No one knows whether Russian President Vladimir Putin plans on invading Ukraine. But the president of the United States sure seems to think this is a real possibility, saying Wednesday that Putin will likely "move in" in the near term. Biden, prone to political gaffes, was then forced to awkwardly walk back comments that Russia would face milder consequences from the West in the event of a "minor incursion."
The timing of this blunder is... not great. It comes just as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepares to meet his Russian counterpart on Friday in hopes of lowering the temperature after recent diplomatic efforts in Geneva were deemed a failure by Moscow.
Indeed, with the Kremlin having amassed at least 100,000 troops surrounding Ukraine on three sides, the growing threat is impossible to ignore. So what would a Russian military offensive into Ukraine actually look like, and how might the West respond?
How far might Putin go?
Most analysts agree that it’s extremely unlikely that Putin will launch a wholesale invasion of Ukraine, which, given the immediate expense and likely Western response, would prove a very costly exercise that could push Russia into recession. Indeed, a full-scale occupation would also be a hard sell to the Russian public, because large numbers of Russians troops would return home in body bags. Putin knows that a Ukrainian insurgency in urban areas could drag on for a long time, leading to a mounting death toll.
If Russian forces do advance further into Ukraine, they could annex the Donbas region already held by Russian separatists and seize adjacent territory to create a buffer. But this would come with serious economic consequences for Russia, which would then have to provide basic services for millions of poor residents who live in its newly acquired territory.
And even a limited Russian offensive could lead to a significant refugee crisis, as was the case in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea, displacing about 1.4 million people. This time, many Ukrainians might try to cross into Russia or flee to nearby states like Poland and Belarus, creating a refugee crisis that reverberates through Eastern and Central Europe. Though this would mainly be a problem for the European Union, Putin can predict the potential diplomatic and geopolitical consequences for Russia.
What would Washington do about it?
The Biden administration has made clear that it will not send American troops to defend Ukraine, which is not a NATO ally, but would impose fresh — and harsher – economic sanctions to punish the Kremlin. Unlike in the past when Washington has mainly targeted Russian oligarchs, sanctioning Russian financial institutions and sovereign debt — which could include all international entities that lend Russia money – is also on the table.
But in order to really make Moscow hurt, Washington needs the Europeans to match the sweeping sanctions it has floated (about one-third of Russia’s current reserves are in euros). Indeed, Biden reiterated this Wednesday: "I’ve got to make sure everybody’s on the same page as we move along.” But currently, Europe, which imports 45 percent of its gas from Russia, does not seem to be in lockstep with Washington. Moscow could cut off crucial supplies during a frigid winter (it wouldn’t be the first time that Putin has used natural gas supplies to create geopolitical leverage).
The stakes are particularly high for Germany, which is seeking to certify the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would keep even more natural gas flowing from Russia. The new leader of Germany’s opposition, and Angela Merkel’s successor as head of the CDU party, has rejected Washington’s proposal, saying that American threats to cut Russia off from the international banking system would do “a lot of harm” to Western economies.
The NATO equation
If tensions continue growing in the coming weeks, NATO could reinforce its troops in parts of the Baltic and Black Seas, which could lead to an (unwanted) military confrontation with Russia. Moreover, it’s likely that NATO and Washington will transport large supplies of Western-made weapons to help Ukrainians fight back against Russian attacks. Still, because Ukraine is not a NATO member state, the alliance is under no obligation to defend it — and most of the major decision-making will likely fall to Washington and Brussels. (Biden also came under fire this week for suggesting that NATO unity was a concern in dealing with Russian aggression.)
What’s more, a Russian attack could cause states like Finland and Sweden to rush to join the alliance – precisely the kind of additional NATO pressure at Russia’s borders that Putin claims threatens Russia’s security.
An invasion is hard to imagine. But so is the prospect of Vladimir Putin backing off without at least the appearance of a major concession from NATO.
Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, discusses the Democrats voting bill.
What is the status on the Democrats voting bill?
The Democrats are pushing a bill that would largely nationalize voting rules, which today are largely determined at the state level. The bill would make Election Day a national holiday. It would attempt to end partisan gerrymandering. It would create a uniform number of early voting days and make other reforms that are designed to standardize voting rules and increase access to voting across the country. This matters to Democrats because they think they face an existential risk to their party's political prospects. They're very likely to lose at least the House and probably the Senate this year. And they see voting changes that are being pushed by Republicans at the state level that they say are designed to make it harder to vote, particularly for minorities, a key Democratic constituency.
Republicans see this as a power grab. They argue that the changes happening at the state level are reverting back to the pre-pandemic baseline. And during the pandemic, voting laws were expanded nationally. And they argue that the laws in states like Georgia, which Democrats are calling Jim Crow 2.0, are actually no more restrictive than the voting laws in a state like Delaware or New York, where two of the nation's most prominent Democrats come from. Regardless, this voting legislation is going nowhere. Republicans are uniformly opposed. And while Democrats are united in support of the voting reform changes, there are not enough votes in order to change the Senate rules to overcome a Republican filibuster.
As long as the filibuster exists, it will be nearly impossible to pass any kind of electoral reforms that could help Democrats push back on the tide of a system that largely benefits Republicans today. The US political system is structured in favor to benefit the more rural areas, and Republicans largely dominate in rural areas.
So knowing this bill will be blocked, why hold the vote at all? Well, this is a hugely important issue for the Democratic base and for the Democratic Party who worried about being locked out of power for the next 10 years. By holding the vote, Majority Leader Schumer hopes to pressure two moderate democratic holdouts and draw a contrast between them and the rest of the party. And he wants to send a message to the activist base that they support them, even though the Democrats are not united. The end result will probably be a failure to act and also further alienation of the two moderate holdouts, who Biden also needs their support on his fiscal policy bill, the Build Back Better bill, which is currently stalled until least March and probably beyond that.
Omicron has arrived. It's more contagious, but less severe. Some parts of the world are even looking forward to the pandemic becoming endemic.
Not China. Xi Jinping's zero-COVID strategy has worked wonders until now, but it's unlikely to survive omicron, explains Ian Bremmer on GZERO World.
Why? China's vaccines are not as effective against the new COVID variant as mRNA jabs, and the Chinese population has no protection from previous infection.
Without a homegrown mRNA vaccine, China is vulnerable to local omicron outbreaks, which will lead to severe lockdowns and, in turn, greater economic disruption.
That's the last thing Xi wants less than a month out from the Winter Olympics, and later this year, when he hopes to get an unprecedented third term in office as China's leader.
Watch this episode of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer: Omicron and the undoing of China’s COVID strategy
First, the last few days have mostly been escalatory. The last week of meetings between the United States and Russia, as well as NATO and Russia, it's good that the sides are talking, but there was not significant progress. The Russians made very clear that if you want to have more talks, we need a very quick written response to the demands they made publicly. So, you wouldn't say that there has been anything that looks like a diplomatic breakthrough.
And on the other hand, the messages that have come from the Russians in the last few days have mostly been escalatory. There's been cyberattacks against a number of websites in Ukraine belonging to government organizations, direct malware attacks against the number of government agencies, almost certainly from Russia. You see the Russians sending a bunch of troops to Belarus for sudden and non previously announced military exercises right on Ukraine's border and also now moving personnel from Russia's embassy in Kyiv. These are all signs that the Russians want the rest of the world to see that they are planning significant military activities in Ukraine.
On the other hand, it's really a bad idea for the Russians to go in and the costs that they would incur, both because the Ukrainian population on the ground is hostile to Russia, and there was consideration when they occupied Donbas, about taking further territory in Ukraine and one of the reasons they didn't do it is because they understood that that was going to lead to significant ongoing fighting. It would be unpopular in Russia and there'd be body bags and nobody wants to see that.
Now Putin's in a stronger economic position today. He might think that Biden's a little weaker, might think he's a little bit less likely to respond strongly. There's a new German chancellor in place who wants to engage directly with the Russians. Merkel's not there anymore. So, I understand why there might be more willingness to escalate. But still, a decision to do a full-on invasion of Ukraine is the one thing that is certain to bring the Americans and the Europeans together.
The one thing that is certain to revitalize NATO, which is an organization that's been floundering around for a lack of a mission over the past years. They would have a mission. That mission would be very much to defend against Russia and both the economic sanctions as well as the NATO military response, terms of more exercises, troops in the Baltics, positioning of forces closer to Russia's borders. All of that, I think, is something that Putin really wouldn't want to see. Would be very reluctant.
So, I personally think that there is a lower likelihood of overall full-scale invasion, takeout Zelensky, the tanks roll into Ukrainian territory. But I also recognize that every sign the Russians are sending points to very significant escalation.
So, there are two really big questions that we need to ask. The first is, is there a deal to be cut? Is it possible that diplomacy could actually bear some fruit and we can deescalate this? And secondly, if not, how big does Putin go? So, on the first question, I think it's worth remembering that when Biden met face to face with Putin in Geneva, the one big meeting back in June, they spent about two hours together, that was mostly Biden's agenda and there was one thing that Biden really put as a top priority to the Russian president. He said, "I've got a red line. You guys are allowing these criminal syndicates inside Russia to engage in cyberattacks against American critical infrastructure. And that's not acceptable. And I'm going to give you a few months to address it. But if you don't address it, there's going to be hell to pay. There will be direct retaliation from the United States. This is a really big issue for me."
Now, Putin heard that and over the course of the last few months, the Russians have addressed it. There's been markedly fewer Russian attacks, cyberattacks. And I'm not talking state-sanctioned, I'm talking criminal organizations against US critical infrastructure. It's very clear that the Kremlin actually did send that message. And indeed, last Friday on the same day that the Russians decided to engage in cyberattacks against Ukraine, they also announced that they had arrested some 14 people that were involved with the organization called REvil, R-E-V-I-L, which is the organization that was behind the Colonial Pipeline attacks. And the Russians said that that organization had been disbanded. So at the very least, this is a direct message to the Americans that when you said you had a big problem with us, we responded. That's obviously some kind of an opening of, "We say we have a big problem on Ukraine. Are you going to respond?"
Now, that doesn't mean that there is an adequate response to be had. That doesn't mean that there is an easy negotiation to be had, that doesn't imply that we're suddenly going to have a breakthrough, but it certainly implies that the Russian president, who is the single decision maker in determining whether or not this becomes war, is interested in a potential climbdown.
And my argument would be yes. And now we see if the two so are going to move in that direction. So, that's the first point. I'm more optimistic than anyone out there, I think, I'm seeing in the media that there is a desire on the part of the Kremlin to actually fix this if it's fixable and it's about Ukraine.
With the Ukrainian president, that let's face, is not the favorite of the West. This is a guy that's been arguing strongly for NATO membership and a membership action plan that he would never get support from the United States and Europe. He's also someone that's planning trumped-up house arrest, it looks like, of the former president, a domestic opposition to Zelensky, the Ukrainian president. This is closer to the Russian rule book in terms of the way they dealt with Navalny and not what he should be doing or supporting at a time that his country risks being invaded. Neither here nor there. But all of that makes me a little more optimistic.
But what if it doesn't work? Then are the Russians going to do something? And I think the answer is yes and the question is how big they go. In other words, I don't think Putin's bluffing. I think if he's not given something significant by the West. If there isn't a deal to be had over Ukraine, then there will be escalation. I don't think they're just going to back down like Iran where, when we killed Soleimani and suddenly they said, "Okay, we're not doing anything. Sorry, that was a bluff."
I don't think Putin's bluffing. But I'm not sure that what he's planning on doing is this all-out invasion for reasons I've discussed. It's very expensive. It will be unpopular in Russia. It will bring together NATO. And long term, I think it's going to be a real challenge for Putin to actually be seen as having a success in Ukraine. But I think that there are lots of things that they can do that would be successful for Russia that are smaller, that would be problematic for the United States and its allies. They've talked consistently about military and technical responses if their concerns aren't addressed. Technical's fairly obvious, we're talking about much bigger cyberattacks against Ukraine, which could be economically devastating to the country, remember the NotPetya attacks years ago, which probably took 1% of GDP off of Ukraine and people died in hospitals when the hospital suddenly had lost their ability to have data and connectivity. Those cyberattacks were big problem.
And I think they would easily do that again. If they want to defend Russian citizens in the occupied Donbas, they could roll tanks in. They could formally take that territory. They could maybe even annex it. It's interesting to me, that Belarus, in addition to these new exercises, the Belarus president has organized a referendum to change their constitution for February. How do you like that? And the February constitution, that's obviously going to pass because Belarus isn't a democracy, two of the changes are that they are no longer formally neutral and they're no longer a non-nuclear state.
In other words, quite a coincidence. Huh? In other words, the Belarusians could easily invite the Russians to put troops on their territory, which is an advance location for Russia, vis a vis Ukraine and also Europe, Eastern Europe, and also could station nuclear weapons on their territory.
And then finally, we've seen the Deputy Foreign Minister of Ukraine talking about, "Well, how would you like it if there were troops in Cuba or Russian presence in Venezuela?" And I think the Americans wouldn't like it at all. And I think it's quite feasible that the Russians would engage in some form of military activity there and you'd see more Russian activity on America's borders.
So, I think there's a lot they can do and part of the problem there is that the Americans can respond unilaterally, but it's not at all clear to me the Europeans would be responding with the US in terms of tough sanctions, in terms of Nord Stream 2, and in terms of NATO prepositioning of forces in return. I think there's an open question as to how far the alliance would go and how much there'd be a divide, with the Europeans much more reliant and their economy is much more reliant, especially in the winter on Russia if the Russians escalate, but that escalation is not a full-on invasion of sovereign Ukraine.
So anyway, a lot to watch. A very significant set of activities, mostly being driven by the Russians at this point, and very dangerous indeed. And so quite a lot to start off our week. I hope everyone's well, and we'll talk real soon. Be good.
What We’re Watching: Xinjiang at the Beijing Olympics, Boris in deep(er) trouble, Indonesia’s new capital
Selling Xinjiang. Xi Jinping — a man well known for both his grand vision of China’s future, and for his willingness to get large numbers of people to do things they might not otherwise do — said in 2018 that he wanted 300 million Chinese people to participate in winter sports. The Chinese government announced this week that this goal has been met in honor of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, which open in China’s capital on February 4. Multinational companies are consistently impressed by the commercial opportunities created when 300 million people decide to try new things. But it’s an inconvenient truth that most of China’s most abundant snow and best ski slopes are found in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, a place where Western governments and human rights organizations have accused Beijing of imprisoning more than one million minority Uyghurs in re-education camps. In these prisons, critics say inmates have experienced “torture, and inhumane and degrading treatment.” As China’s government opens new profit opportunities in Xinjiang, multinational corporations will face pressure from multiple directions not to invest there.
Boris at the battlements. “In the name of God, go,” Conservative lawmaker David Davis said on Tuesday during an especially heated session of the UK parliament. These words, once directed at former PM Neville Chamberlain over his inept handling of Adolph Hitler, were this week aimed at the current prime minister, Boris Johnson. Now comes news that a dozen other of Johnson’s fellow Tories have sent letters calling for a vote of confidence in him as party leader. That’s a sign we might see the 54 letters needed to trigger that vote in coming weeks. Johnson’s approval numbers speak for themselves: the latest polls show that just 22 percent of British adults say he’s doing “well” as prime minister, while 73 percent say Johnson is performing “badly.” As we’ve written, his problem is not only, or even mainly, that he attends parties he shouldn’t. It’s that controversies over pandemic policies, the (rising) cost of living in the UK, and lingering Brexit bitterness have given rivals within his party who have never much liked him plentiful ammunition to complete his political execution.Goodbye Jakarta, hello Nusantara. Indonesia passed a new law on Tuesday authorizing the government to relocate the capital from Jakarta to a new city to be built on Borneo island in about a decade. It will be called Nusantara, the old Javanese word for "archipelago.” President Joko Widodo wants to ditch Jakarta because the current capital is too congested, polluted, and flood-prone. But building an entire capital city from scratch in the middle of the jungle — as Brazil and Myanmar have done in past decades — will be no easy feat. First, the government must raise most of the $32 billion budget from private investors. Second, environmental groups oppose destroying precious rainforests that are home to many endangered species. Third, the president’s successor could shelve the entire project. Widodo, who is term-limited, aims for Nusantara to become a low-carbon business & tech hub that will promote sustainable economic growth beyond the main island of Java, where most Indonesians live. Whether that will take the expected 10 years, much longer, or happens at all will depend on the country’s next leader.
Hard Numbers: Tongan emergency fundraising, EU docks Poland pay, new Colombian presidential hopeful, Turkey gets UAE lifeline
345,000: As of Wednesday afternoon ET, Tonga's Olympic flag-bearer has raised more than $345,000 online to help the victims of Saturday's volcanic eruption and tsunami. Pita Taufatofua, a taekwondo fighter and cross-country skier, has not yet heard from his father, governor of the main Tongan island of Haapai.
500,000: The EU will dock Poland 500,000 euros ($567,000) per day from its regular payments from Brussels until it complies with an EU court order to close an open-pit coal mine near the Czech border. The Czechs say the mine is polluting the groundwater on their side of the border, but the Poles insist Brussels has no authority to shut it down.
20: Former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt will run again for the top job in the May election. The centrist Betancourt — kidnapped 20 years ago by FARC rebels who held her for more than six years — will face frontrunner Gustavo Petro, the leftist former mayor of Bogotá and ex-member of M-19, another left-wing rebel group.
5 billion: Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have agreed to a $5 billion currency swap in order to prop up the ailing Turkish lira. It's the latest sign of détente between the Turks and Emiratis, who have long been on opposite sides of conflicts such as the Libyan civil war and the Qatar blockade.