As the war in Ukraine heads into its eighth year, many fear that Moscow may be preparing a large-scale military escalation. Over the past few weeks, American, European, and NATO allies, as well as Ukrainian officials, have warned that Russia has massed significant military forces and equipment near its border with Ukraine.
This concentration is a continuation of a buildup that began in the spring of 2021. In fact, Russia never really carried out a withdrawal — nearly all of the equipment from the spring buildup remained close to the border over the summer, and it’s still there. Moscow resumed its buildup in early November, bringing in additional equipment that wasn’t moved in earlier in the year. According to recent estimates, Russia has around 50 battalion tactical groups near the border with Ukraine, along with tanks and artillery.
With the buildup ongoing, Western concern has reached a much higher pitch than in the spring. The tensions earlier this year culminated in a summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden in Geneva in June, which led many to believe that the crisis had been averted. But, as previously mentioned, Moscow never fully pulled back its troops. Moreover, high-level Russian officials — including President Vladimir Putin himself — have continued to voice concerns not only about Ukraine, but also regarding NATO and its alleged eastward expansion.
In recent weeks, Russian officials have made more specific, compellent demands, threatening to use force against Ukraine unless the Minsk agreements are implemented. And Putin in particular has been very clear about Russia’s “red lines” and objections to what he sees as “creeping” NATO defense cooperation with Ukraine. In this context, it appears as though Russia’s objectives for spring buildup and the Biden-Putin summit remain unfulfilled. Indeed, Moscow failed to deter further defense cooperation and has now decided to up the ante once again, in a bid to make Western countries take their “red lines” seriously.
Ukraine, meanwhile, has called for a diplomatic solution, emphasizing that they have no plans to retake the Donbas by force. Speaking to parliament on December 1, President Volodymyr Zelensky said he would even be open to direct talks with Russia. However, it seems clear that at present, Moscow isn’t looking to negotiate with Ukraine. Instead, much of the Kremlin’s rhetoric about Ukraine is directed at NATO or Washington, rather than at Kyiv.
With no direct talks in sight, Ukraine is bracing itself for an escalation in the next few months. Though media reports have said that Russia could launch an attack in late January or early February, the ongoing buildup is highly visible and therefore lacks the “element of surprise.” As such, Russia may opt to leave its forces in place for months, in the hopes that Ukraine can only remain on high alert for so long and launch another invasion on short notice in the spring or summer of next year.
How far Russia is willing to go to achieve its aims remains an open question. Ukraine’s defense capabilities have changed significantly since 2014, but Russia could still inflict a lot of pain without launching a full-fledged offensive — and this may be enough to extract concessions from Kyiv. However, if Russia were to pursue a major escalation using conventional power, the result would be tens of thousands of casualties per day with both sides suffering heavy losses.
Why would Moscow choose this option? From Russia’s national security perspective Ukraine is a hostile country with a long-term political orientation that points towards the “West.” Moreover, Kyiv is committed to reintegrating both the occupied Crimean peninsula and the uncontrolled territories of the Donbas. With Ukraine continuing to invest in its military capabilities, Moscow is hoping to preempt this “threat” while it’s still in a relative position of power.
Part of the problem is that Russia’s current position vis-à-vis Ukraine is the result of actions the country has taken since 2014. If Moscow hadn’t intervened in Ukraine, the country’s political orientation could have developed differently. Instead, nearly eight years of Russian aggression has made a pro-Kremlin agenda anathema to most of the Ukrainian population and much of the political elite.
What’s more, over the past year, Russia has been reacting to changes in the global political landscape. During the spring buildup, some experts argued that Putin was sending a message to the newly inaugurated Joe Biden and his administration. The buildup over the past few weeks has also coincided with a change in government, this time in Germany — and the new coalition under Chancellor Olaf Scholz is expected to be much tougher on Russia. France is also set to hold presidential elections in 2022.
From a diplomatic perspective, the task for Kyiv’s partners is to try and change Russia’s cost-benefit analysis, in the hopes of making a large-scale escalation seem like a less attractive option (or by raising the costs if Russia launches an attack). Since trying to force through the Minsk agreements is a non-starter for Ukraine, discussing Russia’s concerns about NATO appears to be the easier option. (However, if Moscow is dead set on imposing the Minsk agreements on Ukraine, there may not be anything Kyiv’s Western allies can do in terms of inducements.)
On the one hand, Washington and Brussels have warned that another invasion of Ukraine would provoke extensive economic sanctions, including the “nuclear option” of disconnecting Russia from the SWIFT system of international payments. On the other, the U.S., EU, and NATO have all made it clear that they have no intention of deploying troops to Ukraine no matter the circumstances.
Even though there has been mention of bolstering NATO forces in other parts of Europe, this could actually inflame the situation and push Russia to launch an attack, especially if Moscow considers the alliance’s actions escalatory or destabilizing. In this context, NATO might do well to make public commitments that may give Russia pause. Engaging in dialogue about the security architecture of Europe may be the only way to de-escalate the crisis.