Ukraine's Future Looks Bleak As Russia Runs Out of Patience

A former U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, Steven Pifer, has told Newsweek he holds little hope for a diplomatic breakthrough to ease fears that Russia will invade Ukraine, after a week of talks between Moscow and the West ended in deadlock.

The build-up of Russian troops by the border with Ukraine has stoked concerns over the intentions of President Vladimir Putin, whom NATO, Kyiv and Washington have all warned is considering an invasion.

It was unlikely during this week's talks in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna that the U.S. and NATO would accede to Moscow's demands, which include a guarantee that Ukraine will never join and that the alliance's presence by Russian borders will be scaled down.

But on Friday, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said "our patience has run out" with the West, adding that he wanted a written response to the Kremlin's demands within a week. As a result, hopes that some agreement to calm tensions could be reached are fading.

"I'm pretty pessimistic," said Pifer, who was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000 under President Bill Clinton. "The signals coming out of Moscow today are pretty negative."

He said the Russians knew when they made their demands last month "that they were not going to get any traction." But U.S. and alliance officials had hoped there could be progress on agreements on missiles in Europe or the size and scope of military exercises.

"The Russians don't appear to be much interested in that," said Pifer, who is now an adjunct professor at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation.

"These talks were an opportunity to see if there was a way for the Russians to grab something and declare victory," while agreeing on a process "that might have allowed de-escalation. But there's no real sign that the Russians want to grab that path out."

Pifer added: "The question now is, does Vladimir Putin decide to use force? I'm not sure he's yet decided.

"The signals [this week] made me a bit more pessimistic that he's going to make the wrong decision."

An estimated 100,000 Russian troops are now massed by the border with Ukraine, a presence that has been built up over months. Pointing to the numbers, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Thursday: "The threat of military invasion is high."

Russia has dialed up the rhetoric over the past few weeks, signalling that it does not plan to back down easily. Last month, Putin accused the West of "coming with its missiles to our doorstep."

Without offering any evidence, defence minister Sergei Shoigu accused American mercenaries of transporting chemical weapons to the front line in eastern Ukraine—a claim swiftly dismissed by the U.S.

Meanwhile, a cyberattack on Ukrainian government websites on Friday prompted EU foreign ministers to warn that it could be a prelude to military action by Moscow.

Ukraine's defense ministry said in a statement on Friday that Moscow was preparing provocations against Russian servicemen that would be blamed on Kyiv, adding to the risk of miscalculation by either side that could flare up into hostilities.

President Joe Biden has said he will not commit U.S. forces to Ukraine and Pifer said it was crucial that NATO and American officials were candid with Kyiv so it does not overestimate the military backing it would get if there were an invasion.

Pifer said because the Ukrainians will be making "some really critical decisions in the next couple of days or weeks, I want them to understand just how much support they can expect from the West."

Ukrainian serviceman
A Ukrainian serviceman on the front line with Russia-backed separatists near the village of Luganske, in Donetsk, on January 11. Talks this week to ease tensions in the region have ended in deadlock. ANATOLII STEPANOV/Getty