Ukraine holds its breath as Russia mobilizes troops to its border, up to 100,000 according to the estimations of Western military and intelligence officials. Ukraine, which has lived in a state of civil war since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and pro-Russian separatists started an uprising in the east part of the country, has said that is ready to withstand any possible Russian invasion “to the last man”.
Western counterparts, both from Europe and the U.S, have warned Russia against any escalation of the conflict. On the other hand, Putin’s government has said that such troop deployment is only part of a military exercise and that Moscow has all the right to move troops within their borders. He also said that if any other nation tries to “burn bridges” with Moscow, the country will respond “asymmetrically, swiftly, and harshly” and that any escalation would spell the “beginning of the end” for Ukraine.
The U.S Federal Aviation Administration has warned commercial flights to exercise “extreme caution” when travelling near the Ukrainian-Russian border, the United Kingdom has sent combat vessels to the Black Sea, and Russia has blocked its airspace to any commercial flight. Although many analysts argue that the mobilization is only posturing to force Ukraine to accept better terms in ongoing peace negotiations, the sheer size of the mobilization has made Kyiv very nervous.
The United States has been considering sending more military equipment to Ukraine, including Patriot Missiles and anti-tak equipment, as a way to increase the strenght of Ukranian armed forces. Nevertheles, the response by the Western countries has been mixed at best.
However, the Pentagon withdrew, without official explanation, two warships that were sent to the Black Sea according to Turkish diplomatic sources. The Biden administration has also reversed its earlier threat that the Treasury could issue sanctions to companies working on the controversial Nordstream 2 pipeline project.
The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, warned against Russia’s actions, imploring Putin to withdraw its troops from the border and saying the actions could endanger lighting a “spark” ta could engulf the entire region into a broader military conflict. However, Borrell also said that there are no current talks of implementing more sanctions against Russia.
Turkey has also weighed in on the issue, with Ukrainian President Zelensky meeting Turkey’s Erdogan early this month. Although Turkey has had a series of serious spats against Western powers, its government has expanded their military cooperation with Ukraine (especially by selling them drones) and has called for Russian de-escalation in the conflict.
Russia mobilizes troops as Putin faces domestic unrest
Putin’s sabre-rattling comes at a time when he is facing some potentially significant domestic opposition, as the declining health of incarcerated opposition leader Alexei Navalny might give reasons for his opponents to organize street manifestations against his regime. In fact, Putin delivered his annual state of the union address while thousands of opposition protesters filled the streets of many Russian cities, asking for the release of Navalny and let him see a doctor of his choosing.
The opposition leader, who was imprisoned early this year, has been on hunger strike for almost 20 days and his legal team has stated that his health is extremely fragile and that Navalny could die “at any minute”. A Russian independent monitoring group announced the Russian authorities detained around 1,600 protestors yesterday alone.
Russia, like the rest of the world, has also been hit hard due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With their Economic Minister announcing the Russian economy shrunk 3.1% last year, the largest fall in 11 years, the country of over 145 million people have faced 4.6 million confirmed COVID cases and almost 105,000 deaths. However, there are concerns that the Kremlin might be undercutting his actual death toll, with demographer Alexei Raksha telling BBC the toll (in March) was closer to 450,000 deaths.
Finally, Putin is facing parliamentary elections later this year, which could be another rallying point for his opposition and another thing he must have in mind when calculating his next move at the international stage.
How will domestic troubles be affecting Putin’s gambles on Ukraine is anybody’s guess. Would he try to repeat an operation “a la Crimea” and infiltrate and annex parts of Ukraine? Is he really just testing how far will the Biden administration let him go? Will he retreats the troops after forcing Ukraine to make some concessions? Nobody really knows.
Biden’s first major trial at the international stage
Russia’s increasingly aggressive posture towards Ukraine represents the first major international conflict of the Biden administration, which has kept a hardline stance against Russia by levying sanctions against Russia due to their involvement in the SolarWinds Hacking, and the poisoning of Alexei Navalny.
On one hand, Biden has both international and domestic incentives to keep a strong stance against Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. Failure to defend Ukraine could further embolden Russia to make moves in NATO allied nations (Poland or the Baltic states), with Brian Whitmore from the Atlantic Council saying that Ukraine’s security cannot be separated from the U.S and its allies.
Domestically, Biden needs to show a tough face against Putin, as a way of illustrating a break with Trump (accused of playing nice with the Russian strongman) and due to the fact that most Democrats think that Russia is the biggest threat currently facing the United States.
On the other hand, it would be unwise for the United States to do anything that could escalate the current tensions between Ukraine and Russia into a full-blown conflict. Any flare-up between both parties could lead the U.S to commit strategic resources to Ukraine, which could also hamper the U.S ability to respond to any possible action of Beijing, which has also made some recent moves against Taiwan.
The Russian question by its own presents a tough first test to Biden’s presidency, when combined with the growing challenge posed by China, it becomes an almost titanic issue. Let’s see if the Biden White House is up to the task.