As Russian President Vladimir Putin sends mixed signals about his willingness to invade Ukraine, his military continues to undertake activities that appear designed not only to ready an offensive but to thwart any attempt by the United States and NATO to intervene, according to Western officials and analysts.
President Biden, who on Tuesday warned that Russian forces around Ukraine now number 150,000 even as Moscow claimed that some of its forces had pulled back, has explicitly ruled out the possibility of deploying U.S. troops to combat an invasion. Such a move, the president has said, would risk another world war. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has made similar pronouncements about Western military intervention.
The prospect of a large-scale nuclear exercise, the presence of sophisticated air defenses in Belarus and elsewhere, and an array of powerful naval assets spread throughout the Black and Mediterranean seas have underscored to Western capitals just how difficult and dangerous any attempted intervention would be.
The Kremlin, said Samuel Charap, a Russia specialist and senior political scientist at the Rand Corp., is looking to “abundantly disincentivize” the alliance even from contemplating coming to Ukraine’s aid militarily. “The way the Russians have thought about this kind of an operation is they have two problems to solve,” he said. “One is the immediate issue of outgunning smaller adversaries along their periphery like Ukraine, and the other is deterring NATO — the U.S., really.”
Russian state news media have reported that the country plans to hold its annual strategic nuclear exercises during the first half of this year, earlier than usual. U.S. and European officials have said they expected those drills to begin this month, potentially to coincide with an invasion of Ukraine, but thus far there are no public indications that has happened.
A senior Western intelligence official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive security matter, said that the intent of such an exercise would be to “send a message to the West — that ‘we have strategic capabilities, and if we’re pushed too far, we might use them.’ ”
Mathieu Boulègue, a research fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at London-based Chatham House, said, too, that it could be calibrated to hold NATO at arm’s length while Russia proceeds with an invasion.
“It is a signal sent to the West and to NATO in particular saying, ‘Don’t move,’ ” Boulègue said. “ ‘Don’t try anything stupid because we can quickly escalate to the nuclear threshold if we need to.’ ”
Putin put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert while he annexed Crimea from neighboring Ukraine in 2014, stating later that year, as Russia escalated its backing for separatist fighters in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, that, “It is best not to mess with us when it comes to a possible armed conflict.” Russia, he told the audience comprising participants in a Kremlin youth camp, “is one of the leading nuclear powers.”
Putin made a similar statement during a news conference this month with French President Emmanuel Macron in Moscow, warning that if Ukraine were to join NATO and attempt to take back Crimea, European countries would end up in a military conflict with Russia.
“Of course, NATO’s united potential and that of Russia are incomparable,” Putin said. “We understand that, but we also understand that Russia is one of the world’s leading nuclear powers and is superior to many of those countries in terms of the number of modern nuclear force components.”
Separately, joint military exercises between Russia and Belarus, scheduled to conclude Sunday, are aimed at demonstrating Moscow’s capability in addition to potentially providing cover for an invasion of Ukraine from the north, the senior Western intelligence official said.
Those exercises have included S-400 air defense systems positioned very close to the Polish border. They are capable of shooting down planes and missiles, and reaching into NATO territory.
Positioning the S-400s there is part of a broader move by the Russians to complicate the airspace in a way that would deter Western intervention. In addition, the missiles that military analysts say Russia has placed in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, Belarus, in Russian territory near Ukraine and in the Black Sea, when combined with the S-400s, would make a flight into Ukraine by U.S. or allied aircraft incredibly risky if not impossible in the event of a full-blown conflict. Those moves also pose threats to NATO over the Baltics.
“I’m confident,” the senior intelligence official said, “that the so-called ‘exercise’ is also intended to put Russian troops and advance Russian capability into a geographic position to send a message to the alliance that, ‘Look, if you seek to operate in that airspace, whether to do a noncombatant evacuation from Ukraine or if you intended to intercede militarily in this, you would have to fly through our engagement zone and those air defenses.’ ”
Russia underscored its naval powers and regular proximity to U.S. and NATO vessels with a massive exercise Tuesday in the Mediterranean. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu observed the drills, which state news agency Tass said involved more than 15 combat ships from Russia’s Pacific, Northern and Black Sea fleets.
Russia also has moved a fleet of naval vessels into the Black Sea, including Ropucha-class landing ships designed to invade territory through beach landings. A Russian Kilo-class submarine, which can hit targets with Kalibr cruise missiles similar to American Tomahawks, was spotted this week passing through the Bosporus into the Black Sea. Notices closing large parts of the Sea of Azov were issued but later lifted, underscoring Russia’s ability to blockade Ukraine.
It’s a signal, said retired Adm. James G. Foggo III, former commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa, that “it will be a combined land, air and sea campaign.”
Beyond the possible involvement in a Ukraine invasion, the large naval presence shows Russia’s ability to cause problems for the three NATO members that also have vital Black Sea coastlines.
Russia’s past muscling of Ukraine in the Sea of Azov — Russian authorities fired on three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Kerch Strait in 2018 and captured 24 of their sailors in a protracted dispute — raises the prospect of broader challenges in the Black Sea. The current Russian presence could complicate trips by NATO warships into the waters.
Foggo said U.S. warships would continue to go into the Black Sea but that doing so now would risk exacerbating existing tensions.
“I think we will continue to go in there and flex our muscles,” he added, “but right now … it could make matters worse.”