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Despite Hopeful Headlines, Russia-Ukraine Crisis Remains Tense

News headlines from 14 February offered optimism that Russia will not immediately invade Ukraine: “Sliver of hope: Kremlin sees a diplomatic path on Ukraine,” “Tone of Ukraine Crisis Shifts as Russia Signals Openness to Talk More,” “Russia says some troops withdrawing from Ukraine’s border; NATO chief notes ‘cautious optimism’ but sees no de-escalation yet,” “Russia Says Some Troops Pulling Back From Ukraine Border but Exercises Continue.”

However, the optimism is tempered with realistic assessment of the current situation. The second paragraph of the Associated Press (AP) article, for example, read: “Questions remain about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions, however. And countries are evacuating diplomats and on alert for possible imminent war amid the worst East-West tensions since the Cold War.”

The optimism stems from public comments made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said negotiation options “are far from exhausted. I would propose continuing and intensifying them.”

In addition, some Russian troops pulled back from the border with Ukraine, though other Russian military exercises near the border continued.

In other, more ominous news, Russia’s legislature is expected to vote today “to formally recognize the separatist-controlled regions of eastern Ukraine as independent states, in a move that could justify Moscow’s incursion into an area it no longer considers to be Ukrainian territory.” Reuters also reported that “Russian mercenaries with ties to Moscow's spies have increased their presence in Ukraine in recent weeks,” which NATO warns could be used to sow discord to provide pretext for an invasion.

Late in 2021, Russian began massing troops near Ukraine, which the United States and Western Europe interpreted as a precursor to invasion. Putin has demanded guarantees that Ukraine will not join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and that NATO will rescind the inclusion of other Eastern European countries, retreating back to its Cold War alliances. NATO has flatly rejected the demands and insists it will consider the case for any country that wants to join the alliance.

The AP noted that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was scheduled to visit Moscow to have talks directly with Putin this week. Germany stands to be one of the hardest hit Western European countries if NATO and other allies enact punishing economic sanctions against Russia, as is expected if Russia moves forward with an invasion.

Reuters reported that “France's foreign minister said on Monday that everything was in place for Russian forces to invade quickly in Ukraine, adding that Europe was ready to impose massive sanctions if it happened.”

The global implications of a Russian invasion of Ukraine reach far beyond Europe. For one, there is the joint statement released by Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping when the two met as the Winter Olympics kicked off earlier this month in Beijing. The statement does not address Ukraine specifically, rather it describes a world order that is no longer dominated by United States policy, and one in which Russia and China are close partners.

News analysis from The Washington Post delves into the issue of how close the Chinese-Russian ties actually are:

There’s some reason to believe in limits to the Chinese-Russian partnership, especially in the event of serious Western sanctions with knock-on effects for any Chinese companies that violate them. The Chinese show little distaste for authoritarian behavior—doing easy business with nasty regimes. But in general, China dislikes foreign invention, prioritizes economic interests, and tends to hedge its bets.

Heavily censored Chinese media as well as government statements have “tended to accept Russia’s framing” of the Ukraine issue, write defense analyst Daniel Shats and security author Peter W. Singer in Defense One. The People’s Liberation Army Daily, among other state media, has run articles that present the United States and NATO as “provocateurs” in a “hybrid war” against Russia, painting Ukraine as their pawn.

“But so far, this rhetoric has not translated into substantive support for Russia’s actions,” they write. “Official statements from the Chinese government have repeatedly emphasized neutrality and a posture of non-intervention, the same stance it took in the 2014 Crimea crisis.”

Yesterday, Australia publicly called for China to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine.

U.S. officials warn that should war ensue in the region, Russia is likely to unleash cyber attacks against the United States and Western European countries. An AP report asked whether such attacks could be damaging enough that the United States or its allies would engage in the conflict with military responses and not just economic ones? The red lines that would trigger a physical conflict are still fuzzy in cyberspace, the report noted. 

Meanwhile, Russians for the most part believe the rhetoric coming from Moscow that there is no threat of invasion and that the West is being hysterical, according to the AP.

Inside a nervous Ukraine, people continue to live with the day-by-day threat. A long feature in The New York Times described the complicated current state from those who live in Ukraine. One person interviewed said, “If someone took over your kitchen and started frying cutlets there—they took Crimea and a piece of Donbas—what would you do, pat them on the head? We need to support our homeland, our Ukraine.” The article coalesced around the idea that the multi-year tensions with Russia have begun to unite a country seeking its own identity.

Over the weekend, the Ukranian government sought to soothe the public, saying, “It is critically important to remain calm, to consolidate inside the country, to avoid destabilising actions and those that sow panic.”

At the same time, many Ukraine civilians are training to defend their country, The Wall Street Journal reported. “We will never surrender. We are using every opportunity to train,” one man said, “so I think Putin should be afraid of us.”