Europe sees ‘new normal’ of ongoing tensions with Russia on its doorstep

St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square is seen in Moscow on December 8, 2021. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

European powers are increasingly concerned that even if Russian President Vladimir Putin does not invade Ukraine, he will create a ‘new normal’ of heightened tensions that Europe and the United States will have to deal with, people say close to discussions.

As the United States and its allies struggle to get a sense of Putin’s true intentions, their attention turns to what might happen alongside or instead of a full military attack.

These scenarios range from Russia’s prolonged retention of troops or equipment on Ukraine’s border, to carrying out cyberattacks on European nations, or activities aimed at undermining Ukraine from within, the people said. Given that he has already massed troops near Ukraine, only to withdraw them, the Russian president may need other means to keep European countries and the United States uncertain and on their toes.

So far, talks with Russia have been inconclusive on Moscow’s likely next steps. Putin has said he has no intention of invading Ukraine – having already annexed Crimea in 2014 – but is demanding security guarantees from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that the military alliance said he could not provide.

European nations are therefore playing on options that go beyond a simple invasion, even if that remains their main concern. As talks continue about bolstering NATO’s eastern flank, there is also greater awareness of the need to build resilience against cyberattacks, the people said.

That concern only intensified on Friday, with Ukraine saying a cyberattack knocked out the websites of several government agencies for hours, the worst attack in four years. No group immediately claimed responsibility but 70 government agencies were affected.

Already last month, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, warned the bloc’s leaders during a closed-door meeting that it was possible that Russia would maintain a semi-permanent military position near from its western border. He also warned that Moscow could accompany any action against Ukraine with hybrid action elsewhere, including cyberattacks. Borrell this week repeated his concern to EU defense ministers about cyber weaknesses.

European Union governments have this week planned to launch a large-scale simulation of cyberattacks against several member states, which will last up to six weeks. Ukraine, meanwhile, has made progress in recent years with its own cyber defense, officials said.

In conversations with European officials this week, the United States warned of three potential scenarios that could trigger sanctions: a full military invasion, a coup attempt against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and others efforts to destabilize Ukraine from within.

Intelligence officials have previously spoken of heightened disinformation campaigns inside the country, likely led by Moscow, and a person familiar with US-EU talks said the issue of countering foreign interference and information in Ukraine had been raised.

A European official said it would be difficult for Russia to maintain a massive troop buildup on the border for several months, given the costs involved. There are currently more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine. The official said it was possible that Putin tried to turn the tensions into a frozen conflict, keeping a guerrilla force there and causing small military skirmishes.

Another official said a further increase in troops was expected in the coming weeks, bolstering the notion that war remains an equally likely prospect.

In recent years, Moscow has developed military structures closer to Ukraine, so deploying forces nearby is not as expensive or as complicated as before. Last April, when another massive buildup alarmed the west, troops left equipment behind when they reduced their presence.

European concerns highlight the lack of options on the table to deter Putin. NATO and the United States have made clear they will not send troops in the event of war, emphasizing diplomatic efforts and pushing to devise a new set of sanctions that could be deployed against Moscow . European officials have also expressed concern that Russia could retaliate by cutting off crucial gas supplies to EU countries.

The Kremlin’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine has led to US and European sanctions that have hit Russia’s energy and financial sectors.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Friday stressed the need to continue the talks. She is due to travel early next week to travel first to Kiev and then to Moscow. It was even then that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Thursday that the talks were already at an “impasse”.

“Diplomacy, especially in times of crisis, needs a lot of perseverance and patience, and strong nerves,” Baerbock told reporters at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brest, France. . “There have been no real discussions for years. Now we must first reconnect these communication channels. For this we will, together with our European partners, use the channels in the weeks and months to come. , no matter how long it takes.”

On the ground, meanwhile, Russian military build-up continues, according to Western officials.

Reinforcements totaling more than 10,000 combat-capable troops are on their way from the far east of the country, said Konrad Muzyka, head of defense research group Rochan Consulting based in Gdansk, Poland.

Trucks, tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and several rocket launchers were recorded on social media videos last week moving west from the easternmost regions of Russia in trains, according to the Moscow-based Conflict Intelligence Team. Eyewitnesses report up to several trains a day, said CIT, which tracks Russian troop deployments.

The potential combat-ready force on Ukraine’s borders is almost four times the usual force and cannot be sustained for more than a few months, Muzyka said. “We will definitely see a continued deployment of Russian troops near the border, but we still don’t know what the end will be.”

Bloomberg’s Nick Wadhams, Chiara Albanese, Henry Meyer, John Follain, Katharina Rosskopf, Daryna Krasnolutska, Tony Halpin and Jennifer Jacobs contributed to this report.

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