November 10, 2021

Today, in a joint press conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the U.S. is "concerned by reports of unusual Russian military activity," which it is "monitoring very closely” out of concern that Russia might invade Ukraine again as it did in 2014.

Russia has been building up troops near the border, and Russian leaders have been talking more forcefully about asserting control over Ukraine.

The Biden administration is taking the apparent change in Russia’s posture seriously. It has reached out to European allies apparently to share specific information about Russian activities. “The administration is very, very concerned—this is the most concerned I’ve heard them about Russia in a really, really long time,” one diplomat told Natasha Bertrand, Jim Sciutto, and Kylie Atwood of CNN. “I wouldn't underestimate this. They’re doing a massive outreach to raise awareness....” 

The administration is also trying to deescalate the tensions between Russia and Ukraine. 

Earlier this month, Biden sent a team of senior U.S. officials, led by CIA Director William J. Burns, to Russia to meet with officials there. After the meeting, Burns called Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky to assure him of U.S. support. The U.S. also made it a point to have Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Dr. Karen Donfried, visit Kyiv “to reaffirm our strategic partnership, the U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and cooperation to advance Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration.”

In his own meeting with Ukraine officials today, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan “emphasized the United States’ unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The struggle between the U.S. and Russia about Ukraine’s future is a proxy war between authoritarianism and democracy.

Ukraine was part of the USSR until the USSR fell apart in 1991. After that, Ukraine remained under the sway of the Russian oligarchs who rose to replace the region’s communist leaders, monopolizing formerly publicly held industries as those industries were privatized. 

In 2004, a Russian-backed politician, Viktor Yanukovych, appeared to be elected president of Ukraine. But Yanukovych was rumored to have ties to organized crime, and the election was so full of fraud—including the poisoning of a key rival who wanted to break ties with Russia and align Ukraine with Europe—that the government voided the election and called for a do-over. Yanukovych needed a makeover fast, and for that he called on a political consultant with a reputation for making unsavory characters palatable to the media: Paul Manafort, the same man who went on to lead Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

For ten years, from 2004 to 2014, Manafort worked for Yanukovych and his party, trying to make what the U.S. State Department called a party of “mobsters and oligarchs” look legitimate. In 2010, Yanukovych finally won the presidency on a platform of rejecting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), through which Europe and the U.S. joined together to oppose first the USSR, and then the rising threat of Russia. Immediately, Yanukovych turned Ukraine toward Russia. In 2014, after months of popular protests, Ukrainians ousted Yanukovych from power in what is known as the Revolution of Dignity. He fled to Russia.

Shortly after Yanukovych’s ouster, Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimea and annexed it, prompting the United States and the European Union to impose economic sanctions on Russia itself and also on specific Russian businesses and oligarchs, prohibiting them from doing business in U.S. territories. These sanctions have crippled Russia and frozen the assets of key Russian oligarchs, including Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Desperate to get the sanctions lifted, Putin helped get Trump elected, and American policy swung his way as Trump attacked NATO and the European Union, weakened our ties to our traditional European allies, and threatened to withdraw our support for Ukraine. 

Now, though, the Biden administration has renewed support for Ukraine and its move toward stronger ties to NATO and the European Union, while it is also cracking down on the cybercrime that has enhanced Russian power. 

So, with Germany’s Angela Merkel finishing up her career, France’s Emmanuel Macron five months out from an election, and Biden trying to deal with an insurrection, it is not a bad time for Putin to test NATO’s resolve and see if it will, indeed, hang together against his expansion.

Horrifically, to destabilize the EU and NATO further, Russia and its ally Belarus are weaponizing migrants. 

According to Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who is a specialist on the region, Belarus officials are promising people eager to leave the Middle East that they can move easily from Belarus to Poland or other EU countries. (Belarus is currently running 55 “tourist” flights a week from the Middle East.) Once the migrants arrive in Minsk, officials push them across the borders of neighboring EU countries Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, which try to force them back, creating a humanitarian crisis in what are now freezing conditions. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko are well aware that migrants spark right-wing opposition: Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and America’s Donald Trump both took power by inflaming fears of migrants. Lukashenko vowed to “flood the EU with migrants and drugs,” this May after the outcry when he downed a plane crossing Belarusian territory in order to abduct dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega.

“This is not normal asylum seekers, that seek the protection of Europe fleeing war, dictatorship. These are groups of people that are flown to Minsk, they are put in buses, they are escorted by Belarusian police and special forces, pushed to the border and pushed into the European Union,” European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas told CNN’s Becky Anderson today. “This is not a normal migratory movement. This is a hybrid attack.”

Poland is a NATO country, as are the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, and much of this chaos appears to be taking place in a narrow sliver of Poland known as the Suwalki Gap that separates Belarus from the Russian territory of Kaliningrad. Mark Hertling, Commanding General of United States Army Europe and the Seventh Army from March 2011 to November 2012, tweeted that “any misstep by Polish borders forces create the opportunity for Russia to ‘defend Russians’ in K-grad while marching forces into the Baltic countries of Latvia/Lithuania/Estonia (all NATO members).”

Tonight, Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson echoed Russian talking points when he asked Representative Mike Turner (R-OH) why the U.S. would side with Ukraine over Russia. Turner noted that Ukraine is a democracy, “Russia is an authoritarian regime,” and that America is “for democracy” and “not for authoritarian regimes.” Carlson reiterated his belief, as he has done before, that the U.S. should choose Russia.  

The answer to why American should side with Ukraine’s democracy instead of Russian authoritarianism came in a recent letter from 52 writers, journalists, artists, activists, and political figures who have dissented from authoritarian regimes. They begged the U.S. to defend our democracy and thus reinforce democracy around the world. 

“If the world’s leading democracy doesn’t believe in its own values, why should dictators even bother paying lip service to them? We must defend these principles that inspire advocates of liberty and provide a crucial check on tyrants.”

Notes:

https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/10/politics/blinken-ukrainian-presser/index.html

https://edition.cnn.com/2021/11/04/europe/russia-ukraine-military-buildup-intl-cmd/index.html

https://edition.cnn.com/2021/11/02/politics/cia-director-russia-trip/index.html

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/11/10/statement-by-nsc-spokesperson-emily-horne-on-national-security-advisor-jake-sullivans-meeting-with-ukrainian-officials-2/

https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/05/politics/bill-burns-moscow-ukraine/index.html

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/why-suwalki-gap-keeps-top-u-s-general-europe-night-n469471

https://www.rferl.org/a/belarus-sapega-detention-extended/31474703.html

https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2021/11/belaruss-weaponized-migrants-offer-primer-gray-zone-warfare/186590/

https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/10/europe/poland-belarus-border-migrantl-crisis-wednesday-intl/index.html

https://www.thedailybeast.com/tucker-carlson-asks-why-would-we-take-ukraines-side-and-not-russias

https://www.forbes.com/sites/teakvetenadze/2021/11/10/the-eu-is-preparing-to-sanction-belarus-europes-last-dictatorship---heres-why/

https://rdi.org/frontlines-of-freedom-letter/

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