This afternoon, after a rare four-hour-long meeting of the National Security Council, President Joe Biden canceled a planned trip home to Wilmington, Delaware, tonight. The U.S. intelligence community says with high confidence that Russian president Vladimir Putin has ordered military units to proceed with an attack on Ukraine. The U.S. and the United Kingdom say that they expect Russia to create a "false-flag" attack on Russia, allegedly by Ukraine, that they will use as an excuse to invade.
Tonight, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Bathsheba Nell Crocker, told High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile, that the United States has "credible information that indicates Russian forces are creating lists of identified Ukrainians to be killed or sent to camps following a military occupation. We also have credible information that Russian forces will likely use lethal measures to disperse peaceful protests or otherwise counter peaceful exercises of perceived resistance from civilian populations."
A hallmark of this crisis has been the degree to which the U.S. has anticipated events by announcing to the world it has intelligence information laying out Russia's next moves. This both enables NATO to get out ahead of Russian propaganda and warns Putin that his communications might be compromised, an idea that might give him pause before committing to invasion.
CNN White House reporter D.J. Judd identified those at the NSC meeting as Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Vice President Kamala Harris joined the group from Air Force Two on her way back from Munich, where she was representing the U.S. at the 58th Munich Security Conference, an annual conference on international security.
Russia continues to insist it is not planning an attack on Ukraine, although it has placed 150,000 troops at the Ukraine border, the largest military buildup in Europe since World War II ended. But the warming weather in Ukraine with the mud that it will bring does not bode well for an invasion, and Putin agreed today "in principle" to a meeting with Biden, an offer available only if Russia does not launch a new war.
Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky spoke yesterday in Munich, chastising Europe for being slow to recognize the danger of Russian expansionism, even as Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. He warned that such imperialist aims historically have led to world wars unless they are stopped.
Zelensky vowed that Ukraine will fight if Russia invades again—it is still in the country from the 2014 invasion— but hammered home that Ukraine should not be begging for help: Ukraine shields Europe from Russia. Helping Ukraine "is your contribution into the European and international security for which Ukraine has been serving as a reliable shield for eight years now, holding back one of the largest armies in the world," he said. "This is not a war in Ukraine, but a war in Europe."
Meanwhile, Russia is extending its military presence in Belarus, where 30,000 Russian troops, along with missiles and other military hardware, have been engaged in military exercises with troops from Belarus. The exercises were scheduled to end today, but the Belarusian Defense Ministry said the troops will stay because of the deteriorating situation in Ukraine.
As he has faced increasing protests from pro-democracy opponents, Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko has reacted with an increasingly heavy hand. In May 2021 he forced an airplane flying over Belarusian airspace to land in Minsk, where authorities took opposition journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend into custody (Protasevich has disappeared in custody). Lukashenko has also cultivated ties with Putin. When he invited Russian troops to Belarus in early February, European officials warned they were unlikely to leave. Their presence in Belarus means they are 30 miles from the Ukrainian border and hundreds of miles closer to Poland and Lithuania, both countries that are part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that "if Russia invades its neighbour,...we will open up the Matryoshka dolls of Russian-owned companies, and Russian-owned entities to find the ultimate beneficiaries within [and sanction them]."
Europe and the United States have vowed severe economic repercussions if Russia attacks Ukraine. But pro-democracy observers have called for the U.S. and the U.K. to crack down on the flow of Russian money into their countries regardless of what the next weeks bring.
Putin's consolidation of power in Russia in the 1990s coincided with the deregulation of financial sectors in the U.S. and the U.K. and the resulting flow of illicit money into western democracies. A recent study of the U.K. by Chatham House explained that that money enabled oligarchs to corrupt western democracies as they used their ill-gotten wealth to elect politicians who would advance their interests. The U.K. has a "kleptocracy problem," the authors said. Earlier this month, kleptocracy scholar Casey Michel and Harvard postdoctoral fellow Benjamin L. Schmitt published an article advocating an end to the practice of former politicians "becoming paid shills for autocrats."
Indeed, while Biden has made ending that corruption and strengthening democracy a priority for his administration, not all Americans think allying with Putin, an authoritarian who poisons his opponents, siphons his country's money into his own pockets, and has argued that liberal democracy is obsolete, is a bad idea. Led by Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson, the Trump wing of the Republican Party appears to be throwing its weight behind Putin.
But will the Republican Party as a whole buck Trump over this and stand with the Democrats behind Ukraine and its democratic aspirations? There are signs that, in fact, it will. Tonight, Representative Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), who was on his way back from the Munich Security Conference, tweeted: "I've honestly never seen more unity among our allies, or our two parties in Congress, on any global issue."
After all, it was not until Trump delegates made changes to the 2016 Republican political platform that the party weakened its support for Ukraine. And yet, in 2019, when Trump tried to skew the 2020 election by withholding congressionally appropriated funding for Ukraine to support its defense against Russia, Republican senators declined to convict him of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. So, we shall see how the party responds to the Ukraine crisis.
And how will America as a whole respond?
On February 20, Ukraine celebrates the Memorial Day of the Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred, honoring the memory of 107 protesters who died in mass shootings during the 2013 Revolution of Dignity. From 2013 to 2014, Ukrainians rose up against the government of Viktor Yanukovych, an autocratic politician managed by Paul Manafort and backed by Russia, eventually ousting him.
On February 21, the U.S. celebrates Presidents Day, a somewhat vague holiday placed in 1968 near Washington's birthday on February 22, but also traditionally including Abraham Lincoln, who was born on February 12, 1809. On November 19, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln reminded Americans what they were fighting for:
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." There, where more than 3000 U.S. soldiers died and more than 14,000 were wounded over three days, Lincoln explained: "Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."