Rising tensions in eastern Ukraine are heightening Western fears of a Russian invasion and a new war in Europe, with US President Joe Biden saying he is “convinced” that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the decision to ‘to invade.
NATO nations fear the volatile east, which has seen heavy shelling in recent days and orders to evacuate civilians, could be a flashpoint in their most tense clash with Russia since the war cold, giving the Kremlin a pretext to invade Ukraine.
The United States has raised its estimate of Russian troops for a possible invasion to up to 190,000. Russia also plans to hold military exercises on Saturday, including multiple practice launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. in a show of military power.
The United States and its European partners continue their strategy of diplomacy and deterrence, offering to continue discussions with the Kremlin while threatening heavy sanctions in the event of an invasion.
Here is an overview of what is happening, where and why:
What did Biden say about Putin’s intentions?
After saying for weeks that the United States was unsure whether Putin had made the final decision to launch an invasion, Biden said on Friday he was now confident he had and that it could happen. produce in the “coming days”.
He said an invasion could include an assault on the capital, Kiev.
Biden said he was confident in the new assessment because of Americans’ “significant intelligence capability.”
What sanctions would Russia face?
The United States has decided to suspend at least one of the most crushing financial options available to punish Russia if it invades Ukraine, Deputy Director of the National Economic Council Daleep Singh told reporters on Friday during a briefing. press at the White House.
Kicking Russia out of the SWIFT financial system that moves money around the world was one of the most damaging steps the US could take against the Russian economy, but some European allies oppose it for the negative fallout that it would also cause to their savings. .
Asked on Friday whether Americans and their European allies — many of whom are more exposed to collateral damage from sanctions hitting the Russian economy — were on the same page on specific financial sanctions, Biden said that he expected “slight differences”.
Singh described sanctions on Russian financial institutions and state-owned companies, as well as US export controls that would deprive Russia of the cutting-edge technology it seeks for its industry and military.
At a time of high oil and gas prices, the United States also has no intention of blocking Russian energy from reaching world markets, he said, but no gave no details.
Italy, which relies heavily on Russian gas, has pushed for the energy to be kept out of any sanctions. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi told reporters on Friday that he had outlined his government’s views at a European Council meeting in Brussels the day before.
What’s going on in eastern Ukraine?
In Ukraine’s Donbass region, where fighting since 2014 between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels has claimed some 14,000 lives, rebels said in videos uploaded Friday they were ordering an “immediate evacuation.” to Russia because of the troubles.
But metadata embedded in the video files showed they were created two days earlier.
An international peacekeeping observer group in eastern Ukraine reported more than 500 explosions in the 24 hours to midday Thursday.
On Friday, a car exploded outside the main government building in Donetsk, but no casualties were reported and a UN Refugee Agency convoy was shelled.
The rebels accuse Ukraine of preparing to invade the region, which Kiev denies. The unrest may be part of Moscow’s alleged playbook of painting Ukraine as the aggressor, thereby giving Russia reason to invade.
Putin sent his emergency minister to the Rostov region bordering Ukraine to help organize the evacuation. He ordered the government to give 10,000 rubles (about $130) to each evacuee. This equates to about half the average monthly salary in the region.
What’s new on cyberattacks?
The United States and Britain blame Russia for this week’s cyberattacks targeting Ukraine’s Defense Ministry and major banks.
Anne Neuberger, the White House’s chief cyber officer, said attacks this week had “limited impact” since Ukrainian officials were able to get their systems back up and running quickly, but it’s possible the Russians threw the foundations for a more destructive attack. those.
She and the UK Foreign Office linked Tuesday’s attacks to Russian military intelligence officers.
What’s going on in the Kremlin?
The Kremlin said Putin would watch drills involving Russia’s strategic nuclear forces from the Russian Defense Ministry’s situation room.
The Defense Ministry said Putin would personally oversee Saturday’s demonstration of his country’s nuclear power. Notably, the planned exercise involves the Black Sea Fleet based in Crimea. Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula after seizing it from Ukraine in 2014.
What forces does Russia have near Ukraine?
The new US estimate of up to 190,000 includes Russian-backed separatists inside Ukraine, the Russian National Guard and Russian troops in Crimea, the peninsula Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 These forces were not counted in previous assessments of troops deployed near Ukraine. borders and in neighboring Belarus.
As a further indication that the Russians are preparing for a possible invasion, a US defense official said that about 40-50% of the ground forces deployed near the Ukrainian border have moved to attack positions closer to the border. The defense official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal U.S. military assessments.
The official also said the number of Russian ground units known as battalion battle groups deployed in the border area had risen to 125 from 83 two weeks ago. Each battalion battle group has 750 to 1,000 soldiers.
What did NATO do?
Meanwhile, NATO is strengthening its eastern regions.
The United States has begun deploying 5,000 troops to Poland and Romania. The Biden administration announced on Friday that it had approved a $6 billion sale of 250 Abrams main battle tanks and related equipment to Poland.
Britain sends hundreds of soldiers to Poland and offers more warships and planes. It also doubles its troop numbers in Estonia and sends tanks and armored fighting vehicles.
Germany, Norway and the Netherlands send additional troops to Lithuania. The Dutch government is also sending 100 sniper rifles, combat helmets and body armor, two mine detection robots and weapons detection radar systems to Ukraine.
What are the diplomatic efforts to prevent war?
Biden spoke by phone Friday afternoon with a number of European leaders and the leaders of the European Union and NATO about the likelihood of Russian aggression, the White House said.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who was on the call, had scheduled talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday and with Putin on Sunday.
US Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken attend the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany. Moscow sent no delegate there.
Harris said the alliance’s approach to the crisis would continue.
“We remain, of course, open and willing to be diplomatic, in terms of the dialogue and the discussions that we have had with Russia,” Harris said in Munich.
“But we are also committed, if Russia takes aggressive action, to ensure that the sanctions we have discussed will have serious consequences,” she said during a meeting with the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock regretted that Russian leaders refused to attend the Munich conference.
“Especially in the current extremely threatening situation, it would have been important to also meet Russian representatives in Munich,” Baerbock said. Even small steps towards peace would be “better than a big step towards war”, she added.
AP reporters in the United States and Europe contributed.