A troubling buildup of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border has Kyiv, Washington, and pretty much everyone else asking if Russia is about to invade Ukraine — again.
The US and its allies, including Ukraine, are trying to forestall that scenario, most recently in a two-hour video call Tuesday between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
During the call, Biden told Putin the “US and our allies would respond with strong economic and other measures” if Russia pursued military escalation, according to the White House, and called for a return to diplomacy. To be clear, a military option is not among the “other measures,” as Biden said Wednesday sending US troops unilaterally was “not in the cards right now.”
The Kremlin’s readout largely blamed Ukraine for the crisis, and NATO, for cooperating with Kyiv. It wanted guarantees against NATO’s eastward expansion, something the US, and NATO, will never give.
The call is far from a resolution, but the hope is that it will at least delay any dramatic action. Ahead of the meeting between the two leaders, US intelligence officials warned that Russia was planning a major military offensive into Ukraine, launching as many as 175,000 troops into the country as soon as early next year. Russia had already been amassing troops and equipment along parts of Ukraine’s border, placing about 70,000 troops there, according to a recent US estimate. Ukrainian officials put the number higher, at more than 90,000. These troop buildups had intensified fears that Russia would invade Ukraine, throwing the region into conflict and the European continent into deep crisis.
In 2014, Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and aided a rebellion in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where pro-Russia separatists now control breakaway parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. A peace process in 2014 and 2015, known as the Minsk agreement, was never fully implemented, and hostilities turned into this simmering conflict that still has, in seven years, killed more than 14,000 people.
This tenuous status quo has prevailed for years, and though a terrible result, especially for those in and near the fighting, it maybe wasn’t the worst outcome possible. Russia could keep Ukraine on edge because of constant unrest in eastern Ukraine, and Ukraine could get aid and attention from Western countries because of Russia’s aggression.
“That was, to a large extent, the conventional wisdom,” said Olga Oliker, the program director for Europe and Central Asia with the International Crisis Group. “When Russia poured troops into the neighborhood, it led to this realization of, ‘Oh, maybe they’re not so happy with the situation as it is.’”
Troops are definitely in the neighborhood, though Putin has denied any intention of launching an attack. Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations said last month that Moscow “never planned, never did, and is never going to do it unless we’re provoked by Ukraine, or by somebody else.”
That may also depend on what Russia interprets as a provocation. Putin sees Ukraine’s closer cooperation with the West, specifically NATO, as leading toward an unacceptable outcome for Moscow: Ukraine’s potential membership in the alliance. Preventing Ukraine’s incorporation into Western organizations like NATO, but also the European Union, was part of the motivation for Russia’s incursions into Ukraine in 2014, said Sarah Pagung, an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “But what we’ve actually seen over the last years is Ukraine, as a consequence of the Crimean annexation, more intensively pursued the path of Western integration,” she said.
None of these dynamics are entirely new, though experts said there are a few factors that might explain why Ukraine-Russia tensions are spiraling right now, including Russia’s dissatisfaction with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s continued orientation toward NATO, and a sense that the West is preoccupied.
War isn’t inevitable, and it would come with significant costs to Russia, too. But there are also tactics short of a full-on war that could still cause havoc for Ukraine. But what happens next, and the possible outcomes, remain uncertain.
“The problem is we don’t know what Putin wants, and this is really the bottom line,” said Alexander Motyl, an expert in Soviet and post-Soviet politics at Rutgers University Newark. “Is he testing? Is he invading? Is he teaching the Ukrainians a lesson? We don’t know. And so it’s hard to do anything, because we don’t know what [Putin] wants, and we don’t know how far he’s willing to go.”
What has changed that Russia is building up troops on the Ukrainian border?
The current Ukraine-Russia crisis is a continuation of 2014, which itself was linked to a deep-rooted historical narrative in Russia held by Putin and many Russian elites.
“Their No. 1 objective is to reestablish as much of the old empire as it could — Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia,” said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis. “I think this is part of the legacy that President Putin sees for [himself].”
Ukraine is central to this vision. Culturally and economically, Putin sees Ukraine as tied to Russia. Putin used his hot vax summer to publish an article about how Ukrainians and Russians “were one people — a single whole,” according to an English translation posted on the Kremlin’s website. For him, the ex-Soviet Republic is not really a sovereign state but belongs to Russia, or at least would if not for the meddling from outside forces (read: the West) that have created a “wall” between the two.
“Step by step, Ukraine was dragged into a dangerous geopolitical game aimed at turning Ukraine into a barrier between Europe and Russia, a springboard against Russia,” Putin wrote.
This issue of Ukraine being a “springboard” for military action against Russia is also unacceptable to Putin. He wants to recreate a “sphere of influence” for Moscow, and Ukraine is the buffer between it and NATO. As Ukraine moves closer to the West, that buffer crumbles.
“The reason there’s a war in Ukraine has a lot to do with Russia’s perception of the post-Cold War order in Europe, this notion that Western states have been moving closer and closer to Russia’s borders, and indeed, gobbling up its natural sphere of influence,” Oliker said. “Ukraine’s the front line on that.”
But recent political developments within Ukraine, the United States, Europe, and Russia help explain why tensions are flaring at this moment.
Among those developments are the 2019 election of Ukrainian president Zelensky. In addition to the other thing you might remember Zelensky for, he promised during his campaign he would seek a solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. He said that would include dealing with Putin directly to resolve the conflict. Russia, too, likely thought it could get something out of this: a potentially malleable Zelensky who might be more open to Russia’s point of view. That includes Russia’s desire to have Ukraine reincorporate separatist regions back into the country and hold elections, as outlined in the Minsk agreement. That sounds like something Ukraine would want until you recognize Russia has since effectively taken over those breakaway regions, and so it would really be, as one expert said, a “Trojan horse” for Moscow to wield influence and control Ukraine.
Such a concession would be politically untenable for Zelensky based on the current situation on the ground, which forced Zelensky to take a tougher line on Russia and turn to the West for help. Beyond partnerships with NATO, Zelensky has even talked openly about joining NATO. For Putin, pining for his estranged brothers, this confirmed his worst fears.
“In getting to the point [where] Zelensky was calling for outright membership in NATO and crossing what Russia has long viewed as one of their red lines — I think that does help to explain why Russians felt an impetus to threaten far greater and new use of direct military force,” said Zachary Witlin, a senior analyst with the Eurasia Group.
Just because Zelensky is asking when Kyiv gets itself into NATO does not actually mean Ukrainian membership is a realistic possibility. NATO and member states within NATO like the US and Great Britain are cooperating with Ukraine on security, they’re helping in training and reforms, and providing (or selling) military equipment. But a close partnership is not the same as membership, as it doesn’t come with the obligation of mutual defense, and the NATO countries don’t exactly want to sign themselves up for a potential war with Russia.
Of course, NATO will never say Ukrainian membership is off the table because this is what Putin wants. Putin asked President Biden for legal guarantees that NATO wouldn’t expand eastward or put weapons systems in Ukraine during their call Tuesday; US officials said they would never make such assurances.
Still, Ukraine’s closer cooperation with NATO is undeniable, said Ruslan Bortnik, director of the Ukrainian Politics Institute. “Putin and Kremlin understand that Ukraine will not be a part of NATO,” Bortnik said. “But Ukraine became an informal member of NATO without a formal decision.”
That may have left Russia feeling as though it had exhausted all of its political and diplomatic tools to bring Ukraine back into the fold. “Moscow security elites feel that they have to act now because if they don’t, military cooperation between NATO and Ukraine will become even more intense and even more sophisticated,” Pagung, of the German Council on Foreign Relations, said.
This is also not the first time Putin has signaled that he is prepared to ramp up pressure on Ukraine. In the spring of 2021, Russia began gathering forces and equipment near parts of the Ukrainian border under the guise of “readiness exercises.”
Experts said this current buildup is a continuation of that, though Putin’s troop buildup also looked very much like a signal to the new administration in Washington, with a specific message to the White House that it should not underestimate, or forget about, Moscow’s ability to cause mayhem.
Putin more or less got his wish, in the form of a summit in Geneva with the new US president. Not long after plans for the get-together were announced, Putin began drawing down some of the troops on the Ukrainian border. But Putin’s own perspective on the US has also shifted, experts said, with things like the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal (which Moscow would know something about) and the US’s domestic turmoil revealing signs of fragility. “Instead of being fear-driven by the fear that America is strong and will come after them, now they’re opportunity-driven: they think that America is weak, and maybe in the spring we have just missed the chance,” said Gustav Gressel, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
All of this may make Russia feel a bit opportunistic. The United States is distracted by its domestic agenda and wants to focus on China. Europe is dealing with its own internal crises, like a rebellious Poland, tensions with Belarus, a hangover from Brexit, and a surging coronavirus wave. Germany has a new chancellor; France has elections soon.
Those distractions, combined with Ukraine’s resistance and affinity for NATO, may embolden Putin. Some experts noted Putin has his own domestic pressures to deal with, including the coronavirus and a struggling economy, and he may think such an adventure will boost his standing at home, just like it did in 2014. “There may be a sense of now or never,” Motyl said. “We recapture this place, which shouldn’t have been independent in the first place. Perhaps they made a mistake, and we need to rectify that.”
So what happens now?
Biden and Putin didn’t come to a real resolution over Ukraine during their Tuesday meeting. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, said Wednesday that the two leaders did agree to talks to discuss this “complex, confrontational situation.” The White House readout said that the two sides would follow up, and the US “would do so in close cooperation with its allies.” Biden spoke to US allies after the Putin call, and is speaking Thursday to Zelensky.
US and NATO officials have repeatedly indicated they’re not interested in a head-to-head military conflict with Russia over Ukraine, which means the US and its allies are most likely looking at some sort of economic pressure on Russia. Some reporting suggests that any Russian provocation would effectively kill Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline connecting Russia and Germany that’s not yet up and running. Biden had waived sanctions against Nord Stream 2 in the spring, a concession, in part, to its ally Germany but something Russia also saw as a win. Experts said there are other sanction options that could put pressure on Russia, such as cutting Russia off from SWIFT, the international payments system.
“I will look you in the eye and tell you, as President Biden looked Putin in the eye and told him today, that things we did not do in 2014 we are prepared to do now,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Tuesday.
But tens of thousands of Russian troops are still at Ukraine’s borders, an undeniable threat. “The problem with these concentrations of troops is that this can come also as an embarrassment for Putin if he does not get anything of the sort out of it,” said Andreas Umland, a Kyiv-based analyst for the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies.
And that something is not necessarily all-out war. Russia has already invaded Ukraine and is supporting separatists in Donbas (though it denies it). The heightened tensions mean Ukraine is also on high alert, and its military may be stretched as it tries to fend off a possible attack. Russia could take advantage and try to expand the conflict in eastern Ukraine. “The fact is, Putin can try to destabilize the Ukrainians by inflicting more casualties and trying to escalate. And from there, I can see, ‘Okay, can I go further? Or will the West react?’” Gressel said.
This may even be the more likely scenario, and experts in the US, Europe, and Ukraine that I spoke to do not think war is inevitable, though it is undeniably a very dangerous situation. Putin’s ultimate goal is to get Ukraine to do what he wants, and what he wants is for Ukraine to come back under its influence and control. But even a large-scale evasion might not achieve that, and it would come with extreme costs for Russia. Russia could ultimately outmatch Ukraine’s military, but it would not be a bloodless fight. Russian soldiers would die — despite Putin’s propaganda that suggests Ukraine would welcome Russia as its liberator. A war with Ukraine could lead to an occupation, an insurgency, and the destruction of the country. No rational leader would attempt that, Motyl said. “And the answer to that is: But is Putin rational?”