Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on Wednesday said that Russian President Vladimir Putin may weigh launching an invasion of Ukraine after the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, which he has promised to attend.
Sherman, speaking to a virtual conference, spoke to warnings from President Biden and other officials that Russia is poised to launch an invasion of Ukraine, but said that there is no way to assess what Putin will ultimately decide.
“We certainly see every indication that he [Putin] is going to use military force sometime, perhaps [between] now and the middle of February,” she said.
“We all are aware that the Beijing Olympics begin on Feb. 4, the opening ceremony, and President Putin expects to be there. I think that, probably, [Chinese] President Xi Jinping would not be ecstatic if Putin chose that moment to invade Ukraine, so that may affect his timing and his thinking,” the deputy secretary continued.
The Biden administration has undertaken an intensive diplomatic campaign to stave off a Russian invasion against Ukraine, where the Kremlin has massed more than 100,000 troops on the border of its neighbor and further moved military units into Belarus, which borders Ukraine to the north.
The U.S. has called for Russia to pull back its troops and sought to shore up allies in Europe to impose massive economic consequences on Moscow should it cross into Ukraine by force.
Administration officials have warned that Russia could launch an attack at any time but have also underscored that such a decision appears based on the whim of the Russian president.
“I suspect even the people around him don’t know ultimately what he will do,” Sherman said of Putin. “I think they know the plans of setting up the military to be ready to go, and to have plans to make use of the military, but I suspect the president has other plans in mind as well, and I have no idea whether he’s made the ultimate decision.”
But the Olympics could present an opportunity for reprieve from the brinkmanship occurring on Ukraine’s border.
Putin committed to attending the opening ceremony of the Olympics in a video call with Xi last month, where he called the Chinese leader his “dear friend.”
The Russian president said he hoped to meet Xi in person at the Olympics opening ceremony.
“I do hope that next February, we will finally be able to meet in person in Beijing. As we agreed, you and I will talk, and then we will participate in the Winter Olympics opening ceremony. Thank you for the invitation to attend this important event,” Putin said in a transcript of the call released by the Kremlin.
The U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia are some of the major Olympic participants to announce a diplomatic boycott of the games in Beijing, in opposition to what they say are egregious human rights abuses being carried out by China, including what the U.S. deems a genocide taking place against the Uyghur Muslim community in Xinjiang.
China rejects such criticism as meddling in its domestic affairs and the diplomatic boycott as an unacceptable politicization of sport, an argument Putin supported in a virtual meeting with Russian athletes on Tuesday.
“Together [with China] we oppose the politicization of sport and demonstrative boycotts. We support traditional Olympic values: equality and justice first of all,” Putin reportedly said.