Why U.S. and EU Officials Are Worried Putin Might Make Another Move in Ukraine 

4 minute read

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s comments about the legitimacy of Russia’s borders in a documentary broadcast on Russian television have rattled some U.S. allies, fearful that he might be laying the groundwork for a further military incursion into Ukraine.

In the documentary “Russia. Kremlin. Putin.”, which aired on June 21, the Russian president alleged that some former Soviet republics “took” some of “Russia’s traditionally historic territories” when the USSR collapsed in 1991, some of them with unspecified “gifts” from Moscow.

The following day, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “No, Russia does not have territorial claims against its neighbors,” but some U.S. and European officials said they are nevertheless concerned Putin might make another aggressive move in an attempt to distract attention from his poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the blow low oil prices have dealt to Russia’s economy.

Other recent moves by Putin have compounded these fears, the officials say, including Putin’s decision to hold a major military parade in Moscow on June 24 despite Russia having the third most COVID-19 cases in the world. On June 22, the Russian leader also appeared with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a supporter of Russia’s incursions into Ukraine, at the Russian Armed Forces cathedral outside Moscow on the 79th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.

One European official called Putin’s renewed defense of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea – he called it “a democratic choice of the peninsula’s population” in the film – an argument widely rejected elsewhere in Europe and “especially troubling.” In the documentary, Putin said, “Crimea has always been ours. Even from the judicial point-of-view.”

The immediate focus of concern now, officials on both sides of the Atlantic said, is the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where Russian troops and Ukrainian forces backed by NATO are locked in an uneasy ceasefire. On June 12, following a video conference between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and European Union officials, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus described what she called “joint U.S. and EU resolve to uphold Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and our insistence that Russia cease its aggressive actions in the Donbas region.”

“We reaffirm our unwavering commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all former Soviet republics, including Ukraine,” a State Department spokesman later told Time. “Crimea is part of Ukraine. We continue to engage with officials from Ukraine, Russia, Germany, France, and other interested partners and allies to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

But backing Ukraine is one of the few things that the transatlantic allies can agree on these days, as the long-time U.S.-EU alliance has weakened under the Trump Administration’s “American First” foreign policy. Two European officials says they fear Putin could seek to exploit the growing tensions between the U.S. and its NATO allies by making another move on territory in Ukraine or elsewhere that had been part of the Soviet Union.

“Putin can smell weakness,” said one of the officials, who both requested anonymity. “The Atlantic alliance is fraying, President Trump is pulling American troops out of Germany because he says the Germans aren’t meeting their defense spending commitments, and Putin has troubles at home. That could add up to trouble.”

Some U.S. officials think Trump’s re-election difficulties, however, might have the reverse effect, and stay Putin’s hand. “Putin knows he’s better off with four more years of a Trump presidency, and making another move, especially in Ukraine, would spell more trouble, especially since Ukraine is already a campaign issue,” a U.S. intelligence official said.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com