If the worst-case scenario is realized and Russia launches an invasion of Ukraine in the days and weeks ahead, historians will likely look back on the past week as a great failure of diplomacy.
In what could mark the first phase of a new conflict, dozens of Ukrainian government websites were knocked out Friday in what appeared to be a massive and co-ordinated cyberattack. The websites of seven ministries as well as the country’s Cabinet Office, the Treasury and other key government services pages were taken down and replaced by a message – written in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish – that said Ukrainians’ personal data had been leaked online. “Be afraid and expect the worst. This is for your past, present and future,” the message read, in part.
Ukraine’s Information Ministry said “first data” suggested that the attack “was carried out by the Russian Federation.” It said no personal data had been compromised.
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In the days before the cyberattack, Russian and Western officials met three times in different formats, and in different European cities, to try to avert a conventional war that some analysts believe is now more likely than not. After each round of talks – in Geneva, then Brussels, then finally Vienna – the two sides walked away more frustrated with each other than at the beginning.
By the end of the week, as more than 100,000 Russian troops remained massed at the country’s border with Ukraine, the diplomats sounded defeated. “The drumbeat of war is sounding loud, and the rhetoric has gotten rather shrill,” Michael Carpenter, U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said after Thursday’s OSCE meeting in Vienna. At the OSCE – as in earlier talks between U.S. and Russia, and then NATO and Russia – neither side gave ground in their dispute over whether Ukraine, which 30 years ago was part of the Soviet Union, should be allowed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a U.S.-led military alliance.
Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but has sought membership since 2014, when the country’s Moscow-friendly government was overthrown in a popular revolution. NATO has said Ukraine will eventually be invited to join, but no timeline has been set.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the 2014 uprising in Kyiv as a Western-backed coup d’état, and he responded to it by immediately sending soldiers to seize and annex the strategically important Crimean Peninsula. Russia has also supported an insurgency in the southeastern Donbas region of Ukraine for the past eight years, fuelling a conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people.
In a last-ditch effort at reviving the diplomatic track, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday proposed a three-way meeting with Mr. Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden. Mr. Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, said Ukraine was waiting for Russia to answer their proposal.
Russian officials have compared the current standoff – and their insistence that NATO remove all troops from Ukraine, including Canada’s 200-soldier training mission in the west of the country – to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which saw the world brought to the brink of nuclear war after the USSR deployed ballistic missiles to an island just a short flight from the U.S. mainland. The Kremlin sees its security similarly threatened by the presence of Western forces in Ukraine, which shares a 2,000-kilometre border with Russia.
“We categorically will not accept the appearance of NATO right on our borders, especially so given the current course of the Ukrainian leadership,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at a news conference in Moscow on Friday.
“We have run out of patience,” he said. “We know and are able to safeguard our security in any case, and I can assure you that we are not going to endlessly wait for some changes and promises.”
Mr. Lavrov also criticized the presence of NATO troops – including a Canadian-led battle group – in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Canada has 540 troops stationed in Latvia as part of a forward NATO presence that was deployed after the annexation of Crimea.
Mr. Lavrov said it was “inadmissible” for the West to call on Russia to withdraw troops stationed on its own soil while “Americans, Canadians, British actually ensconce themselves under the guise of a rotation … in the Baltic states and in the countries of northern Europe, as they open military bases near the Black Sea.”
The week’s diplomacy saw U.S. and NATO officials propose new arms-control talks with Russia as a route to easing tensions. But they refused to give ground on Moscow’s key demand that NATO promise to stop expanding into former Soviet territory.
Russia’s military preparations suggest Mr. Putin may have expected all along that negotiations would fail. After a brief lull over the New Year and Orthodox Christmas holidays, the movement of troops and equipment toward the Ukrainian border resumed this week – just as Western diplomats were telling Russia that it needed to begin withdrawing.
“While the negotiations were taking place, they continued to move equipment into place,” said Rob Lee, a Russian military expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, which is based in Philadelphia. “It doesn’t seem like anything that happened in Washington or Brussels changed what they were doing.”
On Friday, Russia’s Defence Ministry said troops stationed in eastern Siberia and the country’s far east were taking part in snap drills to check their “readiness to perform their tasks after redeployment to a large distance.” Videos posted online in recent days have shown trainloads of tanks and other equipment heading westward across Russia, toward the country’s frontiers with Ukraine and Europe.
“It looks like they’re providing cover for the movements we’ve seen over the past week,” Mr. Lee said of the belated announcement of the drills involving forces from Russia’s Eastern Military District.
Mr. Lee said there were roughly 60 Russian battalion tactical groups – mechanized infantry formations supported by tanks, artillery and air-defence units – now in place near the Ukrainian border, with another five to 10 en route from the east of the country. Those movements, along with the deployment of Iskander short-range ballistic missiles and other offensive systems, made it appear “more likely than not” that Russia was preparing to go to war against its neighbour.
Aki Heikkinen a Finnish military analyst, agreed that Russian invasion of Ukraine seemed increasingly probable. “Hard to see them backing down from such huge political and military commitment,” Mr. Heikkenen said in an exchange of messages. He predicted that Russia would stage some kind of provocation – something the U.S. government has also said it expects – in the days ahead that would justify a “shock and awe” campaign targeting the Ukrainian military.
On Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said U.S. intelligence officials have determined a Russian effort is underway to create a pretext for its troops to further invade Ukraine, and Moscow has already prepositioned operatives to conduct “a false-flag operation” in eastern Ukraine
Ms. Psaki charged that Russia has already dispatched operatives trained in urban warfare who could use explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy forces – blaming the acts on Ukraine – if Mr. Putin decides he wants to move forward with an invasion.
“We are concerned that the Russian government is preparing for an invasion in Ukraine that may result in widespread human rights violations and war crimes should diplomacy fail to meet their objectives,” Ms. Psaki said.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly leaves for Kyiv and two European capitals on Saturday for high-level talks with Ukrainian leaders and Canada’s European allies to reaffirm Canada’s support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
”The amassing of Russian troops and equipment in and around Ukraine jeopardizes security in the entire region,” Ms. Joly said in a statement. “These aggressive actions must be deterred. Canada will work with its international partners to uphold the rules-based international order and preserve the human rights and dignity of Ukrainians.
”The first stop will be In Kyiv where she will meet Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna. She’ll also visit Canadian Armed Forces troops deployed on Operation UNIFIER to thank them directly for their important training mission in support of the Security Forces of Ukraine, her office said.
Ms. Joly will also be traveling to Paris for bilateral discussions with Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs. The trip will include talks at NATO headquarters in Brussels with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
With reports from Robert Fife in Ottawa and The Associated Press.
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