As warnings fly between U.S. and Russia, how real is the threat of war in Ukraine?

WASHINGTON —

So far, it’s been a war of words. Could it escalate into something more serious?

Against the backdrop of a major buildup of Russian forces near Ukraine, a former Soviet republic and struggling democracy sandwiched between Russia and the West, the rhetoric and prospect for conflict have been sharpening daily.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, meeting his Russian counterpart in Stockholm on Thursday, explicitly warned Moscow against an invasion — a scenario that Ukraine’s government, backed by both NATO and the Biden administration, has described as a real possibility. According to the Kremlin, an intervention by its troops might be necessary in order to stop the escalating separatist fighting within eastern Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is responsible for much of the events that will unfold over the next few days and weeks. His motives are unclear as well as his intent. Analysts believe that Russia’s autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin, is carefully weighing the risks and benefits of his actions in Ukraine. He also considers whether the heavy odds of Western sanctions being retaliated against and the possibility of a backlash from the domestic population if there are significant losses to Russian troops.

“Putin is definitely as serious as he could be,” Hanna Shelest, a leading Ukrainian security expert, told an Atlantic Council webinar on Thursday. “He’s definitely raising the stakes in this game.”

Although the direct involvement of American ground troops is considered a nonstarter, Washington sees Ukraine as a close partner, and the U.S. has for years provided sophisticated weaponry, including Javelin antitank missiles, to the Ukrainian government.

Even sometimes conflicting European allies have shown remarkable solidarity in warning of the economic consequences of a Russian leader becoming too aggressive.

Here are some factors that have contributed to the latest crisis in Ukraine.

How serious is Russia’s buildup of forces?

After Putin’s audacious 2014 seizure of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea — which Moscow then illegally annexed — Ukraine has considered itself to be under constant threat.

Supporters say that’s with good reason: Russia backs a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, where fighting has killed about 14,000 people, according to international observers. Moscow has made a series of seemingly dangerous troop movements. The United States European Command raised its alert level in spring after Russia deployed troops into Crimea and moved its forces closer to Ukraine’s borders.

Russia’s recent military activity near Ukraine has set off alarm bells not only in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, but in Washington and Europe as well. U.S. intelligence indicates Moscow has positioned about 100,000 troops and heavy weaponry that could allow a swift, large-scale, multi-pronged attack on Ukraine.

How has the Biden administration responded?

Blinken minced few words in his meeting Thursday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, declaring that if Moscow “decides to pursue confrontation, there will be serious consequences.”

As the two met on the sidelines of a ministerial meeting in Stockholm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the secretary of State stressed the United States’ “strong, ironclad commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III too has been outspoken on the subject. He stated that the U.S. would work with the international community to counter any Russian military actions in Ukraine during a Wednesday visit to South Korea. Austin did not respond to a question about economic sanctions. Austin and Blinken, along with other high-ranking officials, insist that diplomacy is the best solution.

What has the Kremlin said?

Moscow’s principal tactic has been to turn the situation on its head and accuse Ukraine — far weaker militarily — of being the aggressor. Dmitry Peskov (Kremlin spokesperson), who is close to Putin on Thursday complained that the Ukrainian authorities have been taking “increasingly intense provocative actions” against pro-Russian separatists. In a conference call with reporters, Peskov also complained that comments by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has said Russia is preparing to invade, showed that “the Ukrainian leadership doesn’t rule out a forceful scenario.”

Lavrov, in Stockholm, repeated Putin’s warnings against North Atlantic Treaty Organization military assistance to Ukraine — and reasserted the Kremlin leader’s position that granting membership in the alliance to Ukraine or other states Russia that considers to be within its sphere of influence would be a grave mistake. A NATO expansion, he said, would “infringe on our security.”

All in all, Kremlin spokesman Peskov said, “the probability of hostilities in Ukraine still remains high.”

What about Europe?

Moscow faced European sanctions after grabbing Crimea, but Ukraine is appealing for far harsher punishment if Russia tries to seize more territory. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, met with both Blinken and European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in Sweden, appealing for the crafting of powerful new economic deterrents to “make President Putin think twice before resorting to military force.”

Ukraine is not a NATO member, though it aspires to be, so an attack on it does not trigger the 30-member alliance’s founding principle that an attack on one is an attack on all. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that NATO’s defensive military support for Ukraine was in accordance with international obligations. And Stoltenberg this week rejected Putin’s demand that NATO promise to refrain from eastern expansion, saying Moscow “does not have a veto.”

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What does Putin hope to gain?

The Russian leader wants a host of things, particularly an easing of sanctions. Analysts also note Putin’s desire to be recognized by the West as the legitimate leader a great power. The onetime KGB spy never accepted the new world order after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, longtime Putin observers say. Many of them doubt that he will ever relinquish his ambition to be the main arbiter not only of Ukraine’s oil wealth but also of its political destiny.

Ukraine’s current situation is a constant sore point. Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow with Carnegie Moscow Center, posted this week on Carnegie.ru.

The choice, Baunov said, is “whether to boost Russia’s status, thereby rewarding the dangerous exploitation of a simmering conflict, or refuse to give Moscow the promises it desires, thus conserving the conflict in its heated state.”

Despite President Biden’s stated wish for a stable relationship with Russia, Putin is likely to keep actively sowing discord in the West. Few people believe that the migrant crisis occurring in Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko (Europe’s last dictator) deliberately funneled desperate migrants from other parts of the world to the EU’s eastern borders in Poland and Lithuania, would have occurred without his knowledge or consent.

Veteran diplomat Daniel Fried, a former special advisor to two presidents, said the Russian leader’s behavior on Ukraine fit neatly into a long-standing template.

“This was a Russian-instigated crises,” he said to the Atlantic Council webinar. “We shouldn’t reward them for taking down a crisis that they put up.”

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