Feb 2, 2022 - World

Putin moves closer to war

Chess with Russia
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Each new move Russian President Vladimir Putin makes has left U.S. officials more fearful he's preparing for a very real war.

Why it matters: A month of diplomatic talks has achieved nothing. Russia's alarming military buildup keeps growing. And in his first public comments about the spiraling tensions in over a month, Putin on Tuesday accused the West of goading Russia into a conflict over Ukraine.

Driving the news: Between 100,000 and 130,000 Russian troops are now estimated to be stationed on the border with Ukraine, a presence that continues to grow.

  • 5,000 Russian troops have been deployed in Belarus — potentially giving Putin a direct route to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, which lies just 140 miles from the Belarus border on a freshly paved highway.
  • At a heated meeting of the UN Security Council on Monday, U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said there's evidence Russia intends to expand its Belarus presence to 30,000 troops by early February.
  • U.S. officials say Russia has also recently moved supplies of blood and other medical materials near the Ukrainian border, adding to fears that an invasion could be imminent, Reuters first reported.

The big picture: There are increasingly few signs on the ground that would distinguish a bluff from legitimate preparations for an attack. The West isn't taking any chances.

  • The Pentagon has placed 8,500 U.S. troops on "heightened preparedness to deploy" to NATO countries in eastern Europe, which President Biden said will happen "in the near term."
  • Ukraine received its sixth shipment of arms on Tuesday from a $200 million batch of military aid authorized by Biden in December, totaling 500 tons of defensive equipment so far.
  • The U.K., Poland, the Baltic states and other NATO allies have also transferred weaponry and training forces to Ukraine, warning that a Russian invasion would have massive ripple effects across Europe.

What they're saying: "This is not going to be a war of Ukraine and Russia. This is going to be a European war, a fully fledged war," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said at a press conference on Tuesday.

Between the lines: Even as they've appealed for solidarity and security assistance, Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials have sought to downplay the imminence of the Russian threat.

  • Zelensky has criticized media coverage, as well as the State Department's decision to evacuate diplomats' families from embassies in Kyiv, accusing the West of causing "panic" and harming Ukraine's economy.
  • The Guardian reports that Ukrainian officials believe Putin's ultimate goal is the destabilization of Ukraine, and that he may keep Russian troops on the border long-term as a form of psychological warfare.

What to watch: Putin is still analyzing the U.S. and NATO's written answers to his demands. His own formal response is unlikely to contain any surprises, but will ultimately determine whether the outbreak of war is as inevitable as many fear.

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