Russia has not yet decided whether to attack Ukraine but is prepared to do so, the head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service has said, amid soaring tensions about the Kremlin-ordered military buildup.
“I believe that the decision to attack has not yet been made,” Bruno Kahl told Reuters.
The German assessment comes after the US president, Joe Biden, told his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, on Thursday there was “a distinct possibility that the Russians could invade Ukraine in February”, according to a national security council spokesperson.
Tensions have escalated as more than 100,000 Russian troops have massed at the border with Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin said the US and Nato allies had “ignored” Russia’s main security concern, but pledged to continue talks in a call with Emmanuel Macron.
In his first public comments on US and Nato responses to Russian proposals to re-write the post cold-war security architecture, Putin said Russian concerns about the expansion of Nato and the deployment of strike weapons near its borders had not been taken into account, according to a Kremlin readout of the phone call with his French counterpart.
Washington and European capitals rejected Russia’s demands to veto Ukraine’s Nato membership, but set out proposals on other ways to improve security on the continent in the unpublished documents.
“The key question was ignored,” Putin was reported as having said, according to the Kremlin statement. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Russia’s relationship with Nato, the Russian president went on to say, were based on the principle that “no-one should strengthen their security at the expense of other countries”.
Putin told the French leader Russia would continue talks in the so-called Normandy format that brings together representatives from France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia, following talks earlier this week between the quartet of countries.
He also promised to “carefully study” the US and Nato written responses and continue a “Russian-French dialogue on the entire range of European security questions”.
The last point could be a win for Macron, who has long called for dialogue with Russia, sometimes angering other EU member states that have preferred a more distanced approach.
EU divisions rose to the surface after Latvia’s defence minister, Artis Pabriks, made a no-holds-barred attack on the German government for what he called its “immoral” refusal to allow Estonia to ship German-origin guns to Ukraine. In an interview with the FT, Pabriks said: “If a person is walking in a dark alley and somebody is being beaten up and I’m saying ‘once you’re beaten up I’ll call an ambulance’, it’s not proper.”
His comments attracted scathing criticism from the veteran German Green MEP Reinhard Bütikofer. “That’s the way to go, Latvia! Let’s turn Nato and the EU into a circular firing squad. That will teach [Vladimir] Putin and Xi [Jinping] a lesson. Right?” he wrote on Twitter, specifying it was a “sarcasm tweet”.
Germany has ruled out shipping weapons abroad, citing its own past, a stance upheld by the foreign minister and Green party co-leader, Annalena Baerbock, on Thursday.
Meanwhile, EU officials say there has been an increase in pro-Kremlin disinformation since last autumn. “The last week of November is give or take the time when we started seeing again – as was the case in spring last year – intensified rhetoric and more aggressive rhetoric,” an EU official said.
Pro-Kremlin outlets, which EU sources describe as “machines of content” have made numerous claims, depicting Ukraine as a tool or toy of the west. Some of the more lurid stories have claimed the Ukrainian government is running a campaign of terror equivalent to Nazi rule, or that western governments are plotting a “false flag” chemical attack on the Donbas region of Ukraine.
A second EU official said sometimes the strategy appeared to be to “throw mud at the wall and see what sticks”. Other times it was “outright false stories, sometimes narratives with a grain of truth, sometimes decontextualised issues … but the important thing is this is a clearly coordinated, connected – and from our perspective – intentional use of these elements.”
Many of the stories emanate from comments or interviews with Russian officials, such as the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova. Outlets include websites and news agencies, such as Sputnik and Ria-Novosti, which have published these stories in several EU languages including Polish, Lithuanian and Spanish.
While western capitals are increasingly alarmed about the drift to war, Ukraine’s government has sought to play down the threat. The Ukrainian defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said on Friday that the total number of Russian troops near the border was about 130,000, a number comparable to Moscow’s military buildup in spring 2021, when it eventually pulled its forces back after massive military exercises.
“We haven’t observed any events or actions of military character that significantly differ from what was going on last spring,” with the exception of the deployment to Belarus, Reznikov said.
Ukraine is still embroiled in a war with Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country that has claimed 14,000 lives.
On Friday, Russia again rejected claims it was seeking conflict. “If it depends on Russia, then there will be no war. We don’t want wars. But we also won’t allow our interests to be rudely trampled, to be ignored,” Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, told Russian radio stations.