Three weeks ago I wrote about tensions at the border between the European Union and Belarus and the part it all seemed to play in Vladimir Putin’s destabilising efforts. The dispute between Minsk and Brussels unfolded as satellite images showed a build-up of tens of thousands of Russian troops near Ukraine’s eastern frontier.
Since then, fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine have mounted, despite Moscow’s insistence that such concerns are “shallow and unfounded”. If anything, as the Kremlin’s version goes, Russia wants to make sure Ukraine will not try to seize areas captured by Russian-backed separatists in 2014.
In preparation for the worst, Nato leaders including the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, and the heads of government of the US, Germany, France, and Italy held talks on Monday night to agree a package of sanctions against Moscow should it press ahead with a military incursion in the new year.
Measures being considered include cutting off Russia from the international financial settlement system, restrictions on banks and exports of the country’s commodities, and the deployment of “additional forces and capabilities” to eastern Europe by the US.
Another countermeasure that the Biden administration is reportedly seeking to agree with European allies – and the new German government, in particular – would involve a halting of the contested Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a project that the UK government has long criticised.
In response, the Kremlin has accused the military alliance of taking an “extremely aggressive” stance and reminded its leaders of Russia’s “own red lines”, not least a future Ukrainian membership of Nato, against which Putin has repeatedly warned western leaders.
In an attempt to de-escalate the situation, the US and Russian presidents held a rare video call yesterday, spending approximately two hours talking in private. Following the conversation, Washington confirmed that the Biden administration would be preparing specific robust responses in the weeks ahead, saying “things we did not do in 2014 we are prepared to do now”.
In Putin’s eye, any breakthrough in diplomatic talks will be highly dependent on binding guarantees that Nato will not expand farther eastwards, as well as a pledge that certain weapons will not be deployed in countries close to Russia such as Ukraine.
Whether that will be enough to deter Putin’s ever-expanding ambitions, however, remains to be seen.