Ukraine and Russia to launch parallel military drills as U.S. nears agreement on potential sanctions
As Russian warships sail toward the Black Sea and the Kremlin positions large numbers of troops and weapons for exercises in Moscow-friendly Belarus, Ukrainian troops are preparing for military drills of their own — using unmanned aircraft and antitank missiles supplied by Kyiv’s Western partners.
The rival military exercises, starting Thursday, follow diplomatic activity on both sides of the Atlantic that some analysts fear is being used by Russian President Vladimir Putin as a delaying tactic while he gets his forces into position for a renewed invasion of Ukraine.
It remains unclear whether the two days of whirlwind diplomacy — involving leaders from France, Germany, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and the United States — yielded any firm commitment to de-escalation. The Kremlin wants NATO to promise it will never let Ukraine join the military alliance, and has called for the bloc to cease military activity in Eastern Europe.
NATO diplomats, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about internal strategic discussions, said they worried Putin’s demands were so expansive that there was little or no room for a compromise that all sides would find acceptable.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking alongside French President Emmanuel Macron in Kyiv on Tuesday, said it was the first time a French head of state had visited his country in 24 years, and he described the talks as “substantive and very productive.” He has projected an air of calm, denouncing what he and his advisers have characterized as a geopolitical fight between Russia and the West that has little to do with Ukraine itself.
Moscow, which has massed some 100,000 forces near Ukraine and backs separatists in that country’s eastern territories, pledged to remove troops from Belarus once the joint exercises are complete. Paris has said Putin agreed, after a Monday meeting with Macron, to not escalate the situation.
In Washington, White House press secretary Jen Psaki hit back at suggestions the United States was out of the loop on the French president’s shuttle diplomacy. President Biden spoke with Macron twice over the past week, she said — including on Sunday, the day before Macron spoke with Putin — and the pair are expected to talk again soon.
“There are a range of diplomatic conversations happening all the time,” she told reporters. “The United States is a key player in the vast majority of those negotiations.”
Macron, who has long called for France to be a leader of a foreign policy that is allied with but independent of Washington, has cast himself as the key European interlocutor as the Kremlin demands to rework the continent’s security architecture.
Congressional leaders in the United States also joined Biden in downplaying any ambiguity around Germany’s support for ending a major natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany if Moscow attacks.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who had dinner with Scholz Monday alongside other lawmakers, declared that the German leader had assured them behind closed doors that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project would be abandoned — as promised by Biden — if Moscow again sends forces into Ukraine.
Scholz, who is from a left-of-center party that has Russia-friendly elements, has not made such a definitive commitment in public.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Washington Post Live that he left the same dinner “convinced” that Berlin is in lockstep with Washington on potential actions in event of a Russian attack on Ukraine. He also signaled there is strong U.S. support on both sides of politics for sanctions to severely punish Moscow if it launches a renewed invasion.
“There is no light, I think, between Democrats and Republicans on the desire and the need to push back on Vladimir Putin and to exact enormous consequences for any miscalculation of an invasion by Putin,” he said. “The only questions may be some of the specific tactics to do that.”
Lawmakers negotiating a law that would allow for punitive measures against Russia are getting “closer and closer” to a deal, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Tuesday. One remaining point of difference is whether to impose sanctions before or after any renewed Russian invasion, he said.
U.S. and European officials are eyeing the next 12 days with increasing concern, fearing that the Russian military exercises scheduled to start Thursday could provide cover for a sudden strike against Ukraine and that the Feb. 20 conclusion of the Olympic Games in Beijing clears away a potential diplomatic barrier for Putin, who may fear upstaging Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The detachment of Russian warships moving into the Black Sea, six large landing vessels, will take part in an exercise, the navy said. The Russian military has in the past used that as a bluff before invasions.
In Ukraine, meanwhile, troops will Thursday start doing drills using armed drones and antitank weapons provided by the United States and other NATO members. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov has said the drills, scheduled to take place through Feb. 20, are a response to the Russian exercises near the border.