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With roughly 100,000 Russian troops amassed close to the border with Ukraine, warships deployed in the nearby Black Sea, and Russian tanks streaming down from the north, fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin is poised to launch an invasion continue to grow inside the former Soviet republic and among NATO allies.
On Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a startling announcement that he had “received information that a coup d’état will take place in our country.” According to Zelensky, it would happen as soon as Wednesday or Thursday of this week.
Zelensky stopped short of accusing the Kremlin of hatching a plot to overthrow his government, but added that taped conversations captured "representatives of Ukraine and representatives of Russia" discussing the possible enlistment of Rinat Akhmetov, a Moscow-linked oligarch in Ukraine who controls much of the country’s media and coal resources. Zelensky also said at the press conference that Akhmetov was not involved in the alleged planning, and Akhmetov has furiously denied any role.
Some Ukrainians, however, including investigative journalist and former parliamentarian Serhiy Leshchenko, believe that Akhmetov is actively working with the Russian president to weaken Ukraine.
“This is the first time that Putin is connected with an internal political battle, when pro-Russian oligarchs, including Rinat Akhmetov, are trying to destabilize politics from within — to make Ukraine weaker on the eve of a possible Russian attack,” Leshchenko told Yahoo News.
Analysts differ about what’s causing the rocky internal politics in Ukraine, where Zelensky’s approval ratings have been falling as he attempts to lessen the media powers and political clout of oligarchs, but there is widespread concern about Russia’s military buildup.
The conflict also shows the potential of drawing in other nations. Belarus, a close Kremlin ally, announced Monday it would be engaging in war drills with Russia near its southern border with Ukraine. Russian troops are already setting up there, according to Gustav Gressel, a senior fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, who has been closely tracking troop movements. More Russian armed forces are bolstering those already in occupied Crimea, he said.
“The Russian air force has started to conduct exercises on the border with Ukraine, training strikes against key Ukrainian military facilities,” Gressel told Yahoo News.
The nuclear ballistic missile submarines that belong to Russia’s Northern Fleet, the key element to deter the U.S., have left port and dispersed, Gressel said, and he believes that “humanitarian convoys” to eastern Ukraine from Russia are “probably supplying ammunition for the upcoming offensive.”
In response to the Russian military buildup at Ukraine’s doorstep, which is viewed as preparation for a possible incursion, NATO has stationed troops in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland and has ships cruising the Baltic Sea. At a press conference in Latvia on Monday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters that “Russia has amassed a large and unusual concentration of forces in this region,” moves that NATO considered “unprovoked and unexplained,” he said. “We see heavy weapons, artillery, armored units, drones and electronic warfare systems. And tens of thousands of combat-ready troops.”
The latest moves, a repeat of military actions Russia took in March, along with other Putin-linked geopolitical fires across the region, are testing the resolve of the Western alliance, the European Union and the U.S. toward Ukraine, which Putin continues to maintain is linked to Russia by both history and race.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst, now senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, told Yahoo News that Russia’s show of military prowess is, in part, about Moscow’s fears over Ukraine’s attempts to enter NATO and the EU. “Putin is trying to intimidate Ukraine and the West, so that Ukraine changes its [pro-Western] policy course,” he said.
Herbst believes that Putin is mostly posturing — trying to pressure Ukraine to give autonomy and veto power to its mineral-rich eastern regions, where Russia has been funding a secret proxy war that has killed over 13,000 people since 2014. He doesn’t, however, rule out a full-on attack. “But if Putin does that, he’ll face two huge problems,” Herbst said. “One, there will be a major Western response, [including] truly crippling sanctions. And there will be a lot of dead Russian soldiers.” According to Russian opinion polls, Putin’s citizens do not want Russians fighting in Ukraine, he added.
Herbst, who supports additional American military assistance to Ukraine, applauds the Biden administration’s recent moves, including sending diplomats to Moscow and issuing public warnings to Putin from Secretary of State Antony Blinken as well as convening meetings with Europeans to hammer out possible sanctions. But he believes the administration gravely erred earlier this year by dropping congressionally imposed sanctions on Nord Stream 2, Russia’s new natural gas pipeline that travels directly from its gas fields to Germany.
That deal, Herbst noted, allowed Russia to stop using the Ukrainian pipeline that had historically been the most utilized by Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy corporation. Allowing the completion of NS2 has given “Putin an ace,” allowing him to further manipulate gas supplies to Europe, which is in the compromised position of depending on Russian gas.
“Biden’s waiving of those sanctions was a mistake,” said Agnieszka Legucka, senior research fellow at the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw. “So now we are just witnessing the consequences of that misunderstanding of Putin by the Biden administration, which wanted to de-escalate the situation near the border to Ukraine this March.” By meeting with Putin and waiving the sanctions, thus effectively giving a thumbs-up to the pipeline, “they were thinking they could neutralize Russia and Putin because the U.S. would prefer to concentrate on China,” Legucka added.
Putin, who appears to be allying with China — both countries recently partook in war games off the coast of Taiwan — is showing he won’t simply go along with Western demands. He’s manipulating Russian gas supplies to Europe during a shortage, caused in part by Gazprom refusing to fill its gas storage tanks in Western Europe. Not only does Putin appear to be cutting gas and coal to Ukraine, he keeps promising more gas to Europe but not delivering, while Kremlin spokespeople explain the shortage could be alleviated when Germany finally certifies Nord Stream 2, a process that hit delays earlier this month.
While Putin’s apparent desire is to deflect attention from his own problems at home, where his popularity is falling and his imprisonment (and alleged poisoning) of Alexei Navalny and other opposition figures is prompting anti-Putin protests, Russia’s current posturing may also come in response to the result of cracks in the Western system.
“He smells blood in the water,” said Roland Freudenstein, vice president of Globsec, a nonpartisan think tank headquartered in Slovakia.
With Biden’s own popularity down in the U.S., Europe reeling from soaring electricity prices and surging COVID-19 rates, and the departure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel from the political stage, Ukraine is seen as especially vulnerable.
“Putin may think that if he ever wants to massively invade Ukraine, now is the time because of this beautiful constellation of Western weakness,” said Freudenstein, who considers what is happening now in Eastern Europe one of the Continent’s most fraught moments in long decades, hearkening back to the lead-ups to World War I and II.
Some analysts are concerned, he said, that Russia’s moves are provoking “military escalations reminiscent of August 1914 that escalated into a war nobody wanted.” Others, he said, worry that Europe, which is dependent on Russia’s natural gas, might be tempted to appease Putin with Ukraine, or the eastern part of it, in the same way that Western Europe appeased Adolf Hitler in 1938, handing him part of Czechoslovakia. “They say that if you give in to the autocrat, you will only make him greedier,” Freudenstein said.
David Stulík, head of the Eastern European Program at the European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague, believes what is happening is merely Putin testing the West, and that after seeing the West’s dedication to helping Ukraine, Putin is likely to back off, at least for the moment. “I don’t think that he wants to have open confrontation with the West that would lead to a broader military confrontation. Because he himself, his relatives, his associates, they all have their vast fortunes — and they don’t want to risk losing all their assets and property in the West, so I don’t think they are ready to kind of openly challenge the West,” Stulík said. “These people are smart,” he added, “but they are not fundamentalist, they are not radicals. They are the people who are very good at playing chess. So they are thinking strategically, but they are not suicidal.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story implied that Zelensky had heard a tape recording that hinted at Akmetov's possible involvement in plans for a Russian coup attempt. In fact, as Zelensky clarified at his news conference, Akhmetov was not on the recording, but was simply mentioned by others.
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