Not quite a kiss, but well short of an invasion, Putin had announced last week that ‘some’ troops would be leaving the Ukraine border region having completed drills… far from the bloody Valentine’s Day predictions of Biden and his administration.
Yet now, as roses start to wilt and aphrodisiacs wear off, nearing a week later, Russia’s military presence at the border only appears to have strengthened. According to western officials, two-thirds of 110 Russian battalions are within 50km of the Ukrainian border, a figure that has doubled since assurances of partial withdrawal last week.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has noted: “critical units moving toward the border not away from the border.” The US government estimates up to 190,000 personnel (including Separatist soldiers in Eastern Ukraine) in and around the Ukrainian border. For many western officials and outlets, the question of whether Putin is a lover or a fighter now has a definite answer, as the Russian president continues to tell but not kiss.
NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg noted last week that Russia is “prepared to contest the fundamental principles that have underpinned our security for decades, and to do so by using force.” Across the Channel, Boris Johnson stressed a potential for “the biggest war in Europe since 1945, just in terms of sheer scale.”
Concerns had been mounting over the possibility of ‘false flag’ attacks, in which an action is carried out to blame an enemy and stimulate war. On 21 February, Russia reported the killing of five ‘saboteurs’ crossing the border, a claim the Ukrainian military has rejected. Further notable in a string of disputed reports are separatist claims of imminent Ukrainian incursions.
Concerns of cyber warfare too, are perhaps becoming a reality. Last week the Ukrainian banking sector was hit by a series of attacks. The UK government attributes these incidents to the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU).
As the days go by since a valentine’s period of promises, there is a growing sense of Ukraine and the West no longer being confronted but circled and probed amidst the motions of something.
During the writing of this article, Putin has now recognised Donetsk and Luhansk as breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine, Russian ‘peacekeeping’ troops have been sent to the region. The strike at last might have happened, the wider picture maybe pre-emptive of this decision. Have we been watching the cups instead of the ball?