On December 3, the Washington Post reported that US intelligence has found Moscow could be preparing to deploy as many as 175,000 troops to invade Ukraine early next year, nearly half of which are already massed along the Russia-Ukraine border.
This prospect is raising alarms in Kyiv, Washington, and European capitals, none of which want to see a repeat of Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea.
The Biden Administration is intent on responding to any aggressions more forcefully than the Obama administration did in 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and militarily intervened in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region despite US sanctions. Since then, more than 14,000 people have died in the ongoing conflict.
The US response would fall short of unilaterally deploying combat troops to Ukraine, however.
“That’s not on the table,” Biden told reporters, as Ukraine is not a NATO member and is therefore not covered by the Article 5 mutual defense obligation. Instead, in the event of a military escalation, the US would impose economic sanctions on Russia in coordination with European allies, “provide additional defensive materiel” to Ukraine, and “fortify our NATO allies on the eastern flank with additional capabilities,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan explained on Tuesday.
The Biden administration claims it does not know whether Russia intends to invade Ukraine again. “We still do not believe that President Putin has made a decision,” Sullivan said. “What President Biden did today was lay out very clearly the consequences if he chooses to move.”
Moscow blames the crisis on Ukraine’s “destructive” behavior and the West’s encroachment on Russia’s sphere of influence.
Putin sees Ukraine not as a sovereign nation but as an indivisible part of Greater Russia, now being exploited by the West to divide his empire, eat away at his security buffer, and act as a launching pad for military action and covert subversion against the homeland. His mistrust of Western intentions is not just posturing.
Since his election in 2019, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has aligned with the West in every way possible and expressed deep interest in joining NATO. This is a red line for Moscow, akin to Iranian nuclear weapons for the West: once a country joins NATO, it achieves virtually permanent deterrence against Russia.
In reality, NATO is highly unlikely to grant formal membership to Ukraine, which would obligate members to automatically come to its defense in the event of an attack—something they have no appetite for. However, the official line remains that all countries are free to apply for membership, and the US has so far refused Moscow’s demand for a guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO.
Moscow has also grown frustrated with Zelensky’s escalating rhetoric about retaking Donbas and his refusal to abide by the commitments under the (admittedly lopsided) 2015 Minsk agreements to grant broad autonomy to the Russian-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine.
Putin is not interested in seizing more Ukrainian territory.
There are several reasons why 2021-22 is different from 2014. For one, while NATO wouldn’t directly intervene and Russia would win any war, Ukraine’s Western-armed and -trained 225,000 troops would offer up resistance and inflict heavy losses on Russian forces. And unlike Crimea, any further territory that Moscow aims to occupy will be inhabited by hostile populations, raising the long-term cost of both holding and governing the conquered lands.
Add to that the impact of US and European sanctions, and Russia’s already struggling economy will face an open-ended outlay it cannot afford. Finally, polls show that most Russians oppose the existing conflict with Ukraine, let alone a new one, and only 16 percent think a new war would boost Putin’s flagging popularity.
A large-scale invasion of Ukraine would impose high human, economic, and political costs on Russia and Putin.
A better explanation for the troop buildup is that Moscow wants to use the threat of an invasion to cow Kyiv into submission and pressure NATO to back off what it sees as its sphere of influence. The goal is to force a change in the status quo, which Putin is deeply unhappy with, by compelling Ukraine to implement the Minsk accords, deterring NATO from deepening its defense cooperation with Ukraine, and entering direct bilateral talks with Washington on the future of European security. At the top of the Kremlin’s wishlist is a commitment from NATO not to expand any further east.
Putin is doing this now because he understands—rightly in my view—that he has more leverage than ever: gas prices are soaring, Europe is politically divided and going into the winter particularly vulnerable to energy shortages, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is complete, Merkel is gone, France is on the cusp of elections, and the US is distracted by domestic dysfunction.
From the Kremlin’s perspective, this is the best chance they’re going to get to try to force a deal.
During their call, Biden and Putin agreed to hold follow-up discussions on Ukraine in the coming weeks. The White House also announced that the US and several NATO allies will soon meet with Russia to discuss “the future of Russia’s concerns relative to NATO writ large.”
These talks are a clear diplomatic win for Putin and mean that going into 2022, the situation on the ground is unlikely to change much. Limited fighting in Donbas will continue and Russia will keep its troops along the border as a coercive tool, but it won’t launch a full-scale attack. Ukraine also will not engage in offensive actions. And barring a military escalation, Washington will hold off on imposing major economic sanctions.
The risk of a military crisis will remain high, though, owing to ongoing troop movements, flare-ups in fighting in eastern Ukraine, and the potential for miscalculation on either side.
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