Ukraine crisis: 8 things to watch for – Grid News

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Ukraine crisis: 8 things to watch for

After Friday morning’s meeting in Geneva between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the crisis between Ukraine and Russia remains fluid and unpredictable. The ranks of Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s borders are growing by the day, and the political differences between the parties to the conflict look as irreconcilable as ever. “It’s up to Russia,” Blinken said after the meeting. Added Lavrov: “I can’t say whether or not we are on the right path.” Earlier this week, referring to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin’s plans, President Joe Biden said, “My guess is he will move in.”

Hear more from Joshua Keating about this story:

War still isn’t inevitable — in all likelihood only Putin himself knows what’s coming — but we’re entering a very dangerous phase in this crisis.

Here are eight factors to keep an eye on in the days and weeks to come:


1. Diplomacy: Is there a deal to be had?

Though the Blinken-Lavrov meeting ended without agreement on the core issues, Lavrov did say that dialogue would continue. This in itself is a moderately promising sign; last week, Lavrov’s deputy, Sergei Ryabkov, had declared talks “at a dead end.” So the biggest thing to watch in the coming weeks is whether meetings continue to be scheduled; as long as they do, it’s a sign that the Russians haven’t dismissed the possibility of resolving this around a negotiating table in Geneva rather than on the battlefields of the Donbas.

The Russian government continues to maintain that it will be satisfied with nothing short of, as Ryabkov puts it, “watertight, bulletproof, legally binding guarantees” that Ukraine and other ex-Soviet states will never join NATO. The Biden administration continues to reject this condition.

The Americans have offered talks on other issues including arms control in Eastern Europe and limits on military exercises, but Russia considers these distractions from the main issue: For them, it’s NATO or nothing.

And so, a game of diplomatic chicken is in play: Would Russia rather go to war, and suffer the resulting international backlash, than let Ukraine go its own way? Would the NATO allies and Ukraine rather suffer that war than make an admittedly painful compromise? Something has to give. Sometimes ironclad negotiating positions can become a little less ironclad as talks progress, so keep an eye out in the days to come for signs of either side’s position weakening.

2. Troop movements

At the start of this year, Russia had amassed roughly 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders. In the days and weeks ahead, watch for the reinforcements. Satellite imagery shows tanks, rocket launchers and other military equipment moving westward toward Ukraine from Russia’s bases in the far east. These are in addition to the Russian troops that have moved into Crimea, the territory Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. The Ukrainian defense ministry estimated this week that 127,000 Russian troops have now been deployed; U.S. intelligence suggests the contingents within striking distance of Ukraine could eventually swell to 175,000.


Overhead view of parked military vehicles in a snowy landscape.

Russia has also begun moving an unspecified number of troops into Belarus, Ukraine’s northern neighbor. Military analysts have suggested Russia could use Belarus as a staging ground for one prong of an invasion, so this is an ominous sign. While Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko is a close ally of Putin, he has often tried to remain above the fray of Russia’s foreign conflicts; he didn’t recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea for several years. But this latest development suggests that Lukashenko — isolated and under heavy sanctions since a rigged election in 2020 — has gone all-in on backing Russia.

If Belarus is in play, Russia will have three potential routes into Ukraine, should Putin choose to invade.

3. Putin and China

Is there something about the Olympics that puts Russia’s president in a fighting mood? The 2008 war in the former Soviet republic of Georgia began while Putin, then prime minister, was in Beijing for the Summer Games. Russia’s annexation of Crimea took place in the days just following the Sochi Winter Games. Now Russia may be on the brink of war, and Putin is once again preparing to head to the Olympics. Given the widespread diplomatic boycott of the Beijing games, Putin will be the most high-profile world leader in attendance, and he’s not going just to cheer on Russia’s hockey team. He’s almost certainly looking for some backup on the Ukraine front.

So as the Games begin, watch for the Putin-Xi Jinping meetings. According to the Kremlin, Putin plans to brief the Chinese leader on the crisis when he heads to China for the Feb. 4 opening ceremonies. Ever since its relations with the West soured following the Crimea annexation, Russia has sought to deepen its economic ties with China. In the event of war in Ukraine, Russia would count on China’s support — or at least China’s indifference — to blunt the impact of Western sanctions. The U.S. has threatened to cut off Russia’s access to the SWIFT network — the critical global electronic communications system used by financial institutions to carry out transactions. Russia has sought to enlist China’s participation in an alternative financial communications system. Putin no doubt also hopes the two autocratic allies would stick together in the event of a showdown with the U.S. at the U.N. Security Council.

Beijing is unlikely to take a strong stance either way on the crisis. However, China is also looking to establish a regional sphere of influence in the face of U.S. opposition and may be weighing plans to annex its own troublesome neighbor, Taiwan; for these reasons alone, Xi is no doubt watching the crisis and the world’s response with interest.

4. Germany and France

So far, the U.S. and its European allies have been mostly on the same page in their response to the crisis, a unity that’s been missing in some previous flare-ups with Russia. Putin’s Ukraine rhetoric and buildup may have unintentionally given his rivals in NATO a new common purpose. But it’s still worth keeping an eye on what’s going on in certain European capitals.

This is the first major international crisis facing the newly minted German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Scholz’s Social Democratic Party has traditionally favored a more conciliatory approach toward Russia — former chancellor Gerhard Schröder is infamously now chairman of the Russian state oil company Rosneft — but the new chancellor has appeared tough so far, at least in terms of his rhetoric. Critically, he signaled this week that Germany might halt the proposed (and controversial) Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline — which would double Russian gas exports to Germany — if Russia launches an invasion. Germany has been reluctant to play politics with the pipeline, given the risk to its own domestic economy and energy supplies, so this would be a fairly serious step. On the other hand, Germany, despite pressure from many of its NATO allies, is still refusing to provide Ukraine with weapons.

A possible fault line in the united Western front, which also bears watching in the days to come, emerged this week when French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that Europe should hold its own negotiations with Russia, separate from Washington. Macron, who has called in recent years for Europe to operate with more “strategic autonomy,” favors a return to the so-called Normandy Format talks between France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia, which have been mostly dormant for the last couple of years.

To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war, as the saying goes, but the concern with multiple, concurrent formats of talks is that the message could get muddled.

5. The Donbas

Watch the goings-on in this region in southeastern Ukraine. For all the focus on NATO and geopolitics, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this conflict is also being driven to a great extent by events within Ukraine itself, specifically in the Donbas, much of which is currently under the control of Russian-backed separatists. Russia’s current military buildup began after a drone attack by the Ukrainian military on the rebels in October, a strike that seemed to indicate a shift on the battlefield in Ukraine’s favor. Russia accuses Ukraine of failing to implement agreements it has made to grant these regions more autonomy. The Ukrainian objection is that doing so would, in effect, grant the Kremlin control over a significant amount of Ukraine’s territory.


If Putin decides to attack, there’s a good chance he would use an attack on the separatists — either real or imagined — as a pretext for invasion. Putin has accused the Ukrainian government of waging “genocide” against Russian speakers in this region, and it’s not hard to imagine him arguing that a military invasion is really meant to protect those people. This is more or less how the 2008 war in Georgia began. Another possibility: Members of Russia’s parliament this week proposed that Russia formally recognize the two separatist enclaves, Donetsk and Luhansk, as independent states. These governments could then invite Russian troops into their territory for their own protection.

The Biden administration has already accused Russia of sending agents into Ukraine to instigate a “false flag” operation against the separatists in order to justify an invasion. The Russian foreign ministry has accused the West of preparing “provocations” of its own in Ukraine. Keep an eye out for attacks on the ground in the Donbas, which could spiral into something larger.

6. Cyberwar

Watch for more cyberattacks. A ground invasion is likely to be accompanied by massive cyberattacks, meant to sow chaos and cripple the Ukrainian government and military, and their ability to respond. Or, if Russia chooses a more limited approach, the attack itself could take the form of a cyber strike rather than a conventional military assault. Ukraine has been a testing ground for Russia’s considerable cyber capabilities before. In 2015, Russian hackers disabled the power grid in parts of Ukraine. In 2017, the malware known as NotPetya knocked Ukrainian banks, government agencies, energy hubs and communications services offline before spreading to dozens of other countries and causing billions of dollars in damage — still the most destructive cyberattack in history.

Last week, Ukrainians got a fresh taste of what may lie in store. About 70 Ukrainian websites, including important government agencies, were defaced with sites warning users to “be afraid.” This act of vandalism turned out to be something of a cover for a more serious attack: Two days later, Microsoft announced that it had discovered destructive malware on sites belonging to several government agencies. This malware, which was designed to look like ransomware but didn’t actually have a way for users to recover their data, bore discomfiting resemblance to the old NotPetya malware.

As cybersecurity journalist Kim Zetter notes, Russia has “already demonstrated an ability to hit critical infrastructure and an interest in conducting multi-pronged and widespread operations.” If these attacks start getting more frequent, or more severe, it’s a bad sign.


7. The Russians in Ukraine

In an ominous indication that the Russians are indeed losing patience with diplomacy, 18 people from Russia’s embassy in Kyiv, mainly the wives and children of diplomats, were driven to Moscow this week. More evacuations in the days to come could indicate that Moscow has well and truly given up on diplomacy.

8. The weather

As ill-fated invaders from Napoleon’s Grande Armée to the Nazi Wehrmacht learned, the fearsome Russian winter can be one of the country’s most valuable military allies, to the point that it acquired the nickname “General Frost.” But in the age of climate change, the old general is not as reliable as he used to be.

The best time for a Russian invasion would be while the ground is frozen, before Ukraine’s famous spring thaw, or rasputitsa, sets in, turning the Ukrainian countryside into mud and making the movement of heavy vehicles and equipment a nightmare. Normally, the ground would be frozen by mid-January, but in many parts of Ukraine, the frost has been delayed by a milder-than-normal winter. According to the New York Times, the Biden administration has enlisted meteorologists to assess potential ground conditions in Ukraine in the coming weeks. So, on top of everything else in this crisis, keep an eye on the weather along the Russian-Ukrainian frontier.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.