Russian invasion of Ukraine could come by mid-February, US diplomat says

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman says an invasion before the Beijing Olympic Games could upset Chinese President Xi

A top US diplomat said on Wednesday that Russia could invade Ukraine by mid-February, noting that the timing may be impacted by the start of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said she does not know if Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a final decision on whether to invade, but noted: “We certainly see every indication that he is going to use military force sometime, perhaps [between] now and the middle of February."

Speaking with former Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid at the the Yalta European Strategy forum, Ms Sherman said the timing of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics on February 4, which Mr Putin is set to attend, was likely a factor in the Russian leader's military calculus.

“We all are aware that the Beijing Olympics begin on February 4, the opening ceremony, and President Putin expects to be there."

"Probably [Chinese] President Xi Jinping would not be ecstatic if Putin chose that moment to invade Ukraine," Ms Sherman said. "So, that may affect his timing and his thinking."

She stressed, however, that only Mr Putin knows when an invasion may occur.

“There's only one person who knows that and that's President Putin," she said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken meanwhile said the US had set out a “serious diplomatic path” to resolve the confrontation over Ukraine.

The message came in the form of a letter to the Russian government that was delivered to Moscow earlier in the day. It serves as a formal response to a set of Russian demands in the Ukraine crisis.

“We make clear that there are core principles that we are committed to uphold and defend, including Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the right of states to choose their own security arrangements and alliances,” Mr Blinken said.

He said the letter made clear to Russia that Kiev can choose its own allies, rebuffing Moscow's demand for a pledge that Ukraine will not join the Nato alliance.

Ms Sherman, who met with her Russian counterpart earlier this month in Vienna in an attempt to warn Moscow against invading its neighbour, said the US was "pushing for diplomacy" but also "preparing for the worst."

She reiterated that "even one Russian troop further invading Ukraine is a very serious matter" -- a continued message from Washington after last week's gaffe by President Joe Biden in which he spoke of a different European response to a "minor" incursion.

But she said the United States was "preparing for all kinds of scenarios," from a "full-on invasion" to "hybrid attacks or subversion or sabotage or coercion."

Any invasion "has tremendous consequences for Ukraine and Europe, but also sends a message to the entire world that other autocrats can act with such impunity and go past long-held international principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity and an ability of a country to choose its own alliances."

The response, Ms Sherman said, would include severe sanctions, security aid for Ukraine, and the seeking of alternative energy resources for Europe.

Germany’s ambassador to the United States Emily Haber tweeted on Wednesday that nothing is off the table including Nord Stream 2. She did not elaborate, but the multi-billion-dollar gas pipeline from Russia to Germany has created enormous friction within the European Union.

Russia late last year amassed tens of thousands of troops near the border with Ukraine, where a pro-Moscow insurgency has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.

Russia, while denying plans for an invasion, has demanded concessions from the US including a guarantee that Ukraine will never enter Nato.

Updated: January 26, 2022, 7:10 PM