The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The U.S. is warning Russia on Ukraine. So far, the message isn’t getting through.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Nov. 18. (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The guns of November are locked and loaded, as Russia continues to defy U.S. and European pressure to withdraw its troops from the volatile Ukraine border.

The tense Ukraine standoff is a case study in diplomatic signaling that, thus far, hasn’t worked. For weeks, senior U.S. and European officials have warned Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull back what looks ominously like an invasion force — or face harsh consequences from a U.S.-led coalition.

The warning message hasn’t connected. Instead, Putin seems to be relishing the West’s anxiety. He claimed Thursday that the United States and its allies were ignoring Russia’s “red lines” and “escalating the situation” with shows of force. He said he hoped the recent “tension” in Western statements about Ukraine would “remain as long as possible,” so that Russia’s views would be taken seriously. Putin’s goal seems to be restoration of Moscow’s Soviet-era hegemony over Kyiv.

Nearly 100,000 Russian troops have massed along the border, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. This faceoff continued Thursday. U.S. officials didn’t detect any change in the Russian military presence, up or down.

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There are nearly daily skirmishes in the contested Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian troops. The conflict could escalate if Russia sends “humanitarian” aid convoys into the region under a decree issued Monday by Putin. Ukraine has recently augmented its defense of the Donbass, using Turkish drones to combat pro-Russian rebels — and drawing a protest from Moscow.

The Biden administration appears caught between its desire to deter a Russian invasion and its hope for new talks with Putin about strategic stability and other topics. National security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart Wednesday. The White House didn’t provide details, but a Russian spokesman said the topics included possible “top-level contact” soon between Putin and President Biden.

Washington’s most emphatic warning about the Russian buildup was a Nov. 10 statement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He cited “reports of unusual Russian military activity near Ukraine” and warned against “any escalatory or aggressive actions” by Russia. With Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba by his side, Blinken said America’s commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity was “ironclad,” but he avoided specifics about what the United States would do in the event of an invasion.

CIA Director William J. Burns had paid a quiet visit to Moscow earlier this month. He told Russian officials about U.S. concern over the Russian troop buildup and warned that an invasion of Ukraine would bring severe economic reprisals. Administration officials were disappointed that Burns’s cautionary message didn’t seem to register with the Kremlin.

To check Russia, the administration has tried to mobilize European allies, who are nearer to the firing line in Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both spoken directly with Putin over the past two weeks. Britain’s defense secretary met his Ukrainian counterpart in Kyiv. And Sweden’s defense minister said he was ready to send Swedish troops to Ukraine to help train that country’s military.

The Biden administration has been making contingency plans with allies, in case Russia moves across the border. U.S. officials won’t discuss how they would respond, though they caution that, because Ukraine isn’t a NATO member, there’s no U.S. guarantee to protect Kyiv. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed the uncertainty shared by U.S. allies when he admitted Wednesday: “We’re not sure exactly what Mr. Putin is up to.”

The Kremlin seems increasingly determined to force Zelensky’s aggressively pro-western government into submission to Moscow. Putin this summer published a lengthy article explaining the historical roots of his view that, as he put it, Russians and Ukrainians represent “one people — a single whole.” He argued that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”

Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president and prime minister, followed Putin’s commentary with a blistering article in Kommersant, in October, titled “Why It Is Senseless to Deal with the Current Ukrainian Leadership.” He opened with a chilling bit of Ukrainian folk wisdom: “When the goat tangles with the wolf, only the skin will remain of the goat.”

But Ukraine is a goat with teeth. An investigation released this week by the investigative group Bellingcat described an astonishingly bold sting operation by Zelensky’s intelligence operatives last year to capture dozens of Russian mercenaries who had fought in eastern Ukraine. Though it failed, that operation must have been galling for a former intelligence operative like Putin.

The Biden administration is right to seek a more stable and predictable relationship with Russia. But the Ukraine confrontation is a reminder of just how absent both conditions are now. The administration should follow its instinct to revive the Minsk Protocol to end the war in eastern Ukraine — even though tens of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian troops are blocking the exit ramp. Overcoming such obstacles is what American diplomacy, at its best, can accomplish.