The New Year started with a wet blanket after the U.S. and Russia walked away from security talks with no progress. Russia did not wait long to start escalating tensions again.
Russia moved more troops to the border Wednesday as it also cautioned the U.S. against attempting to admit Ukraine into NATO, which would provide greater cover for the country against its aggressive neighbor.
The U.S. also announced that it had intelligence that Moscow had planned “false-flag” operations in Ukraine near the border, and officials in the U.S. and Europe attributed a massive cyberattack on Ukrainian government websites to Russia.
And Russia has remained concerned over NATO and its possible role in any conflict that results from an invasion into Ukraine. Russian officials submitted a proposal in December for guarantees it wished to see from the U.S., including no further enlargement of the alliance and a reduction of military presence in Eastern European countries.
“We will not wait forever,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week. “Our patience has run out…Everyone understands that the situation is not improving. The potential for conflict is growing.”
President Biden did not help matters with a comment during his Wednesday press briefing that the U.S. would not be as clear on its response in the event of a “minor incursion” from Russia into Ukraine.
“It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and we end up having to fight about what to do and what to not do, et cetera,” the president said, adding that an invasion would be a “disaster” for Russia. He clarified his comments Thursday, stressing “any assembled Russian units … across the Ukrainian border” is an invasion.
Ukrainian President Zelenskyy hit back at Biden’s comments, saying “there are no minor incursions and small nations, just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones.”
And the U.S. on Thursday announced sanctions on four individuals connected to ongoing Russian intelligence activities “designed to destabilize Ukraine.”
Two of the individuals serve as members of Ukraine’s parliament.
“This action is intended to target, highlight, and undercut Russia’s ongoing destabilization effort in Ukraine,” a State Department press release explained. “It is separate and distinct from the broad range of high impact measures the United States and its allies and partners are prepared to impose in order to inflict significant costs on the Russian economy and financial system if it were to further invade Ukraine.”
The U.S. insists that it will continue to seek financial pressures to keep Russia from invading Ukraine, and Russia may not be able to afford the backlash that an incursion would bring: The spiraling situation in Kazakhstan led to Russian intervention with the deployment of over 2,000 troops to the former Soviet nation.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Wednesday that all security alliance forces left the country, but Putin will need to keep an eye on further developments in the country in the aftermath of what has proven a bloody and difficult month.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev consolidated power in the drawdown, removing several of his predecessor’s most powerful allies who still retained positions in the government. He will now need to deliver on a number of promises made to protesters if he is to avoid further conflict and clear one more headache for Putin.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.