The build-up of Russian military forces on Ukraine’s border could be an “elaborate bluff” but President Vladamir Putin has a history of following through, an Irish-hosted discussion on the deteriorating situation was told on Friday.
Dr Fiona Hill, senior fellow at the Center on the US and Europe at the Brookings Institution, said another incursion into Ukraine would be “insane” but that efforts were ongoing to understand exactly what is at play.
“What is all of this about? People are pouring over maps, people are pouring over satellite imagery and trying to figure out the full extent of this,” she told an online event at the Institute of International and European Affairs .
“And that is exactly what makes it dangerous because Putin is not the kind of person who wants to be seen to be just bluffing...Putin’s stock and trade has been to make good in some way on a threat.”
On Friday US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov met for further discussions aimed at defusing tensions, and a follow-up meeting between Mr Putin and US president Joe Biden has not been ruled out. All the while Russian troops continue to mass along the Ukraine border.
Dr Hill, who served as senior director for European and Russian affairs on the US National Security Council under the Trump administration, noted that Mr Putin has form in military interventions, whether it be the annexation of Crimea or military action in Syria and, before that, in Georgia in 2008.
“When people basically underestimate Putin or try to call the bluff he often makes good on it. We are in a very dangerous situation,” she said.
“Before we under-reacted; now there is a chance of over-reaction and setting up one of these escalatory dynamics. But that is on Putin; he is the guy who decided to amass all of these forces.”
Russia is awaiting a written US response to a list of formal questions addressing its strategic concerns in the region. Among the demands is that Nato undertakes never to admit Ukraine as a member or to expand further east. However, Friday’s discussion heard that Nato abuts just 6 per cent of Russian territory, as referenced recently by UK defence secretary Ben Wallace.
Dr Hill noted that, with the exception of some younger figures, those closely surrounding Mr Putin have remained a constant during more than 20 years as president or prime minister.
“Essentially it’s the same team of people . . [in the US] we just come and go,” she said, reflecting on how that contrast inhibits any ability to create permanent structures of dialogue.
“They want to talk [primarily] to the US but the thing is there’s not a US to talk to. There’s just constant changes.”