The OTR-21 Tochka-U missile systems launch missiles during military exercises held by the armed forces of Russia and Belarus in the Gomel region, Belarus (Reuters)
WASHINGTON: Bumping up estimates of Russian troops massed across the Ukraine border to 190,000, the United States rallied European allies on Friday to confront Moscow, even as Russian President Vladimir Putin headed out to attend war games on Saturday at Nato’s doorstep in Belarus, an exercise that is reported to include nuclear-capable missiles.
The Russian military drills were previously scheduled, but coming amid heated charges from Washington that Moscow is intent on invading Ukraine, they heightened tensions in an already volatile situation. Sparks flew not only during the day’s diplomatic exchanges, but also on the ground, with fighting and evacuation reported in border towns in eastern Ukraine bordering Russia where there are Russian-speaking majorities who lean towards Moscow.
Both sides- Russia and its supporters and the US-Nato and its surrogates in Ukraine- accused each other sparking clashes that would lead to war or a pretext of Russian invasion even as hectic diplomatic activity failed to ease mistrust. The US continues to insist Russia is intent on an invasion; Moscow continues to deny it. Neither side is able to navigate a way out of the fog of suspicion about the other side’s motive.
While Russian officials made light of the exercises, referring casually to “black suitcase, red button and the like,” NATO officials said the drills come at a dangerous moment.
US President Joe Biden is scheduled to have conference call on Friday with European principals of Nato- the leaders of France, Germany, and Britain- while his vice-president Kamala Harris will be laying down the US position at a security conference in Munich through the weekend. Washington has been unrelenting in its demand that Russia verifiably withdraw its forces from Ukraine’s border to establish its peace bonafides; Moscow, on its part, claims troop movements are part of routine drills even as it appears intent on turning on the heat to push back NATO and its offensive capability in Eastern Europe.
On Friday, a key US official said Russia has “probably has massed between 169,000-190,000 personnel in and near Ukraine,” while calling for de-escalation. “This is the most significant military mobilization in Europe since the Second World War,” Michael Carpenter, the US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Friday, accusing Moscow of downplaying or deceiving the world about its ground and air preparations.
Russian ruse was a recurring theme through the day in US, with American officials going so far as to suggest that Kremlin could carry out a false flag operation- a “fake, even a real, attack using chemical weapons” to justify a strike on Ukraine.
The relentless barrage of allegations against Russia goes relatively unquestioned in the mainstream media, but those on the more extreme end of the political spectrum in the US question the wisdom of crying wolf, given the past failure of US intelligence, notably in Iraq. Some observers think Putin is actually gaming the situation to discredit Washington because if he chooses not to invade Ukraine, it will cause a spectacular amount of damage to Americans’ trust in government and its intelligence agencies.
US officials feel that is a risk worth taking- the more they cry wolf, the less Russia is likely to attack Ukraine. “If Russia doesn’t invade, we will be relieved that Russia changed course and proved our predictions wrong,” US secretary of state Antony Blinken, who has led the US prediction of an imminent Russian invasion, said earlier this week. In other words, the US is willing to risk its credibility to prevent a war.