Whispers of another Russian invasion of Ukraine began to swirl when Russian troops posted along Ukraine’s border reached 100 000. Earlier this week the number was estimated to have reached at least 130 000. Today, Russia’s defence ministry announced its plans to withdraw some of its troops from the border; words that are yet to be matched by action.
In the wake of Moscow’s military build-up, Europe and the US have and continue to hold numerous multi-party security talks, whilst bolstering NATO forces, and issuing threats of sanctions and retaliation.
Recent weeks have been reminiscent of a bygone era with the United States, Russia, and their respective allies facing off diplomatically. We see the ever-rising powers of Russia and China on one side, versus the United States, tentatively re-emerging from their dalliance with Trump-era isolationism.
Moscow’s quest for an eternal grip
Ukraine is a sovereign nation. This does not mean, however, that its sovereignty has always been respected. One need only look to the founding years of the Bolshevik regime, which saw a brutal crackdown on Ukrainian nationalist movements, to understand the historical imperialism that has threatened Ukraine. In the 1930s, Stalin’s administration would be responsible for a famine that wiped out up to 7 million Ukrainians in what became known as the Holodomor. Moscow’s historical brutality against Ukraine runs deep.
Today, Russian nationalists continue to look upon Ukraine as an extension of Russia, denying Ukrainian sovereignty and the country’s right to self-determination.
In an official essay, Putin himself has gone as far as claiming that Ukrainian statehood is illegitimate, that Ukrainians and Russians are one people, and that true sovereignty for Ukraine can only be found in partnership with Russia. There can be little doubt as to the Kremlin’s ideological stance on Ukraine’s independence today.
With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Moscow lost its imperial power and Russia its global superpower status. Former Soviet states navigated tumultuous post-communist state-building processes. The political, economic, and social difficulties of this intense transition period, coupled with the newly available right to self-determination, allowed many countries to open up to cooperation with the West.
In turning towards the United States and Western Europe, Ukraine first engaged with NATO, a US-led military alliance (and a thorn in the Kremlin’s side) in 1992, facilitating cooperation on a series of political and security initiatives aimed at fostering stability and lasting peace.
Ukraine’s association with NATO is such an irritation to Moscow that it has made clear if tensions are to ease Ukraine must never be allowed to join NATO.
US President Joe Biden asserted that Ukraine has the right to make its own security decisions and only Ukraine can decide if it will join NATO or not.
As it stands, Ukraine is not a full member. Currently it is an Enhanced Opportunity Partner (EOP) which entitles the nation to some protections.
However, as Ukrainian officials have reiterated this past week, it is Ukraine’s intention to fully join the alliance, as it is written in their constitution.
Ukraine having any ties to NATO at all has remained a sticking point in Moscow-Kyiv relations. In light of Ukraine’s proximity to and shared border with Russia, the Kremlin has never wanted Western (read US) militaries circulating its neighbour states. It is also safe to say that Moscow does not want to see a strong, independent Ukraine over which it has no influence.
Adding to this conflict of interests is Ukraine’s not-so-distant attempt to join the European Union. Ukraine’s first foray towards EU membership was dashed at the end of 2013 when the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s Parliament) failed to implement EU-mandated humanitarian protections. Putin ally and then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a deal with the European Union, in favour of developing stronger ties with Moscow.
Yanukovych’s refusal was in direct contradiction to campaign promises. In February 2014, Ukrainians took to the streets to see Yanukovych removed from power in a mass protest referred to as the Revolution of Dignity or the Maiden Revolution.
In response to these protests, Putin took advantage of the subsequent window of chaos to retaliate. In February-March, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. By August 2014, the Russian army had made an overt invasion of eastern Ukraine, in support of pro-Russian separatists who had begun fighting the Ukrainian army in April. Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine remain under Russian control today.
In 2019, the UN Rights Office estimated that 13 000 Ukrainians had lost their lives since the Russian invasion of 2014; a quarter of them civilians. Today, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry estimates the toll has risen to 14 000.
Today’s geopolitics and repercussions for Ukraine
Today’s geopolitics present an opportunity for Putin to make relative strategic gains to better his political bargaining position and strengthen Russia’s hand on the world stage.
One vulnerability being exploited is the on-going battle with COVID-19 and its variants. The pandemic has forced the majority of countries to focus attention and resources inwardly: on their healthcare systems, infrastructure, education and employment systems (with varying degrees of success).
Meanwhile, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has put into question the former’s geopolitical clout. The withdrawal has embodied a catastrophic policy towards Afghanistan, embodying a lack of commitment to a long-term ally (the former Afghan government) and a failure to protect the Afghan people now under Taliban rule.
The West leaving Afghans to face the Taliban set a dangerous precedent. It would be shortsighted to view Russian military manoeuvres around Ukraine’s border outside of this lens.
However, there are signs that Biden is taking the Ukrainian crisis as an opportunity to diplomatically reset the United States. By initiating numerous multi-party security talks amongst European nations, Biden is engaging other world leaders in a way that leaves the Trump-era isolationist policies behind.
Despite Ukraine resembling a modern-day Cold War exercise, the potential threat to human life must be taken seriously and not be downplayed.
The international response to Ukraine’s latest existential threat has not been insignificant. The United States has already sent shipments of weapons to Eastern Europe and has announced $200 million in defence spending in Ukraine. Washington is also moving 2 000 more troops into Germany and Poland, and 1 000 into Romania.
Britain has placed 1 000 additional troops on standby for humanitarian support and is preparing to reinforce the NATO group in Estonia and the Joint Expeditionary forces in Scandinavia, allocating an additional £88 million in funding to increase stability and ‘reduce reliance on Russian energy’ in Ukraine.
NATO allies have sent troops, ships, and fighter jets amongst other supplies to Central and Eastern Europe.
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – all familiar with the threat of Russian/Soviet imperialism – have in turn committed to sending anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine. Denmark has committed to sending warships to the Baltic Sea, as well as fighter jets to Lithuania. The Netherlands has committed to sending fighter jets to Bulgaria.
France and the Netherlands are also ready to send troops to NATO’s Response Force, and Spain is sending ships to join NATO’s naval fleet. Meanwhile, the European Union is preparing to impose ‘never-seen-before’ economic sanctions on Moscow.
Putin has a variety of options available to him: anything from low-profile incursions and limited conflict, to continued disinformation and propaganda campaigns (‘hybrid warfare’), to economic sanctions, or even another full-scale invasion.
Following a series of inconclusive talks with Western diplomats and leaders, one tactic employed by Putin has been to increase so-called psychological pressure by undertaking 10 days of extensive military drills with longtime ally Belarus. The drills are scheduled to take place along Belarus’ border with Ukraine from 10 to 20 February. It is estimated that 30 000 military members will take part in the exercise, bringing the total troop number along the Ukrainian border up or even beyond 130 000.
Does Putin seek to resurrect the Soviet Union?
Reconstituting a series of the same or similar interconnected communist states would be impossible. However, recreating the socio-political power dynamics that saw Russia in control for the better part of the last century is a more achievable strategic and diplomatic venture.
Through this lens, one may better understand three recent incidents that underpin Russian foreign policy and highlight some of Putin’s notable efforts to revitalise, at minimum, Russia’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and the Baltics.
The first of which is Putin’s December 2021 demand for the removal of Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states from the NATO alliance. If this demand were to be met, Moscow would gain a political, economic, and military advantage over a swathe of land that once formed part of its Soviet-era sphere of influence.
The second incident of interest relates to when Putin called on Ukrainian President Zelenskyy to implement the 2015 Minsk agreement ‘that provided for a measure of autonomy in Ukraine’s east and an amnesty for Russian-backed insurgents’. This demand is a direct threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and a transfer of power from Kyiv to the Kremlin. The Minsk Agreement would grant Moscow an undeniable level of power and control over a portion of Ukraine, making it easier to ‘justify’ further military occupation.
Additionally, Russian insurgent groups knowing they have amnesty will embolden their aims of destabilising Ukraine in the hopes of forcing Kyiv, at minimum, to make further concessions to their patrons in Moscow.
The two aforementioned incidents laid the groundwork for the third, ongoing threat: Russia’s military build-up along Ukraine’s border. Testing what can be done without incurring significant consequences in post-Afghanistan geopolitics, keeping Ukraine under a permanent state of existential threat is the ultimate power play by Moscow.
By symbolically reconstituting Russian hegemony through trade agreements, military alliances, and a score of other diplomatic means, Putin can recreate a post-communsit version of the political power structure that saw Russia reign for the better part of the last century, and regain lost prowess.
Ukraine is an independent and sovereign nation. Regardless of whether or not another invasion occurs in the days to come, its sovereignty and right to self-determination continue to be systematically attacked by a foreign aggressor and continual occupier. This year will mark eight years since Russia first invaded Ukraine. Today, it is Russian boots that march the world closer to war.
All views expressed are the writer’s own.