What’s Different This Time? Russia’s military build-up close to the Ukrainian border 5 min read
Tensions between Ukraine and Russia is not a new phenomenon, however, in recent weeks the US intelligence information about Russia’s possible plan to invade Ukraine involving 175 000 troops raised fears of a full-scale war between the two countries. According to the sources of German Bild, if Putin orders, Russia is ready to attack Ukraine from the annexed Crimea. If Ukraine and NATO do not respond to Putin’s demands, an offensive could take place in early 2022.
Russia’s position is already well known. It blames Ukraine for avoiding peaceful solutions towards separatist territories, blames the West for violating their verbal commitments about NATO’s eastward expansion and demands the creation of “legal guarantees” that NATO’s expansion will not include Ukraine and Georgia and will limit its military activities near Russia’s borders.
Some analysts have stated that Putin is simply trying to force the West to pay attention to Russia’s ‘red lines’ which includes non-deployment of arms and troops in Ukraine and preventing the growth of NATO’s role there, which if successful, practically means the recognition of Ukraine as a Russian sphere of influence. Even though it is unclear whether Putin will follow the invasion plan or not, the new crisis in Ukraine already involved several important circumstances that were not present in previous cases.
Belarus as a security threat
The Ukraine crisis started in parallel with the migrant crisis on the Belarus-Poland border when hundreds of migrants tried to cross the Polish border from Belarus. It is believed to be orchestrated by the Belarusian regime to blackmail the EU to make them ease the sanctions which were introduced after the disputed presidential elections 2020 and the Ryanair incident this year. However, the result has been reversed with the EU widening its measures against Belarus, including blacklisting travel firms. Lukashenko is becoming more and more dependent on Moscow’s support to maintain his regime, so it is not a surprise that he is trying to please Putin in the confrontation with the West and portraying himself as a useful figure for Moscow. His attitude towards the Ukraine-Russia strained relations became a part of this process.
In November, while speaking about the Ukraine-Russia possible war, Lukashenko said that in case of war “it is clear whose side Belarus will be on” hinting at Russia. Belarus announced possible exercises with Russia on its southern border with Ukraine and explained it as a response to NATO’s increased military buildup near its borders. Also, concerns have been raised about Crimea’s recognition by Belarus, which still does not recognize it as Russia’s territory. However, during the last days, Lukashenko called Crimea “de facto Russian”.
Recognizing Crimea will irreversibly damage the relations between Ukraine and Belarus. It is already clear that the previous positive role of Minsk in 2014 in the Ukraine-Russia peace talks is over. Ukraine has a reason to consider Belarus as a security threat this time rather than a peacemaker between Russia and Ukraine, especially after Lukashenko’s words – “It is our Ukraine” – which can be easily interpreted that he was referring bringing it back in the “Russian world”.
Messages from the West
“I will look you in the eye and tell you as President Biden looked President Putin in the eye and told him today that things we did not do in 2014, we are prepared to do now,” national security advisor to president Biden, Mr Sullivan said after a meeting on 7 December between the US president and president of Russia. The Ukraine crisis was a key topic during the meeting and according to The White House, Biden clearly expressed the US and European allies’ readiness for unprecedented economic measures against Russia if it invades Ukraine again. The US also mentioned its preparedness to send additional resources to Ukraine and other NATO allies, if an invasion happens.
It is clear that the West is ready to take responsibility to support Ukraine in this crisis. This can be regarded as a strong message to Russia, that this time invading a sovereign state will cause an even more serious response, which will affect Russia on external and internal arenas.
European powers have also been expressing their readiness to take an active role in defending Ukraine. After NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg expressed concerns about the unusual concentration of Russian forces in November, in a telephone call between Macron and Putin France declared its readiness to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Strong messages have been sent by the British government as well. Foreign secretary Liz Truss met Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba in London on 8 December, where she confirmed that the UK will continue to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and called Russia’s plan to invade Ukraine a “strategic mistake”.
The Ukraine crisis is also problematic for the states close to Russia’s border such as the Baltic countries and Poland. Tensions in the neighbourhood push these countries to ask for a strengthened NATO presence in the region, which includes strengthening policing capabilities and NATO units on the eastern flank of the alliance. In case of further escalation, it is not difficult to predict that these NATO member states are likely to be supportive of Kyiv and provide assistance.
What about Russia’s other vulnerable neighbours?
The situation is especially concerning for Georgia, which is in the same boat as Ukraine in terms of NATO accession plans and Russia’s aggressive rhetoric towards it. Russia’s success against Ukraine opens a possibility for Georgia to become next in line. So, developments in Ukraine are critically important for Georgia. Despite that the direct involvement of NATO is not an option, still, Western leaders communicate with Moscow about the high economic costs of invading Ukraine, and equipping Ukraine to defend itself can create additional costs for invading the country. For Ukraine and Georgia, it is crucial the West not turn the topic of NATO’s eastward expansion into leverage in Russia’s hands, to blackmail the US and its allies now and in the future. Compromises about its attitude are likely to weaken the positions of the West in the region and make countries like Ukraine and Georgia even more vulnerable to Russian influences. So, setting an example of firm support towards Ukraine can be regarded as important for Russia’s other vulnerable neighbours like Georgia as it will also influence its security conditions.