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
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
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
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.”