WARSAW, Poland (AP) — High-stakes diplomacy continued on Friday in a bid to avert a war in Eastern Europe. The urgent efforts come as 100,000 Russian troops are poised near Ukraine’s border and the Biden administration worries that Russian President Vladimir Putin will mount some sort of invasion within weeks.
Here are things to know about the international tensions surrounding Ukraine.
Pentagon lays out military options
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Friday the buildup of Russian forces along Ukraine’s border has reached the point where President Vladimir Putin now has a complete range of military options, including actions short of a full-scale invasion.
“While we don’t believe that President Putin has made a final decision to use these forces against Ukraine, he clearly now has the capability,” Austin told a Pentagon news conference.
Austin said Putin could use any portion of his force of an estimated 100,000 troops to seize Ukrainian cities and “significant territories” or to carry out “coercive acts or provocative political acts” like the recognition of breakaway territories inside Ukraine.
Austin spoke alongside Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a news conference that marked a subtle shift in the administration’s approach to public communications about the Ukraine crisis, which until now has focused on the the diplomatic efforts.
Milley said Russian forces near Ukraine include not only ground troops and naval and air forces but also cyber and electronic warfare capabilities, as well as special operations forces. But he also noted that Ukraine’s military has improved significantly over the past several years, adding, “If Russia chooses to invade Ukraine, it will not be cost free, in terms of casualties and other significant effects,” Milley said.
The Kremlin said Putin told French President Emmanuel Macron that the West has failed to consider Russia’s key conditions of halting further NATO expansion, stopping the deployment of alliance weapons near Russian borders, and rolling back its forces from Eastern Europe.
Putin told Macron that Moscow will study the U.S. and NATO response before deciding its next move, according to a Kremlin account of their call.
A French official said Macron and Putin talked for over an hour Friday and spoke “about the necessity of de-escalation.”
The official, who spoke on customary condition of anonymity, said that in the call Putin expressed commitment to the yearslong series of talks between Ukraine and Russia, with a new meeting expected in Berlin in two weeks. But he made no concessions.
Putin has made no public remarks about the Western written response to the Russian demands, but Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said it leaves little chance for reaching agreement.
He said Moscow will not start a war but also won’t allow the West to trample on its security interests. He noted, however, that the U.S. has suggested the two sides could talk about other issues of importance. Those include limits on the deployment of intermediate-range missiles, restrictions on military drills and rules to prevent accidents between warships and aircraft.
Russia suspends military inspections
Germany expressed regret that Russia has suspended mutual military inspections at a time of heightened tensions.
They are intended as confidence-building measures among members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Russia recently announced it would suspend the inspections until the end of February, citing the spread of the omicron variant.
“Because of this an inspection on Russian territory in the border region of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, which Russia had previously agreed to, won’t currently be possible,” said the spokesman, Christofer Burger.
“We expressly regret this step because particularly in the current situation anything which creates greater transparency would help reduce tensions,” he said.
Burger said Russia also canceled inspections it was due to conduct in Germany.
Exposing misinformation has its risks
In a break from the past, the U.S. and its allies are increasingly revealing their intelligence findings, looking to expose Putin’s plans on Ukraine and deflect his efforts to shape world opinion.
The White House in recent weeks publicized what it said was a Russian “false-flag” operation to create a pretext for an invasion.
Britain named Ukrainians it accused of having ties to Russian intelligence officers plotting to overthrow Zelenskyy. The U.S. also released a map of Russian military positions and detailed how officials believe Russia will try to attack Ukraine with as many as 175,000 troops.
But the release of information isn’t without risks. Intelligence assessments carry varying degrees of certainty, and beyond offering photos of troop movements, the U.S. and its allies have provided little other proof. Moscow has invoked past American intelligence failures, including false information put forward about Iraq’s weapons programs.
What about those German howitzers?
German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit says a decision had not yet been reached on whether to approve Estonia’s request to transfer artillery guns to Ukraine.
Germany originally owned the howitzers and sold them to Finland which then sold them to Estonia.
Hebestreit on Friday warned against I’m pursuing what he called a “military logic” amid demands for German approval to deliver the howitzers to Ukraine.
“When push comes to shove that wouldn’t be a real solution either,” Hebestreit said. “That’s no game changer now.”
Will gas keep flowing?
Germany says Russia remains a reliable natural gas supplier, but is still preparing for all scenarios.
Government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit made the remark on Friday amid concerns that Russia might cut natural gas supplies to Europe.
“In our view the Russian gas supply contracts are being fulfilled everywhere so far and we strongly assume that this will remain the case,” Hebestreit said.
“At the same time it’s clear that one needs to prepare for all eventualities, and this is what the German government is doing,” he added.
Can this help Europe with gas supplies?
President Joe Biden and European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said they were working to ensure “reliable and affordable energy supplies” to the EU.
Their joint declaration comes as concerns rise that Russia could cut or stem its gas supplies to Europe.
The issue is expected to be at the center of talks when the U.S.-EU Energy Council meets on February 7.
“The United States and the EU are working jointly towards continued, sufficient, and timely supply of natural gas to the EU from diverse sources across the globe to avoid supply shocks, including those that could result from a further Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Biden and von der Leyen said.
How is the UK boosting its cyber defense?
The U.K.‘s National Cyber Security Centre is urging businesses to strengthen computer network protection amid the Ukraine crisis.
It said Friday it’s investigating recent reports of “malicious cyber incidents” in Ukraine and that these attacks are similar to a pattern of Russian behavior during earlier conflicts.
While authorities aren’t aware of any specific threats against the U.K., the center is encouraging large organizations to bolster online defenses. The center is part of GCHQ, Britain’s signals intelligence agency.
How are tensions impacting business?
Germany’s Foreign Ministry says it has denied a retired diplomat permission to work for a subsidiary of the Russian-owned gas pipeline operator.
“An internal review concluded that the taking on of this role had to be denied, because it would have encroached on official interests,” a ministry spokesman said Friday.
Meanwhile, Italian bank UniCreditalso decided not to pursue a possible takeover bid for Russian bank Otrkitie due to Ukraine tensions.
CEO Andrea Orcel said in a media call Friday that UniCredit had started due diligence on an offer, but “given the geopolitical environment, we decided to withdraw.”