For the second time in two weeks, US intelligence agencies are warning of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia keeps repeating that the troops are purely intended for military exercises on its own territory. But Moscow, Washington and Kiev are playing a geopolitical chess game, experts say.

“All parties have underlying goals in the information they release,” says defense specialist Peter Wijninga of the Hague Center for Strategic Studies. “A huge game is being played. But even then things can go completely wrong: just one army unit has to accidentally cross the border and you have the dolls dancing.”

‘Realistic, but not likely’

According to analysts, no party involved is waiting for a direct confrontation with each other in Ukraine. That makes the suggested invasion of 175,000 Russian soldiers early next year unlikely. The fact is that many tens of thousands are now stationed in regions bordering Ukraine.

“Those troops are also arranged in a way that is suitable for an invasion and that makes us all nervous,” said Russia expert Bob Deen van Clingendael. He calls such an offensive a realistic scenario, but not the most likely. “This is a clash of arms to achieve a political goal. Moscow wants to show Kiev: we are ready to invade.”

Deen expects the high tensions to be soothed at the negotiating table. According to him, the basis for that diplomatic solution was laid this week at the meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Blinken of the US. In it, the Kremlin expressed its concerns about NATO military support to Ukraine.

In short, the demands from Moscow are: an end to NATO troops in Ukraine, no more deliveries of advanced weapons systems and that Kiev does not become a member of NATO. “Putin does not want countries around him that pose a threat. He prefers a ring of unstable countries around Russia and that is why Putin wants to keep Ukraine out of NATO,” says Deen.

With cyber attacks, spreading disinformation and supporting pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, Moscow is trying to keep the neighboring country as unstable as possible, Wijninga explains. Putin also uses the first two strategies in the rest of Europe to keep the continent divided and to increase the pressure.

Wijninga: “He hopes that maybe there will come a time when the EU will say: we are pulling our hands off Ukraine. Our main problem is that Europe is divided over the Ukraine issue and its attitude towards Russia.” According to him, for example, Germany has become quite lenient towards Russia, because the country has become more dependent on the supply of Russian gas. “That makes it difficult to implement a single policy from Brussels.”

Fear in Ukraine

Meanwhile, the government of Ukrainian President Zelensky has very clearly opted for Europe. The country would prefer to become a member of NATO – but that is out of the question for Putin. “Ukraine is rightly afraid that it will be left to its own devices,” says Deen. That is why Europe and the US continue to point to the bloody conflict in the east of the country, which killed 14,000 people in seven years.

Recently, the government of Ukraine claimed to have thwarted a coup. Reference was made to audio recordings with Russian voices, but no concrete accusation against the Kremlin was made. “Very little information has been released by Zelensky about it,” Wijninga said. “Has a coup really been prevented, or is it an attempt to pressure the West to provide security guarantees?”

‘Warning for Putin’

There are no answers, but it is important in this conflict to keep asking such questions, the experts say. It is also possible that the American intelligence services have deliberately leaked information about a possible Russian invasion. As The Washington Post reported today based on anonymous government sources and Bloomberg news agency two weeks ago.

“If the US warns against an invasion, that is also a warning for Putin,” says Wijninga. The White House is mainly focused on preventing an escalation in Eastern Europe, so that President Biden can focus his foreign policy on his main competitor on the global stage: China.

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