Nov 19, 2021

By David Ignatius

The Washington Post


The guns of November are locked and loaded, as Russia continues to defy

U.S. and European pressure to withdraw its troops from the volatile

Ukraine border.


The tense Ukraine standoff is a case study in diplomatic signaling that,

thus far, hasn’t worked. For weeks, senior U.S. and European officials

have warned Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull back what looks

ominously like an invasion force — or face harsh consequences from a

U.S.-led coalition.


The warning message hasn’t connected. Instead, Putin seems to be

relishing the West’s anxiety. He claimed Thursday that the United

States and its allies were ignoring Russia’s “red lines” and

“escalating the situation” with shows of force. He said he hoped the

recent “tension” in Western statements about Ukraine would “remain

as long as possible,” so that Russia’s views would be taken

seriously. Putin’s goal seems to be restoration of Moscow’s

Soviet-era hegemony over Kyiv.


Nearly 100,000 Russian troops have massed along the border, according to

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. This faceoff continued

Thursday. U.S. officials didn’t detect any change in the Russian

military presence, up or down.


There are nearly daily skirmishes in the contested Donbas region of

eastern Ukraine, between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian troops.

The conflict could escalate if Russia sends “humanitarian” aid

convoys into the region under a decree issued Monday by Putin. Ukraine

has recently augmented its defense of the Donbas, using Turkish drones

to combat pro-Russian forces — and drawing a protest from Moscow.


The Biden administration appears caught between its desire to deter a

Russian invasion and its hope for new talks with Putin about strategic

stability and other topics. National security adviser Jake Sullivan

spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart Wednesday. The White House

didn’t provide details, but a Russian spokesman said the topics

included possible “top-level contact” soon between Putin and

President Biden.

Washington’s most emphatic warning about the Russian buildup was a

Nov. 10 statement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He cited

“reports of unusual Russian military activity near Ukraine” and

warned against “any escalatory or aggressive actions” by Russia.

With Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba by his side, Blinken said

America’s commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity was

“ironclad,” but he avoided specifics about what the United States

would do in the event of an invasion.


CIA Director William J. Burns had paid a quiet visit to Moscow earlier

this month. He told Russian officials about US. concern over the Russian

troop buildup and warned that an invasion of Ukraine would bring

severe economic reprisals. Administration officials were disappointed

that Burns’s cautionary message didn’t seem to register with the



To check Russia, the administration has tried to mobilize European

allies, who are nearer to the firing line in Ukraine. French President

Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both spoken

directly with Putin over the past two weeks. Britain’s defense

secretary met his Ukrainian counterpart in Kyiv. And Sweden’s defense

minister said he was ready to send Swedish troops to Ukraine to help

train that country’s military.


The Biden administration has been making contingency plans with allies,

in case Russia moves across the border. U.S. officials won’t discuss

how they would respond, though they caution that, because Ukraine

isn’t a NATO member, there’s no US. guarantee to protect Kyiv.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed the uncertainty shared by U.S.

allies when he admitted Wednesday: “We’re not sure exactly what Mr.

Putin is up to.”


The Kremlin seems increasingly determined to force Zelensky’s

aggressively pro-western government into submission to Moscow. Putin

this summer published a lengthy article explaining the historical roots

of his view that, as he put it, Russians and Ukrainians represent “one

people — a single whole.” He argued that “true sovereignty of

Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”


Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president and prime minister,

followed Putin’s commentary with a blistering article in Kommersant,

in October, titled “Why It Is Senseless to Deal with the Current

Ukrainian Leadership.” He opened with a chilling bit of Ukrainian folk

wisdom: “When the goat tangles with the wolf, only the skin will

remain of the goat.”


But Ukraine is a goat with teeth. An investigation released this week by

the investigative group Bellingcat described an astonishingly bold sting

operation by Zelensky’s intelligence operatives last year to capture

dozens of Russian mercenaries who had fought in eastern Ukraine. Though

it failed, that operation must have been galling for a former

intelligence operative like Putin.


The Biden administration is right to seek a more stable and predictable

relationship with Russia. But the Ukraine confrontation is a reminder of

just how absent both conditions are now. The administration should

follow its instinct to revive the Minsk Protocol to end the war in

eastern Ukraine — even though tens of thousands of Russian and

Ukrainian troops are blocking the exit ramp. Overcoming such obstacles

is what American diplomacy, at its best, can accomplish.


David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The

Washington Post. His latest novel is “The Paladin.”