Do Russian Troops In Belarus Mean War Is Inevitable?

February 20, 2022 Topic: Russia Region: Eastern Europe

Do Russian Troops In Belarus Mean War Is Inevitable?

As Kiev and Moscow-backed separatists trade renewed accusations of wartime atrocities and Russian troops remain in Belarus, the Biden administration continues to warn of an imminent Russian attack on Ukraine, one that could escalate in ways that neither Moscow nor Washington anticipates.


On Saturday, in a novel way to appeal for support, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky denounced world leaders for not aligning themselves more forcefully with his country. At the annual security conference in Munich, where Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2007 had originally decried what he depicted as America’s hubristic quest for global hegemony, Zelensky upbraided various governments for “arrogance” and “appeasement.” Even as Zelensky issued his complaints, however, Putin continued to up the pressure on Ukraine, conducting nuclear drills and taking in civilians into Russia from Donetsk.

On Friday, the People’s Republic of Donetsk (DPR), a breakaway region in Ukraine’s east, announced the mass evacuation of civilians. According to DPR head Denish Pushilin, the decision was motivated by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s alleged intention "to give an order to the army shortly to switch to an offensive and implement the plan of invading the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics." Shortly following Pushilin’s announcement, the neighboring self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) also directed its citizens to evacuate immediately. Pushilin said Russia is ready to receive the Donbass evacuees in the southwestern Rostov region, with priority given to women, children, and the elderly. A large proportion of Donbass residents currently hold Russian citizenship, but Moscow officials reportedly clarified that the evacuation extends to all eligible demographics regardless of citizenship status.


The DPR leadership has leveled fresh charges, amplified by the Kremlin, that the Ukrainian military has launched a concerted shelling campaign against the Donbass separatists. Local and Russian news outlets reported an explosion in Donetsk on Friday near a government building. According to Russian state news outlet TASS, the explosion was attributed to a car belonging to DPR police chief Denis Sinenkov; preliminary reports say Sinenkov was not injured. Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to the Ukrainian Interior Minister, told CNN that the bombing was staged, with a U.S. State Department spokesperson describing the incident as a “false flag operation.”

Kiev claimed earlier this week that the separatists shelled a nursery school in eastern Ukraine, causing several injuries. Both sides are accusing one another of dozens of ceasefire violations in what observers say could be the opening act to a major potential conflict.

The Biden administration continues to sound warnings that Russia seeks to manufacture a pretext for invading Ukraine, possibly involving a false flag terrorist attack inside Russia or the fabricated discovery of a mass grave in Donbass. “Russia may describe this event as ethnic cleansing or a genocide, making a mockery of a concept that we in this chamber do not take lightly," said Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an address to the UN Security Council.

The Kremlin and influential Russian politicians are increasingly referring to the Donbass War as a “genocide.” Vyacheslav Volodin, State Speaker of the Russian Duma, accused the U.S. and EU of sweeping Kiev’s “crimes against humanity” under the rug. “We are talking about the deaths of people during the 2014 coup d'etat, when the Trade Union House in Odessa was set ablaze and during the punitive operations in Donbass," he added. "If this is not genocide, then what is?" Russian federal investigators previously claimed to have discovered five mass graves, containing as many as 295 civilians, in the broader Lugansk region.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Friday that Ukraine is conducting a “genocide” against the population of Donbass. “[The situation in Donbass] does not look like a genocide, it is a genocide,” she said. “Maybe not on the scale seen in Africa, but please, are we supposed to go off quantitative parameters when women, children, civilians have been dying for seven years, when people have no semblance of a peaceful life, when the sound of approaching munitions is completely normal for them?” 

The Duma voted on Tuesday to formally ask Russian President Vladimir Putin to recognize the DPR and LPR as “sovereign and independent states.” The Russian side has continued to insist throughout this week that it has no plans to invade Ukraine, with Putin announcing a partial withdrawal of Russian troops near Ukraine’s eastern border as part of an effort to relaunch sputtering security talks with the U.S. and NATO.  But Moscow’s ongoing assurances could belie a key semantic nuance: the Kremlin may not consider Russia’s recognition and potential absorption of the breakaway Donbass republics, which are currently not under Ukrainian control, as an invasion of Ukraine. This view diverges sharply from the U.S. and Ukrainian position, which classifies any Russian incursion into internationally-recognized Ukrainian territory as an invasion.

The White House says it sees no signs of de-escalation, with recent estimates reportedly pointing to the presence of as many as 190,000 Russian troops gathered along Ukraine’s eastern border. The U.S. government said Friday that the Russian government is responsible for “wide-scale cyberattacks on Ukrainian banks this week.” Anne Neuberger, deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technology, told reporters that the cyberattacks could lay the groundwork for more direct military action, up to and including a full-scale invasion.  The State Department announced on Thursday that Blinken has accepted an invitation to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov next week provided Russia does not initiate military action against Ukraine.

In remarks given on Friday, Biden said he believes Putin has made up his mind on invading Ukraine: “As of this moment, I am convinced he's made the decision.” When asked how he has come to this conclusion, Biden replied, “we have a significant intelligence capability.” Biden reiterated that the U.S. will not fight in Ukraine, but stressed Washington’s continued military and economic support for Kiev. “The United States and our allies and partners will support the Ukrainian people,” Biden said. “We will hold Russia accountable for its actions. The West is united and resolved. We are ready to impose severe sanctions on Russia if it further invades Ukraine,” he added. “Russia has a choice between war and all the suffering it will bring, or diplomacy that will make a future safer for everyone.”

Still, European allies are complaining that the Biden administration has not shared its intelligence about a certain Russian invasion with them. One official told the Washington Post that “we have no clear evidence ourselves that Putin has made up his mind and we have not seen anything that would suggest otherwise.” Still, Russian forces remain stationed in Belarus and Biden is hosting a meeting of the National Security Council on Sunday. Until he commits one way or other, it is Putin, and Putin alone, who will decide the immediate course of events. If he does decide upon war, then the conflict could spiral in directions that neither Moscow nor Washington anticipates.

Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.