"Foiled again!" rose the cry Friday from those expecting Russian President Vladimir Putin to step out of character and risk war, just as he finally succeeds in getting the U.S. to take Russia’s security concerns seriously – and even address them.
Russia’s continued troop reinforcements near Ukraine do not mean, ipso facto, that Russia intends to attack and/or invade and/or occupy Ukraine. They have been there; and NOT done that.
Memories are short, but the Russians strengthened their forces opposite Ukraine last spring and succeeded in getting President Joe Biden’s full attention. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, egged on by the crazies in Washington, had been threatening to "liberate" areas in Donetsk and Lugansk controlled by anti-coup regime, pro-Russian forces, and had also been asserting the right to take back Crimea.
Sudden Telephone Call
On April 13, Biden suddenly telephoned Putin; the White House explained that Biden expressed concern over the Russian military buildup near Ukraine and called on Putin “to de-escalate tensions." Then, in a surprise move (and in an oh-by-the-way vein), Biden suggested a bilateral “summit meeting in a third country in the coming months to discuss the full range of issues facing the United States and Russia.”
That same day, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that over the preceding three weeks Moscow had sent two armies and three airborne formations to western regions “as a response to the alliance’s [NATO’s] military activities threatening Russia.” NATO had been increasing the number of its own troops and maneuvers from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
On April 21, 2021, Putin chose to include in his annual address to the Federal Assembly a warning that Russia’s response to provocations from Ukraine "will be asymmetrical, swift, and tough" and that the provocateurs "will regret what they have done in a way they have not regretted anything for a long time." Putting flesh on "asymmetrical," Russian troops near Ukraine at that time were estimated to number about 100,000. Sound familiar?
On April 22, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that the large military exercises near Ukraine had been completed and that he had ordered troops to return to their permanent bases by May 1. Shoigu added that the objectives of the deployment “have been fully achieved." Indeed, the fire and fury in and around Ukraine attenuated – until the deja vu reprise this past fall.
When Will Troops ‘Achieve Objectives’ This Time?
How soon the current deployment of additional Russian forces near Ukraine will achieve its objective (which does NOT seem to be war) will depend on progress in the next steps agreed upon Friday by Blinken and Lavrov in Geneva. Blinken said: "Based on the conversations we’ve had – the extensive conversations – over the past week and today here in Geneva, I think there are grounds for and a means to address some of the mutual concerns we have about security." He did not neglect to include, of course, the obligatory warning of "swift, severe sanctions" if Russia invades Ukraine. (Over the past several weeks, Washington has been overusing the subjunctive mood. Everything depends on that big IF.)
For his part, Lavrov said the ball is in Washington’s court, adding, "I can’t tell you if we’re on the right track or the wrong track. We’ll understand this when we receive the American response on paper to all the points in our proposal." Blinken indicated he expected to share with Russia "our concerns and ideas in more detail and in writing next week," and that he and Lavrov "had agreed to further discussions after that."
Another Summit in the Works?
Oddly (and loosely following the pattern of last spring), both Blinken and Lavrov addressed the subject of a possible Biden-Putin summit, Blinken saying, "If we conclude and the Russians conclude that the best way to resolve things is through a further conversation between them, we’re certainly prepared to do that".
Lavrov was more reserved: "Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. President Putin is always ready for contacts with President Biden; it’s clear that these contacts need to be seriously prepared."
Widely Differing Interpretations
It will come as no surprise to antiwar readers that, even after today’s Blinken-Lavrov meeting, the above interpretation is not widely shared. At mid-afternoon Friday, I had a mini-debate with my good friend Scott Ritter. Listeners will be able to see – or I should say hear – our differences in bas relief.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).