The 6 May visit to Ukraine by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was an important demonstration of US backing for the independent nation’s more than seven-year military conflict with Russia. Early April saw a ratcheting up of tensions with Moscow, with US intelligence sources looking at Russian troop mobilisations and deployments on the border and projecting Russian President Vladimir Putin ordering an invasion within 72 hours.
The conflict was averted for now after an 11th-hour phone call between Putin and US President Joe Biden. The proposal that the two would meet for a bilateral summit sometime in June is proving complicated, however. A site for that tête-à-tête has yet to be named and more than one former White House National Security Council (NSC) official has commented that the venue can be as important as the substance of the discussions themselves. For various reasons, “neutral” sites like Switzerland or Austria seem to be leading candidates.
While these are all hopeful signs for the government in Kiev, the situation remains far from stable. One local business news service editor wrote that “the lure of a one-on-one summit is expected to keep Putin on his best behaviour,” but only temporarily. Local residents began their summer holidays in May, as if to hedge against the possibility that a summertime invasion would make two weeks at the beach impossible.
Some 80,000 to 100,000 Russian troops remain on Ukraine’s eastern border and in the south in Crimea. Those troops were ordered to withdrawn to their regular bases by 1 May, but they also they left most of their heavy equipment behind – leaving open the option of a snap re-deployment.
That anxiety is further exacerbated by the 19 May announcement that US President Joe Biden had conceded to pressure from Germany and has decided against sanctioning the German company in charge of the joint Russian-European Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. “This is the big nightmare for us – opening the door for Berlin to shut off the gas valve to Ukraine but still maintain deliveries to the rest of Europe,” said a local defence specialist here in Kiev who spoke to ESD. “It is a perfect example of Germany being far more interested in its relationship with Russia than it is with the rest of Europe.”
“We are aware that Russia has withdrawn some forces from the border of Ukraine, but we also see that significant forces remain there, significant equipment remains there. We are monitoring the situation very, very closely,” Blinken was reported to have said to President Zelenskiy. “And I can tell you, Mr. President, that we stand strongly with you. Our partners do as well. I heard the same thing when I was at NATO a couple of weeks ago. And we look to Russia to cease reckless and aggressive actions.”
Ukraine, for its own part, has also taken actions following Blinken’s visit – long overdue in the eyes of many – to set red lines against Moscow’s continuing efforts to interfere in Ukraine’s internal affairs.
On 11 May, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venedyktova announced indictments against two pro-Russian members of parliament, Taras Kozak and Viktor Medvedchuk, on charges of attempted theft of natural resources in annexed Crimea, in addition to charges of treason. Subsequently, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) raided the Medvedchuk residence.
This announcement caps activity that began February when sanctions were imposed against the two lawmakers and Medvedchuk’s wife, Oksana Marchenko. In addition, Zelenskiy banned three pro-Russian television stations owned by Kozak and suspected of being controlled by Medvedchuk.
The big question now is what will be Russia’s next move? On 12 September, Russia will begin its annual “Zapad” military exercise with Belarus. This raises twin spectres of either an invasion conducted under the camouflage of the exercise, or Russia permanently deploying troops in Belarus – leaving Ukraine surrounded on three sides.
On 11 May, MP and member of Zelenskiy’s own party, Servant of the People, Yelyzaveta Yasko wrote on the Atlantic Council’s site: “Neither Ukraine nor the country’s international partners can afford to sit and wait for the Kremlin’s next moves. Instead, the Western world must now acknowledge the urgent need to strengthen Ukraine militarily… Boosting Ukraine’s ability to defend itself is the best way to deter Russia and should be a strategic priority for the entire Western world.”
This action would require, as others have proposed already, supplying Ukraine straightaway with US Excess Defense Articles (EDA) items like used F-15C/D aircraft and other platforms – to be followed by the delivery of new-build weaponry from US production lines. In the meantime, the clock is running on the West showing Putin the costs of invading this former Soviet vassal state would be too high for Russia to bear.
This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of European Security and Defence, click here to download the full issue in PDF format.
Reuben F. Johnson