Nov 10, 2021
“We don’t have clarity into Moscow’s intentions, but we do know its playbook,” Blinken said Wednesday. “And our concern is that Russia may make the serious mistake of attempting to rehash what it undertook back in 2014, when it amassed forces along the border, crossed into sovereign Ukrainian territory, and did so claiming, falsely, that it was provoked.”
Blinken issued that warning alongside Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, whom he hosted to jump-start the strategic dialogue derailed by the political interference controversy that led to former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment. President Joe Biden’s team has tried to stabilize U.S. relationships in Europe while prioritizing the intensifying rivalry with China, but Kuleba cautioned that Russia is playing “a very complicated game” that could soon erupt into a new crisis on NATO’s eastern flank.
“It was also us who shared some new elements with our American partners, in particular with relation to the situation taking place in Belarus,” he said, referring to the former Soviet vassal state that Putin hopes to integrate into a renewed union with Moscow. “This is the potential front line that should not be underestimated.”
Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko courted Trump’s administration in a bid to alleviate pressure from Putin, but that hedge collapsed when mass protests against a fraudulent Belarusian presidential election drove Lukashenko back into Putin’s arms, while the Belarusian regime’s crackdown on the protesters spurred Lithuania, Poland, and other democracies neighboring Belarus to support the opposition leaders. Lukashenko, for his part, has been accused of retaliating by manufacturing a migrant crisis in which civilians from Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East are brought to Belarus and sent to neighboring states.
“Groups of migrants are escorted by armed Belarusian security forces towards the borders of EU member states with the aim to force illegal entries,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said earlier Wednesday. “This shows the cynicism of the Belarusian regime that, by stirring up the crisis at the EU’s external borders, is trying to distract attention from the situation in the country, where brutal repression and human rights violations are continuing and even worsening.”
Russian officials, for their part, have backed Belarusian authorities in that dispute by directing criticism at the neighboring NATO allies for refusing to allow the arriving migrants into their countries.
“A looming humanitarian catastrophe is evident against the background of the unwillingness of our European colleagues to demonstrate the adherence to their European values,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “We are indeed worried over this.”
The border tensions are developing into a crisis just weeks after a major joint military exercise between Belarus and Russia, drills that were followed by an announcement from Moscow that the two sides plan to “contribute to strengthening the Union State’s military security.” A pair of Russian long-range bombers flew over Belarus on Wednesday and “checked the Union State’s air defenses,” according to Russian state media, as Lukashenko’s regime accused NATO of taking threatening actions.
“In this connection, we are expressing concern over the continuing groundless NATO buildup on the borders of the Union State,” Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said Wednesday. “Regrettably, our Western partners prefer to turn a deaf ear to us.”
Kuleba, who underscored that Putin is undertaking “an attempt of Russia to digest Belarus” while applying pressure to European allies through various means, acknowledged publicly Kyiv’s desire for additional security assistance.
“Ukraine is looking for anything that can help us strengthen our defense capabilities, be it intelligence sharing, or air defense systems, or anything else,” he told reporters. “Ukraine does not intend to attack anyone. Everything we are looking for serves the purpose of the defense of Ukraine.”
Blinken affirmed that the United States is willing to provide “lethal defensive weapons to defend against any Russian aggression,” while emphasizing that the U.S. has little patience for Russian claims of anxiety about NATO or Ukrainian military maneuvers.
“If there are any provocations that we’re seeing, they’re coming from Russia, with these movements of the forces that we see along Ukraine’s borders,” he said. “Our commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty to its independence to its territorial integrity is ironclad. And the international community will see through any Russian effort to resort to its previous tactics.”