A massive build-up of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border is fueling speculation of an imminent invasion. Pictured: A Ukrainian soldier observes Russia-backed separatists through a periscope at a position near Donetsk, on April 22, 2021. (Photo by Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)
A massive build-up of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border is fueling speculation of an imminent invasion. Western leaders have warned Russian President Vladimir Putin against military action, but, especially after the catastrophic American withdrawal from Afghanistan, they appear divided and weak and may be unable to stop him.
A Russian invasion of Ukraine, if successful, would expand Moscow's sphere of influence along its western border and pave the way for Eastern Europe and the Baltics to come under Russian domination once again.
On December 3, the Washington Post reported that it had obtained an American intelligence document which assessed that Russia is planning a multi-front offensive involving nearly 200,000 troops within the next few months. The unclassified document, which includes satellite photos, shows Russian forces massing in four locations near Ukraine.
The document states that Russia already has roughly half the units — 50 battlefield strike groups consisting of a total of 70,000 troops — it needs for an invasion deployed near the border. Most of those units have arrived since September. A Biden administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said:
"The Russian plans call for a military offensive against Ukraine as soon as early 2022 with a scale of forces twice what we saw this past spring during Russia's snap exercise near Ukraine's borders. The plans involve extensive movement of 100 battalion tactical groups with an estimated 175,000 personnel, along with armor, artillery and equipment."
The American intelligence assessment — leaked on the same day that Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said that Russia has amassed nearly 100,000 troops near the border and will be ready to invade in late January 2022 — comes after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the Ukraine situation with his European counterparts. On December 1, after a NATO summit in Latvia, Blinken said:
"We don't know whether President Putin has made the decision to invade. We do know that he is putting in place the capacity to do so on short order should he so decide. We must prepare for all contingencies.
"We've made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high impact economic measures that we've refrained from using in the past."
On December 2, Blinken met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of a ministerial meeting of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Stockholm. Blinken demanded that Russia withdraw troops from the Ukrainian border. Lavrov deflected by warning that his country regarded the eastward expansion of the NATO military alliance as a "fundamental" security threat.
"No one should strengthen their security at the expense of the security of others," Lavrov said. "NATO's further eastward expansion will obviously affect our fundamental security interests."
Putin, speaking at an investment forum in Moscow, warned that Russia would act if its "red lines" on Ukraine were crossed by NATO.
NATO has not agreed to grant Ukraine membership, nor has the alliance deployed troops or weapons to Ukraine. NATO views Ukraine as a "partner" and has provided training and other forms of military support.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg indicated that the alliance would not defend Ukraine if it was attacked by Russia:
"It is important to distinguish between NATO allies and partner Ukraine. NATO allies, there we provide [Article 5] guarantees, collective defense guarantees, and we will defend and protect all allies.
"Ukraine is a partner, a highly-valued partner. There's a difference between a partner Ukraine and an ally like, for instance, Latvia. We need to understand the difference between a NATO ally, Latvia, other Baltic countries, Poland, Romania, and a close and highly valued partner, Ukraine. We provide support for Ukraine ... for the NATO allies we have the security guarantees, Article 5."
NATO did not defend Ukraine after Russia's first invasion in 2014, when Moscow occupied and then annexed the Crimean Peninsula, nor did it defend Georgia, another NATO "partner," after Russia's invasion in 2008.
Stoltenberg hinted that the Western response to any Russian invasion would be limited to economic sanctions:
"There will be a high price to pay for Russia if they once again use force against the independent, sovereign nation Ukraine. We have demonstrated our ability to impose costs, economic, political actions."
Stoltenberg also said that Russia has no right to extend its "sphere of influence" over Ukraine:
"It is only Ukraine and 30 NATO allies that decide when Ukraine is ready to join NATO. Russia has no veto. Russia has no say. And Russia has no right to establish a sphere of influence, trying to control their neighbors....
"They try to re-establish some kind of acceptance that Russia has the right to control what neighbors do, or not do....
"I, myself, I'm coming from a small country bordering Russia. And I'm very glad that our NATO allies have never respected that Russia has the kind of right to establish a sphere of influence in the North, trying to decide what Norway, as a small, independent country can do or not do.
"And that's exactly the same for Ukraine. Ukraine is an independent, sovereign nation with internationally recognized borders, guaranteed by Russia and all the other powers. And those borders, those internationally recognized borders should be respected. And that includes, of course, Crimea as part of Ukraine, and Donbas as part of Ukraine. So, this idea that NATO's support to a sovereign nation is the provocation, is just wrong. It's to respect the sovereignty of, the will of, the Ukrainian people.
"So I think that tells more about Russia than about NATO."
On December 3, U.S. President Joe Biden said that his administration was "putting together...the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for Mr. Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he's going to do."
A spokesperson for the White House's National Security Council said that Washington was "deeply concerned by evidence that Russia is stepping up its planning for significant military action against Ukraine." He concluded:
"The Biden administration has been consistent in our message to Russia: the United States does not seek conflict, and the best way to avert a crisis and a negative spiral in the broader relationship is through diplomacy and de-escalation."
The London-based Financial Times reported that some European officials were "surprised" about the strength of the U.S. intelligence assessment and that authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have spent weeks comparing and contrasting their evaluations.
The newspaper added that the Biden administration is seeking to announce the consequences to Russia of a Ukraine invasion as part of a diplomatic push to deter Putin from deciding to act.
An American defense official told the Financial Times that the Biden administration was considering providing weaponry to Ukraine, but that inter-agency discussions were continuing and no decisions had yet been made.
On December 3, a Biden administration official said:
"Since the beginning of this administration we have demonstrated that the United States and our allies are willing to use a number of tools to address harmful Russian actions, and we will not hesitate from making use of those and other tools in the future."
On December 6, in an interview with the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, Reznikov, the Ukrainian defense minister, urged military support from Britain, Canada and the United States, even if it is outside NATO. He said that the "Anglo-Saxon allies" were more likely to challenge Putin's aggressive behavior than countries like France and Germany, which are more concerned about maintaining their economic relationships with Russia.
What Does Russia Want?
Analysts are divided on what is motivating Putin. Some believe that he is using the Ukraine issue to deflect from runaway inflation and a divisive push for Covid vaccine passports. Others say that Putin is fixated on restoring Russian control over Ukraine and other former members of the former Soviet Union.
Max Seddon, Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times, wrote:
"Analysts say Putin's desire to rid Ukraine of western influence is underpinned by a conviction that it is an inalienable part of the 'Russian world,' a Moscow-centric sphere of influence rooted in the Soviet Union and the Tsarist empire.
"Putin has described the collapse of the USSR, which separated millions of intermarried families on either side of the Ukrainian border, as 'the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century' and has questioned the grounds on which Ukraine broke off from Russia.
"Following Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin likened the Ukrainian peninsula, where Vladimir the Great — the first Christian ruler of Rus, a medieval state ruled from Kyiv — was baptized in 988AD, as 'Russia's Temple Mount' — a notion that has no theological basis but cast Putin as the protector of Russians everywhere."
In July, Putin published a 7,000-word article — "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians" — in which he wrote that he was convinced that the "true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia." He vowed Moscow would never allow the country to become "anti-Russia."
Putin was apparently referring to laws introduced by the Ukrainian government in July 2019 that aim to promote the primacy of the Ukrainian language. Those laws limit the use of the Russian language in public settings and exclude Russians from a list of Ukraine's "indigenous peoples."
In an interview with the Financial Times, political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said:
"In Putin's understanding, the people of Ukraine are basically one with Russians, so they should support integration with Russia. But since the country is under the thumb of the West the people are being tricked — they're hostage to geopolitical games. If the Americans left, it'd be a unified state and everything would be great. Or so Putin thinks."
Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine's former foreign minister, added:
"Putin has a sense of mission on reinstalling a new kind of empire. It's sitting very deep in his mind. Not just Ukraine's success, but also any separate path of Ukraine would be highly damaging to the Russian mythology.
"The narrative in Russia is that there is no Ukrainian identity as such, including history, language, mentality and statehood. Putin's stance on Ukraine is highly irrational. Ukrainians and Russians have two different sets of values."
Ukrainian MP Oleksiy Goncharenko said:
"Putin's article claims to be about history, but in reality it is about the future and not the past. Ukraine holds the key to Putin's dreams of restoring Russia's great power status. He is painfully aware that without Ukraine, this will be impossible.
"Putin's essay does not actually contain anything new. Indeed, we have already heard these same arguments many times before. However, his article does help clarify that the current conflict is not about control over Crimea or eastern Ukraine's Donbas region; it is a war for the whole of Ukraine. Putin makes it perfectly clear that his goal is to keep Ukraine firmly within the Russian sphere of influence and to prevent Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic integration."
Swedish scholar Anders Åslund warned:
"Make no mistake: by denying Ukraine's right to independence, Putin is setting the stage for war. The West must quickly decide what it is willing to do to prevent it."
Western Weakness, Energy Dependence
Putin appears to have become emboldened by perceptions that the West will most likely make public protests but do nothing to stop him.
In Europe, policies promoted for decades by Germany have allowed the European Union to become overly dependent on Russia for its energy supplies. If, in retaliation for a Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU or the United States were to impose economic sanctions that threatened the survival of the Putin regime, Moscow could stop deliveries of oil and natural gas. Such a move would quickly bring the European Union to its knees and force the bloc to lift its sanctions.
Putin also appears to view the Biden administration as feeble and feckless. In July, for instance, the White House abruptly reversed long-standing bi-partisan policy consensus and reached an agreement with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that allows for the completion of a controversial natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany.
The deal to complete the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would double shipments of Russian natural gas to Germany by transporting the gas under the Baltic Sea, angered the leaders of many countries in Eastern and Western Europe; they argued that it will effectively give Moscow a stranglehold over European gas supplies and open the continent to Russian blackmail.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations opposed the pipeline on the grounds that, once completed, it would strengthen Putin's energy stranglehold over Europe.
The Trump administration was especially critical of the pipeline because it will funnel billions of dollars to Russia at a time when Germany is free-riding on the U.S. defense umbrella that protects Germany from that same Russia.
Just one day before the Biden-Merkel deal was announced, State Department Spokesman Ned Price criticized the pipeline as a "Kremlin geopolitical project that is intended to expand Russia's influence over Europe's energy resources and to circumvent Ukraine." White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki had also previously asserted that the Biden administration "continues to believe that Nord Stream 2 is a bad deal for Europe."
The Biden administration has not explained why or how completion of the pipeline would promote American or European strategic interests. The White House reportedly urged Ukraine to withhold public criticism of the deal with Germany and also asked Ukrainian officials not to discuss the agreement with members of the U.S. Congress. The Biden administration warned Ukraine that going public with opposition to Nord Stream 2 could "damage the Washington-Kyiv bilateral relationship."
In November 2021, a classified German government document leaked to Axios, an American news website, showed that Germany urged the U.S. Congress not to impose sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The document stated that opposition to the pipeline would "weaken the credibility of the U.S. government" and "seriously weaken transatlantic unity on Russia." It also claimed that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline poses "no threat" to Ukraine.
Geopolitical analysts on both sides of the Atlantic say that the pipeline deal will: 1) weaken American and strengthen Russian influence in Europe; 2) heighten divisions between the Eastern and Western European members of the European Union; 3) push some of the EU's eastern periphery closer to China; 4) deprive Ukraine of the transit fees it now collects on gas pumped through an existing pipeline and thereby undermine Kiev's struggle against Russian aggression; and 5) allow Putin to strong-arm Germany and the European Union by turning off deliveries of natural gas whenever he wants.
Failed Peace Talks
Russia and Ukraine have been engaged in an armed conflict since February 2014, when Russia occupied and annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Russia subsequently occupied much of the industrial Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. Russia is accused of arming and financing a separatist uprising in Ukraine. The conflict has cost over 14,000 lives and left millions displaced.
In September 2014, Russia and Ukraine signed a peace plan — the Minsk Protocol — for eastern Ukraine. The Minsk-1 agreement was drafted by the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine, which consisted of representatives from Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE. It failed to stop fighting in Donbas. The Minsk-2 agreement, signed in February 2015, was mediated by the leaders of France and Germany in the so-called Normandy Format. The new agreement contained 13 provisions, hardly any of which have been implemented. Russia and Ukraine have each accused each other of failing to honor the agreement.
In 2021, Russia built-up troops on Ukraine's borders on two separate occasions. In May, Moscow deployed around 100,000 troops near the border and in Crimea. In September, Russia deployed nearly 200,000 troops to Belarus, which shares a long border with Ukraine. Some military analysts described the deployments as rehearsals for a full-scale Russian offensive.
On December 2, during their meeting in Stockholm, Blinken, sitting alongside Lavrov, called for Russia to resume negotiations with Ukraine over the Minsk-2 agreement within the "Normandy Format," sponsored by France and Germany. Lavrov demanded that the United States create an alternate channel of dialogue directly with the Kremlin.
Some analysts believe the latest Russian troop build-up on the border is designed, at least in part, to force direct negotiations between Moscow and Washington, according to David Herszenhorn, chief Brussels correspondent for Politico. A separate channel of dialogue could undermine the Normandy Format and further divide the West by prying apart Europe and the United States.
In a recent column, David Ignatius, foreign affairs commentator for the Washington Post, revealed that such a separate channel may already be in operation. The Biden administration, he wrote, "had signaled support for an eventual diplomatic deal on Ukraine that would give Putin much of what he wanted."
In an essay published by the Center for European Policy Analysis, analysts Edward Lucas, Ben Hodges and Carsten Schmiedl wrote:
"The Russian regime's foremost interest is its own hold on power. All policy, internal and external, stems from this overriding goal. The Kremlin sees the West, the European Union (EU), and NATO as threats to this stability, and as potential instigators of 'color revolutions' that will exploit Russia's ethnic, religious, political, and other fissures.
"The long-term goal is, therefore, a polycentric or multipolar world in which multilateral, rules-based organizations are unable to dictate terms to Russia. Instead, the Kremlin aims to be the dominant power in Eurasia, using Russia's size to exert strong influence over its neighbors and over small countries, and to bargain with big countries on an equal basis....
"The ongoing war in Ukraine gives Russia a semi-permanent seat in European security discussions, and exploits underlying differences between France and Germany on one side, and the United States and other European countries on the other."
Writing for the Poland-based Center for Eastern Studies, Russia expert Marek Menkiszak noted:
"Recent weeks have brought further displays of Russia's escalating aggressive rhetoric and actions towards Ukraine, including troop movements near its border, as well as use of energy as leverage. This raises questions about Moscow's intentions. Both the statements of Russian leaders and the policy of the Russian Federation in recent years indicate that it has not abandoned attempts to achieve one of its main policy objectives: restoring control over Ukraine. This is despite the fact that its actions to date — both limited military aggression and political, economic, and propaganda pressure — have only moved it further away from this goal. In the current conditions, with the stalemate in the Donbas conflict continuing, the Russian Federation is faced with a choice of its future strategy towards Ukraine. It has two main options: to escalate the armed conflict in the Donbas in order to achieve a rapid breakthrough, or to intensify long-term pressure, i.e. to play for Kyiv's gradual exhaustion. The choice of strategy depends on the Russian perception of the situation, the attitude of Ukraine itself, and the behavior of key Western actors....
"There are several arguments in favor of the escalation scenario. Firstly, Moscow is apparently impatient with the lack of results from its previous policy of pressure on Kyiv. Secondly, the longer Ukraine remains outside Moscow's strategic control, the further it distances itself from Moscow in all respects, and the stronger its independent existence becomes. Third, the Kremlin may see the current international situation as conducive to the implementation of such a plan.
"The first important factor here is Moscow's likely perception of the relative weakness of the US — a key actor that could prevent it from pursuing aggressive action against Ukraine. The Kremlin's initial fear of 'retribution' from the new Joe Biden administration for its interference in the 2016 presidential election seems to have given way to the belief that Washington is focused on domestic problems and the challenge from China, so it is seeking to improve relations with the Russian Federation. This may be evidenced by, among other things, decisions to drop further restrictions targeting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a rather mild response to dangerous Russian cyberattacks on the United States (including on elements of its critical infrastructure), and an intensification of political and security (including arms control) dialogue with Moscow."
In an essay published by the US-based Jamestown Foundation, Ukrainian diplomat Olexander Scherba wrote:
"It is now November 2021, and Ukraine's warnings about Nord Stream Two were not heard. The pipeline, whose main purpose is to make Europe more dependent on Russia, was built — on Europe's dime but under Russian Gazprom's ownership and control. Nord Stream Two has yet to be certified, but it is already causing substantial problems.
"Because of the pipeline, the European Union is divided and Russia is all the more convinced that the EU is weak and corruptible. Moscow lobbyists around the world pontificate that, with energy demand as well as prices soaring, the West's 'green delusion' is finally over, and the world is back to an era of rule by nations that have what really counts: oil, gas and coal.
"For quite a while, Moscow has pursued a three-fold strategy: fool Europe, corrupt Europe, seduce Europe. The Nord Stream Two saga included all three elements. It fooled Europe by promising an unnecessary pipeline that was rooted in geopolitical expediency. It corrupted Europe, by hiring its former leaders to lucrative advisory contracts and allowing Europe to finance what it promised would eventually be a cash cow. With the pipeline certification under consideration, Russia is now in the seduction phase, promising that once Nord Stream Two is certified, gas supply problems, will go away. Of course, that is like saying that one more bottle of vodka will make alcoholism go away....
"Do not make the mistake of handing an essential part of Europe's future to a country that is demonstratively not the EU's friend. Time will not be kind to such decision or to those who made it."
In an essay published by the European Council on Foreign Relations, analyst Gustav Gressel concluded:
"Russia has a clear aim: to weaken Ukraine so much that it will be relatively easy to control the country's politics. Moscow can achieve this by forcing Kyiv to implement the Minsk agreement on its terms — which would establish a de facto Russian veto on Ukrainian domestic affairs — and by starting and exploiting anti-government revolts.
Alternatively, Moscow could pressure Washington to 'deliver' Ukraine by signing security guarantees that favored Russia. These guarantees would prohibit Ukraine from not only joining NATO but also engaging in any form of cooperation with the West that would strengthen its resilience. This would eventually force Ukraine back into Moscow's sphere of influence.
"Given these considerations, Kyiv may believe that it can either fight for independence now or be forced to do so later — probably in more challenging circumstances. Therefore, Kyiv may believe that it is worth standing up against a militarily superior enemy....
"If Russia's coercive strategy works well, there is no guarantee that it will stop with Ukraine. Russia's current alteration of the force structure in its Western Military District is partly directed against NATO. With Chinese-Russian military cooperation increasing, today's imponderables may become tomorrow's possibilities. American generals have long warned Europeans that, in the coming decades, the US may not be in a position to simultaneously protect its Asian and European allies against the threat of both China and Russia....
"Many European leaders do not seem to grasp the seriousness of the situation. One can see this in the defense of Nord Stream 2 in recently leaked German cables to members of the US Congress: Ukraine has a gun to its head, but the German government only seems worried about the survival of its pipeline. Berlin and Paris are resistant to a stronger NATO reaction — citing fears that Russia may feel threatened by a military capable Ukrainian state that has the support of the alliance. This is just the kind of poor judgement that enables Russian military aggression.
"For now, many eastern and central European nations may feel secure in the assumption that Washington will protect them by placing Moscow under diplomatic and military pressure. But they should not be complacent: while certain groups of think-tankers have been arguing for concessions to Russia since 2014, their ideas have gained a new resonance this time. A Washington preoccupied with countering Beijing may soon be willing to turn these arguments into policy — not for their brilliance, but for their convenience."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute.