Against the backdrop of diplomatic efforts and the threats of sanctions by the United States, France, Germany, and other Western nations, the Russian government led by President Vladimir Putin has announced a partial withdrawal of its forces engaged in the huge military buildup on the borders of Ukraine.
Nonetheless, the threat of Russian invasion of Ukraine has not disappeared. Moscow must abandon its evil designs for intimidating Ukraine into accepting its unreasonable demands and carry out an immediate and total withdrawal of its military forces from near Ukraine.
Until that happens, the United States, Europe, and Japan must preserve the option of implementing severe economic sanctions against Russia.
On February 15 German Chancellor Olaf Scholz held discussions with Putin in Moscow. Afterwards, at a joint news conference, Putin announced that Russia had decided to pull back some of its forces, although the size of the troop withdrawal remained unclear. However, he added dramatically, “It doesn’t depend on us alone.”
In a speech he gave the same day, United States President Joe Biden said that the scale of the Russian military buildup encircling Ukraine had actually grown to around 150,000 troops. He added that Washington “has not verified” the claimed partial troop withdrawal and that a Russian invasion of Ukraine remained “distinctly possible.”
Since December 2021, military tension has been ratcheting up as Putin’s government has presented the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with a list of demands. Moscow has demanded that Ukraine and other former members of the Soviet bloc not be allowed to join NATO and the state of military armament return to as it was in 1997, before NATO expanded into Eastern Europe.
The Biden administration has flatly rejected most of Russia’s demands, but agreed to discuss missile deployments and how military exercises are conducted.
Such United States-Russia negotiations would merit careful watching since relaxation of tensions in the future will be dependent on the way in which many of the issues in such talks are dealt with.
There are other reasons for concern about Russia’s recent actions. On February 15, Russia’s lower house of parliament voted to ask President Putin to recognize the independence of two breakaway regions in Eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. This would appear to be a stratagem on Putin’s part so that the possibility of recognizing the independence of these regions increases pressure on NATO to prevent Ukraine from joining that collective security grouping.
Such infringement on Ukraine’s sovereignty is totally unacceptable. Considering that military assistance provided by Russia to the separatists invited the large-scale fighting that has taken place in Eastern Ukraine since 2014, such a recognition of independence by Moscow would amount to an act of aggression. It would also violate the terms of the Minsk agreements of February 2015.
Western governments need to make it crystal clear that if Russia goes ahead and recognizes the independence of these eastern regions, they will stand shoulder to shoulder in implementing sanctions against Russia.