
Putin sent his emergencies minister to the Rostov region bordering Ukraine to help organize the evacuation. He ordered the government to give 10,000 rubles (about $130) to each evacuee. That’s equivalent to about half the average monthly salary in the area.
WHAT’S NEW ABOUT THE CYBERATTACKS?
The US and Britain are blaming Russia for this week’s cyberattacks targeting Ukraine’s defense ministry and major banks.
Anne Neuberger, the White House’s chief cyber official, said the attacks this week were of “limited impact” since Ukrainian officials were able to quickly get their systems back up and running, but it is possible that the Russians were laying the groundwork for more destructive ones.
She and the British Foreign Office linked Tuesday’s attacks to Russian military intelligence officers.
WHAT’S GOING ON AT THE KREMLIN?
The Kremlin says Putin will watch drills involving Russia’s strategic nuclear forces from the situation room at the Russian Defence Ministry.
The Defence Ministry said Putin will personally oversee Saturday’s display of his country’s nuclear might. Notably, the planned exercise involves the Crimea-based Black Sea Fleet. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula after seizing it from Ukraine in 2014.
WHAT FORCES DOES RUSSIA HAVE NEAR UKRAINE?
The new US estimate of up to 190,000 includes the Russian-backed separatists inside Ukraine, the Russian National Guard and Russian troops in Crimea, the peninsula that Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014. These forces were not counted in previous assessments of troops deployed near Ukraine’s borders and in neighbouring Belarus.
As further indication that the Russians are preparing for a potential invasion, a US defence official said an estimated 40% to 50% of the ground forces deployed in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border have moved into attack positions nearer the border. The defense official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal US military assessments.
The official also said the number of Russian ground units known as battalion tactical groups deployed in the border area had grown to as many as 125, up from 83 two weeks ago. Each battalion tactical group has 750 to 1,000 soldiers.
WHAT HAS NATO DONE?
Meanwhile, Nato is beefing up its eastern regions.
The US has begun deploying 5,000 troops to Poland and Romania. The Biden administration announced on Friday it has approved a $6 billion sale of 250 Abrams battle tanks and related equipment to Poland.
Britain is sending hundreds of soldiers to Poland and offering more warships and planes. It also is doubling the number of personnel in Estonia and sending tanks and armored fighting vehicles.
Germany, Norway and the Netherlands are sending additional troops to Lithuania. The Dutch government also is sending to Ukraine 100 sniper rifles, combat helmets and body armor, two mine detection robots and weapon-detection radar systems.
WHAT ARE THE DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS TO PREVENT WAR?
Biden spoke by phone on Friday afternoon with a number of European leaders and the leaders of the European Union and Nato about the likelihood of Russian aggression, the White House said.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who was on the call, planned to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday and with Putin on Sunday.
US Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken were attending the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany. Moscow sent no delegates there.
Harris indicated the alliance’s approach to the crisis would continue.
“We remain, of course, open to and desirous of diplomacy, as it relates to the dialogue and the discussions we have had with Russia,” Harris said in Munich.
“But we are also committed, if Russia takes aggressive action, to ensure there will be severe consequences in terms of the sanctions we have discussed,” she said at a meeting with Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock expressed regret that Russian leaders declined to attend the Munich conference.
“Particularly in the current, extremely threatening situation, it would have been important to also meet Russian representatives in Munich,’’ Baerbock said. Even tiny steps toward peace would be “better than a big step toward war,” she added.