By Ken Bredemeier
Russia on Sunday extended its military drills in Belarus, along Ukraine’s northern border, after two days of sustained shelling in eastern Ukraine between Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces.
The Russian exercises with Belarusian forces had been scheduled to end Sunday. They were extended amid Russian President Vladimir Putin’s show of force along the Ukrainian border with the massing of some 150,000 troops, accompanied by naval exercises in the Black Sea to the south of Ukraine.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN’s “State of the Union” show that the sharp increase in Russian troop deployments in recent weeks, cyberattacks on the Ukrainian defense ministry and major banks last week and now the new outbreak in fighting in eastern Ukraine that killed two Ukrainian soldiers, signal that Moscow is “following its playbook” ahead of large-scale warfare.
“Everything leading up to the invasion is already taking place,” Blinken said.
The separatists in eastern Ukraine have claimed that Kyiv’s forces are planning an attack there, which Ukraine denies.
At the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy questioned why the United States and its Western allies, who have vowed to impose swift and tough economic sanctions on Russia if it invades Ukraine, are not already doing so.
Blinken said, “As soon as you impose them, you lose the deterrence” to try to prevent an invasion, and if the West were to announce specific sanctions it would impose, Russia “could plan against them.”
The top U.S. diplomat said, however, “Until the tanks are moving” and missiles launched, Western leaders will “try to do everything to reverse” Putin’s mind, “to get him off the course he’s decided.”
Asked whether Putin might be bluffing an invasion with his military buildup, Blinken said, “There’s always a chance.” But Blinken added, “He’s following the script to the letter on the brink of an invasion.”
Still, Blinken said he would meet with his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in Europe on Thursday for more negotiations, on condition that Moscow has not launched an invasion before then.
On CBS News’ “Face the Nation” show, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, said, “There [are] no such plans” for an invasion.
He said Russia has “our legitimate right to have our troops where we want on Russian territory.”
Antonov said Russia has withdrawn some troops from near Ukraine “and nobody even said to us, ‘thank you.’” The West says its monitoring of the terrain near Ukraine shows that Russia has not begun to send its troops back to their bases.
U.S. President Joe Biden, who said Friday he is “convinced” Putin plans to invade, is meeting Sunday with his National Security Council to discuss the latest developments.
The U.S. and its NATO allies fear that the Russian forces in Belarus could be deployed in an attack southward on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, while tens of thousands more troops could invade from the east and south into Ukraine.
Despite their belief that Putin has his mind made up to invade, Biden and other Western leaders are holding out hope for a settlement to the crisis, 11th hour diplomacy to avert the first massive warfare in Europe since the end of World War II.
Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, said Sunday, “The big question remains: Does the Kremlin want dialogue?”
“We cannot forever offer an olive branch while Russia conducts missile tests and continues to amass troops,” Michel said at the Munich Security Conference. “One thing is certain: if there is further military aggression, we will react with massive (economic) sanctions.”
Some of the Western allies, including the U.S., have shipped arms to Ukraine, but none of its leaders is planning to deploy troops to fight alongside Ukrainian forces in the event of an invasion.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Sunday the United Kingdom will use the “toughest possible” economic sanctions against Russia if it invades Ukraine.
Johnson told the BBC the sanctions would not only target Putin and his associates, “but also all companies and organizations with strategic importance to Russia.”
The British leader said, “We are going to stop Russian companies raising money on U.K. markets, and we are even with our American friends going to stop them trading in pounds and dollars.”
French President Emmanuel Macron had a telephone conversation with Putin Sunday, with Macron’s office saying afterward that the two leaders agreed on the need to find a diplomatic solution.
The two countries’ foreign ministers will meet in the coming days to work on a possible summit involving Russia, Ukraine and allies to establish a new security order in Europe.
Western allies say they are willing to discuss their missile positioning and military exercises in Europe but have balked at Putin’s demand to rule out possible NATO membership for Ukraine and other former Soviet states.
“We need to stop Putin because he will not stop at Ukraine,” Liz Truss, Britain’s foreign secretary, said in an interview Sunday in The Daily Mail about Putin’s apparently imminent invasion of Ukraine.
“Putin has said all this publicly, that he wants to create the Greater Russia, that he wants to go back to the situation as it was before where Russia had control over huge swaths of eastern Europe.”
Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Union’s executive commission, said, “The Kremlin’s dangerous thinking, which comes straight out of a dark past, may cost Russia a prosperous future.”
She said if Russia invades Ukraine, Moscow would have limited access to financial markets and tech goods, according to the sanctions package being prepared.