As the tensions over the buildup of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border continued to escalate, United States President Joseph Biden phoned his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on April 13. Their conversation raised hopes in some quarters of an impending de-escalation around eastern Ukraine as well as between Moscow and Washington. The two leaders reportedly discussed a wide range of issues, including a possible in-person summit in some unnamed neutral European capital. In the Moscow press, Biden’s phone call was interpreted as the White House’s climb-down. But this euphoria was short-lived and not shared by the Kremlin itself. It turned out Biden had invited Putin to an in-person summit that could be held as soon as in a couple of weeks, but the latter did not accept. According to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, “The two leaders absolutely disagreed on many issues but did agree on the need to continue to talk to each other; but it is important that words must not differ from deeds.” Any decision on the place, timing and agenda of a possible Biden-Putin summit would depend, according to Peskov, on future friendly or unfriendly US actions and the severity of any future sanctions.
Reportedly, Biden told Putin about the imminent US sanctions announcement. And the following day, the US ambassador in Moscow, John Sullivan, was summoned to the Kremlin to meet with the Russian president’s foreign policy aide, Yuri Ushakov, who threatened that Moscow would “act decisively” if Washington ends up making “further unfriendly moves, like imposing additional sanctions”. On April 15, the US government nonetheless announced a new package of punitive measures, including the expulsion of ten diplomats, sanctions on dozens of Russian entities, and restrictions on the ability of US financial institutions to buy new issues of Russian government ruble-denominated bonds, which are a popular investment instruments in the so-called currency carry trade. US financial institutions will, however, still be able to buy and sell the same bonds on the secondary market, so financial analysts in Moscow dismissed the sanctions as basically a PR move. The ruble and Russian stocks bounced back as the negligible practical effect of the sanctions package on Russian sovereign debt became clear.
The new penalties were imposed in response to Russian attempts to interfere in the 2020 US election, the hacking attack that inserted malware inside a software update provided by the Texas-based company SolarWinds, and ongoing human rights violations in occupied Crimea. The first deputy chief of the Kremlin administration and a close personal friend of Putin, Alexei Gromov, was sanctioned together with many other Russians. As the sanctions package was unveiled, the Russian finance ministry announced it may postpone the selling of new bonds “to let the market settle,” and the Russian central bank promised to intervene if need be.
Ambassador Sullivan has been called to the Russian foreign ministry to hear the inevitable strongly worded rebuff. Moscow not only considers the substance of the new US sanctions package to be unacceptable, but also the language of the announcements from President Biden and other US officials. Moscow will surely expel a group of US diplomats in a tit-for-tat move and impose its own sanctions on US officials and institutions. Russia is, of course, powerless to hit back in ways that would seriously harm the United States economically or financially; but in terms of military might, offensive cyber capabilities and PR warfare, Russia is more or less on par with the US.
In March and April 2021, Moscow moved large numbers of troops to the Ukrainian border, while mobilizing practically its entire Armed Forces in a test of “battle readiness”. On April 13, Defense Minister Army General Sergei Shoigu confirmed that “in a span of three weeks we had moved two field armies and three airborne [Vozdushno-Desantnye Voyska—VDV] units to the western borders of Russia.” Apparently, Shoigu was referring to the 2nd Guards Army and the 41st Army of the Central Military District (which includes the Volga region, the Urals and Siberia). According to Shoigu, these forces “have demonstrated their ability to move long distances, to be ready to go into battle, and they are now intensely exercising.” Shoigu announced the massive troop movement was in response to the US and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies concentrating forces on Russia’s western borders. Shoigu mentioned 40,000 NATO soldiers and 15,000 pieces of heavy military equipment the Alliance may forward deploy during exercises planned for the coming summer. The Russian defense ministry head also stated that present “test of battle readiness” exercises will end in some two weeks, but he notably did not imply that the armies Russia moved westward would then automatically withdraw back to the Volga, the Urals and Siberia. According to State Duma defense committee chair Colonel General (ret.) Vladimir Shamanov, the return of forces to bases after the “battle readiness test” will require a separate decision by the Russian military and political leadership, based on “what happens on the other side of the border”.
The latest Ukrainian defense ministry estimate counts 110,000 Russian troops and 56 permanent-readiness battalion tactical groups arrayed on the eastern side of the Ukrainian border and in Crimea. Information gathered through open sources seems to show that the Russian military has formed a strong force (army units of the Southern Military District) in the center of the front facing Ukraine’s Donbas, a strong right-flanking force (made up of elements of the Central and Western Military Districts), and a concentration of VDV and marine infantry units backing the 22nd Army Corps in Crimea, possibly preparing for a major landing operation. This troop concentration may be further reinforced, and the present Ukrainian estimate could, in fact, already be outdated.
Biden phoned Putin in a move apparently intended to engage the Kremlin in preparation for an early summit, putting on hold any probable military action against Ukraine. At the same time, the White House imposed a package of punitive sanctions to demonstrate the real possibility of severe future punishment if Moscow does go rogue. The Biden administration succeeded in angering the Kremlin and confusing much of the rest of Moscow. But will this help to peacefully reverse the Russian military machine’s large-scale rollout to the border?
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