Ukraine sees Vladimir Putin’s goal more as long-term destabilization | Ukraine


British politicians and intelligence chiefs have escalated warnings about the likelihood of a Russian invasion of Ukraine over the past week, but it is unclear, despite intense activity, whether a military attack will be more certain.

This drumbeat was matched in Washington, but, significantly, the concern is not shared in Kyiv. As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Friday, high tensions with Russia are nothing new. “We’ve been in this situation for eight years,” he said.

The analysis in Ukraine deviates from the Western assessment of the crisis as being primarily military. The belief in Kiev is that Vladimir Putin’s goal is the long-term destabilization of Ukraine, and that the Russian leader may have other goals than invasion.

Nevertheless, Liz Truss, Britain’s foreign secretary, warned eight days ago of a possible Kremlin coup in Ukraine, possibly in tandem with a military attack, involving five former Ukrainian politicians. However, four are already living in exile in Moscow, meaning their ties to Russia are no secret.

On Tuesday, Ben Wallace, the Secretary of Defense, warned that Russian “advanced military force operations” – mainly supposed to be carried out by GRU military intelligence – had already begun in Ukraine.

Wallace was referring extensively to pro-Russian disinformation activities. Kiev has also noted their presence, not just in Ukraine, but in the Moscow-backed separatist territories of Donetsk and Lugansk, and Russian territory on the border.

British intelligence officials then warned in briefings that appeared on Thursday that Russia was “two or three weeks away” from building up an invasion force of more than 150,000 men. This aligns with existing predictions from independent analysts relying on satellite imagery and other public domain open-source documents.

The rise to prominence has helped propel the Ukraine story onto the front pages of British newspapers at a time when news in Westminster has been dominated by the question of whether Boris Johnson can survive the ‘partygate’ scandal. However, it would be simplistic to say that he is quite cynical.

The concern is real in the security community, which is still recovering from criticism that it did not predict how quickly the Taliban would invade Afghanistan last summer. This time, it will be possible to say that the public received fair warning if an attack were to occur. Johnson said Monday there was “a plan for a blitzkrieg.”

Meanwhile, British warnings are reflected in Washington. On Friday, US intelligence warned that ‘blood supplies’ and other concrete indicators of an invasion were being moved to the border, although Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said that was part of Russia’s “psychological warfare”.

Mixed messages followed a phone call last Thursday between Joe Biden and Zelenskiy. A Ukrainian official claimed the US president said a Russian attack would be imminent once the ground froze in February, prompting a swift rebuttal from the White House.

What Biden had said, US officials insisted, was that an invasion in February was “a distinct possibility” – a serious enough warning nonetheless. This is a position that Kviv does not dispute, given that he estimates that around 119,000 Russian troops are camped near the Ukrainian border.

Nonetheless, senior officials in Kyiv believe the latest signals from Moscow suggest the Kremlin may be moving away from a military confrontation next month.

Speaking at a wreath laying ceremony on Sunday, Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, sounded dismissive. “Today they say that Russia is threatening Ukraine. It’s absolutely ridiculous. There is no threat,” he said.

“We don’t want war. We don’t need it at all. Those who push for it, especially those in the West, are themselves pursuing false selfish goals,” he said, adding that a war against Ukraine “does not suit us.”

According to Kyiv officials, the Kremlin sent 95,000 troops to Ukraine’s borders last April. This time another 25,000 were deployed – an increase, but not enough to seize the capital, in what would be a massive and bloody operation to capture a city of over 3 million people. Officials also suggested that Covid infections had swept away some of the Russian battalions, making them less effective.

Either way, the picture may not become clear until March, when an invasion would become logistically difficult. However, Ukrainian officials say another crisis could then take place this fall, after two previous military build-ups, in the spring and fall of 2021.

Kiev thinks Putin is “cautious” and says his aggressive diplomacy has already yielded results, forcing the United States and its allies to take Moscow’s security proposals for Eastern Europe seriously.

These include a permanent veto on Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO and a demand that NATO return to its 1997 deployment levels, while Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic states had not yet become members. The White House dismissed the requests as “non-starting”.

According to Kiev, the alternatives for Putin are that he can obtain legal recognition of the separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk and officially send Russian troops to these regions under the guise of a peacekeeping mission.

Russian troops are also expected to remain in Belarus after the drills end on February 20 – closer to NATO’s northeast flank, Poland and the Baltic states. While the world is concerned about Ukraine, officials said, Russia’s de facto takeover of Belarus has been proceeding at a rapid pace.

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