Alarming the United States, other NATO members and the European Union, Russian leader Vladimir Putin is once again amassing troops along his country’s western borders. Senior US officials warn Putin not to attempt another invasion of Ukraine. Analysts, meanwhile, say Putin may be looking to take advantage of a growing dispute between Kremlin-aligned Belarus and its European neighbors to inject chaos into the region and make NATO appear weak.
Russia has hit the US and Europe in the past before withdrawing. Last spring, the Kremlin thousands of troops rose near the Ukrainian border – with which it has fought a war since the invasion of Russia in 2014 – before recalling many.
This latest build-up, however, looks more serious, largely due to further tensions involving Belarus and its neighboring NATO members, current and former US officials said.
Longtime Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko face the pressure of sanctions by the United States and its European neighbors who contest the victory in the 2020 elections and the repression of dissent. He has threatened to cut energy supplies to parts of the continent, a move that would likely require Russian approval. Lukashenko has also sent migrants from the Middle East and other places to his country’s borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, causing what critics say is a human trafficking and a humanitarian crisis.
The developments have added to the frustration in some corners of the US foreign policy establishment at Biden’s team’s overall approach to Russia, namely that it has been too soft and too cautious.
Biden himself has long distrusted Putin and, at least in the past, supported the hiring a hard line towards Moscow. There are others in his administration, such as senior State Department official Victoria Nuland, who are considered to be on the hawkish side when it comes to Russia. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is also generally said to be prone to hawks.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, his deputy chief, Jon Finer, and Biden’s international climate envoy, John Kerry, are the three most often cited for advocating a more cautious line towards Russia. former US officials in contact with those within the Biden administration said. The urgency to be cautious stems from the idea that Washington should work with Moscow on certain goals, such as climate change mitigation or nuclear arms control.
A senior official in the Biden administration rejected the idea of warring camps. “People on the outside may want to apply blunt categories, but that’s not really how it works in practice,” the official said. “No one discusses recommendations or opinions according to a hawk or dove doctrine. Our relationship with Russia is complex and to say that certain people are inherently hard or soft oversimplifies the way we manage these complexities. ”
Some of the same former US officials have argued that the differences between members of the administration shouldn’t be disproportionate – that they are part of a natural process of debate and discussion in any presidential team and often boil down to who prioritizes what in a given. moment. Any significant differences on Russia among Biden administration officials will vanish if Putin makes some rash moves, especially in Ukraine, a former senior State Department official predicted.
Biden’s decision to limit the number of sanctions his administration imposed on the Russian-German pipeline known as Nord Stream 2 was an example of how the debate on internal administration seems to have led to compromises. In that case, Biden had to weigh the interests of Germany, an ally of the United States, and decided it wasn’t worth alienating Berlin for a pipeline that Washington has long opposed.
Putin’s latest actions should spur a rethink in Washington, some analysts said.
“Russia’s military moves towards Ukraine raise real questions about the administration’s current balance of confronting and engaging the Kremlin,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “I think it’s clear that the balance has to lean more towards confrontation.”
That confrontation could take many forms, from the imposition of further economic sanctions … including those about Putin himself or his wealthy cronies – send more weapons to the Ukrainian armed forces. A highly visible show of U.S. solidarity with others in NATO could also help, as Lukashenko’s migrant-related moves against his neighbors are a strain for that military alliance.
Putin and Lukashenko have a difficult relationship. After Lukashenko said he could prevent Russian gas passing through his country from reaching European nations that rely on that energy, Moscow insisted it would. fulfill its contractual obligations on gas deliveries. However, the Kremlin appears to be supporting, if not encouraging, at least some of Lukashenko’s actions. On Friday, Russian state media reported that Moscow had sent paratroopers to Belarus for joint exercises.
“Putin could use, and indeed could be behind, Lukashenko’s arming of migrants and refugees to distract from what he could plan for Ukraine,” a former US official said.
Poland sent thousands of soldiers to the Belarus border in response to the wave of migrants. Russia, meanwhile, has flown over Belarus, near Poland, twice in the past few days. And Britain said Friday it was sending 10 soldiers – engineers – to help Poland shore up its border, the first concrete display of support a NATO member has shown for countries struggling with migrant influxes.
“This is a very, very dangerous situation because Article 5 is heavily underlined right now,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration, referring to NATO’s principle that an attack on a member is treated as an attack on all members. “Putin would like nothing better than to prove that NATO is useless.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, in Russian state media reports on Friday, dismissed Western concerns about Russian troop movements and warned against neighboring military activities of NATO member countries. “If necessary, we will take measures to ensure our safety in case of provocative actions by our opponents near our borders,” he said, according to Russian reports.
Biden administration officials declined to say whether they are planning new sanctions or other sanctions against Belarus or Russia due to the escalating crisis. It was also unclear whether Biden would try to get Putin over the phone to calm things down. The couple held a summit in Geneva in June, where they raised grievances and discussed ways to best engage.
Cyber security is an area where occasional cooperation with the Kremlin could be useful, especially since many hacks and ransomware attacks against US entities originate from Russian soil. During the June summit, Biden stressed to Putin that America has significant cyber capabilities it could unleash on Russia if Putin didn’t crack down on cybercriminals on its territory.
It’s hard to say how much effect that warning had. There have been Reports on Russian cyber attack in progress in the last months. Biden administration officials also need to consider whether a cyber attack from the United States could lead to an unwanted escalation with Russia.
“I understand that there has been a debate within the administration about a correct cyber response to Russia,” Farkas said. “This is another area where the president understands that if you are not hard on the Russians, they will not stop with their cyber aggression.”
The Biden administration is trying to keep contacts with Russia alive at all levels, including the presidential one. His mantra from the start has been that he wants a “stable and predictable” relationship with Moscow, and that hasn’t changed. This requires a balancing act and a long-term vision, say some defenders of the administration.
“I wouldn’t say it doesn’t work. I mean, it’s been like 10 months, “said a former US national security official who had to deal with Russia of Biden’s team’s approach.” With that said, of course Russia, China and others are testing Biden. And the Russian tests don’t mean they won’t do stupid things. But we should be aware, be vigilant, but also not overreact. ”
Biden administration officials declined to offer details of the U.S. government’s internal discussions about Russia, especially when it comes to who is on which side.
When asked about the sanctions package Biden sent out multiple times, however, the senior administration official said Biden was not demanding that the sanctions be more punitive or that they injure the Russian people. Rather, the president wanted to make sure the sanctions were “smart” and well thought out so that they could change the Kremlin’s behavior.
The package of sanctions, which was presented in April, including measures that targeted a range of Russian actions, from its aggression against Ukraine to its interference with US elections to its efforts to silence Russian dissidents.
“My bottom line is this,” Biden said at the time. “Where it is in the interest of the United States to work with Russia, we should and we will. Where Russia tries to violate US interests, we will respond. ”
Paul McLeary contributed to this report.