For those watching the Ukraine crisis, February 20 was supposed to be a date to watch.
The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics ended on Sunday, and some observers feared the closing ceremony could be a propitious moment for Russian President Vladimir Putin to launch military action. After all, history rhymes: Russia escalated a brief conflict with Georgia in 2008 during the Beijing Summer Olympics, and Russia began its slow annexation of Crimea at the end of the Winter Olympics. of 2014 in Sochi.
But Sunday also offered Russia a potential opening for de-escalation. After all, massive joint Russian military exercises in Belarus were due to end on February 20, and the Kremlin had suggested that Russian troops would return home after they finished, without giving concrete dates. Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei even said that “not a single” Russian soldier or piece of Russian military equipment would remain in Belarus after the exercises are over.
Instead, Russia has passed another potential exit ramp in the crisis. In a statement released by the Belarusian military on Telegram on Sunday, Belarusian Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Viktor Khrenin said Russians and Belarusians would continue their exercises, saying that “increased military activity near the external borders of the Union State” – Russia and Belarus – and the increased tensions in the Donbass necessitated the decision.
Eyes remained on Donbass on Sunday as evacuees from separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine continued to cross southern Russia and separatist-held areas amid reports of new bombings.
Local officials in Russia’s Rostov region have declared a state of emergency after separatist leaders on Friday ordered the evacuation of civilians from the area. But Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov blamed separatists from the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk for aggravating the situation, accusing Russian-backed separatists of planting heavy weapons in civilian areas and using them to bombing areas under the control of the Ukrainian government.
Meanwhile, the buildup of Russian forces around Ukraine’s borders appears to have continued, according to US intelligence estimates. A US official with direct knowledge of the intelligence told CNN that Russia now has nearly 75% of its conventional forces stationed on Ukraine’s doorstep, indicating a high level of preparedness for the attack.
So is diplomacy dead? Not entirely. Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke by phone on Sunday and “agreed to continue to maintain open dialogue at different levels” regarding the situation in Ukraine, the Kremlin said. A sticking point, however, remains the Minsk agreement, which the Kremlin says is the only way to resolve the crisis. But the Kiev government sees it as a hastily crafted deal that it was forced to accept at gunpoint.
And Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, warned leaders who engage with the Russian leader over the phone. Speaking to Pavel Zarubin, host of the TV show “Moscow. Kremlin. Putin”, Peskov suggested that the Kremlin was ready to leak confidential discussions of high-level talks with other world leaders to counter what he described as deliberate and deceptive leaks by foreign officials.
“I hope we don’t live in a world where we have to read transcripts of the closed part of the presidents’ talks,” Peskov said. “But when it is necessary to prove the correctness of our president, we can and will do anything.”