The US European Command (EUCOM) raised its threat level to the highest level last week (‘Potential Imminent Crisis’) as a build-up of Russian forces on Ukraine’s eastern border prompted alarm amongst western leaders.
In excess of 20,000 troops are thought to have been deployed on the border separating Russia from the Ukrainian oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk. Since 2014, swathes of both provinces have been under the control of pro-Russian secessionist rebels heavily supported by Russian regular forces. The Kremlin has acknowledged the presence of the fresh deployment, but claims it is a purely defensive measure. It has also confirmed the movement of 4,000 air assault troops to Crimea. The Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia in 2014.
Late March saw an unusual peak in Russian military flights over the Black and Baltic Seas, forcing NATO allies to scramble fighter aircraft multiple times to intercept and escort the planes away from the Alliance’s airspace.
The military build-up took place during an intensification in the skirmishes between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian rebels in the ongoing Donbass conflict in eastern Ukraine. Since the start of the year, Ukraine has reported the loss of 25 servicemen in combat.
Russia’s movement of military assets has been regarded as aggressive by Western politicians, who sought to pledge their commitment to maintaining Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. In phone calls with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, both UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden assured him that his country had the ‘unwavering support’ of Britain and America. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki described the Russian troop movement as ‘deeply concerning’ and confirmed that the force amassed on Ukraine’s border was the largest in the area since the outbreak of hostilities in the Donbass in 2014. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has ‘demanded that this build-up be unwound in order to de-escalate the situation’.
This latest development in the already fraught Russo-Ukrainian relationship has prompted President Zelensky to call for Ukraine’s membership of NATO to be fast-tracked. The country’s inclusion in the defence alliance would place Ukraine within the protective shroud of the Article 5 ‘collective defence’ clause of the NATO constitution. Article 5 mandates that all member countries come to the aid of fellow alliance states who are attacked.
European leaders are concerned that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be seeking to undermine a peace agreement reached in December of 2019. The treaty mandates a ceasefire and the withdrawal of frontline troops, and permits the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts to hold regional elections before being reabsorbed into Ukraine with special status as semi-autonomous regions. Some analysts believe the recent deployment is an attempt by Moscow to extract further political concessions in eastern Ukraine by applying military pressure to Kiev: a form of ‘coercive diplomacy’.
The Kremlin has insisted that Russia is merely acting to maintain its own national defence in the face of what it calls repeated Ukrainian ‘provocations’ in a ‘restless region near our borders with the potential for renewed hostilities’. Yet it was quick to warn Ukraine that any concerted offensive against pro-Russian forces would be met with an overwhelming response. Dmitry Kozak, the Deputy Kremlin chief of staff, told the press that any such action would be ‘the beginning of the end for Ukraine’.
Far from seeking peace in the Donbass, Russia has been accused by NATO of fuelling a conflict which has now claimed over 13,000 thousands lives and led to the internal displacement of one and a half million Ukrainians.
Hostilities in eastern Ukraine erupted following the 2014 Ukrainian revolution. Unrest saw the pro-Russian president Yanukovych ousted after his withdrawal from an EU trade deal prompted outrage from Ukrainians demanding closer ties with Europe. Over 100 people were killed in street battles with security forces in central Kiev in February 2014 before pro-Europe opposition leaders seized power. Ethnic Russians, who constitute a majority of the citizens in Crimea and some areas of eastern Ukraine, viewed the revolution as a pro-Western coup, and Ukrainian government buildings were seized by rebels in these pro-Russian areas. In Crimea, Putin deployed Russian regular forces and swiftly annexed the territory following a referendum which purported to show 97% support for absorption into the Russian Federation. In doing so he secured control of the Crimean city of Sevastopol, which serves as the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea fleet.
In the eastern Ukrainian oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, pro-Russian rebels made rapid territorial gains against a Ukrainian military whose combat readiness had been drained by years of corruption. Fierce fighting made cities like Sloviansk, Debaltseve and Kromatorsk briefly famous in the Western media. The territory held by pro-Russian forces declared themselves the independent People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, though neither proto-state has yet been recognised by any country.
Russia has been accused by NATO of providing both advisory and frontline support to secessionist fighters in the Donbass since the outbreak of hostilities, an essential factor in the rebel success against the Ukrainian army. The Kremlin has always denied any of its forces have crossed into Ukraine, but Russian military involvement was put beyond reasonable doubt when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down on the 17th of July 2014, killing all of the 298 people on board. Dutch air crash investigators concluded the aircraft was downed by a ‘Buk’ missile launcher being used by a Russian anti-aircraft brigade.
Despite dozens of attempted ceasefires, occasional clashes persist. Pro-Russian troops are now sufficiently entrenched and supported that Ukrainian prospects for reclaiming the territory it has lost by force are non-existent. A diplomatic resolution is the only remaining path to the re-establishment of pre-war borders in the Donbass.
At the centre of the conflict is the divide between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians. The latter generally favours closer ties with Moscow, and would like to see Russian made an official language of Ukraine. By contrast, the former is more likely to support closer European integration, including EU and NATO membership. Resentment between the two sides can be traced back to events like the ‘Holodomor’ (Ukrainian for ‘death by hunger). This man-made famine killed at least three million Ukrainians between 1932-33 and is widely recognised to have been the fault of the Soviet authorities.
The 2014 revolution triggered fears among ethnic Russians living in Ukraine that the country would be taken in a pro-European direction against their will, prompting insurrections against the Ukrainian government. Dmitry Kozak has even claimed that the recent deployment of troops acts as a safeguard against a potential ‘Srebrenica’, alluding to the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in July 1995. There is no evidence that the Ukrainian authorities are plotting to cleanse their territory of Russians, so Kosak’s claim is ludicrous. But his statement does highlight Russia’s willingness to use the presence of ethnic Russians in neighbouring countries as a pretext for military action.
The arrival of the Biden administration will bring a significant shift in American policy towards Russia. Former President Trump was famously convivial with Putin, and was heavily criticised for failing to heed the advice of his security services in condemning Russian aggression. A low point came at a summit in Helsinki in July 2018, with Trump describing the Russian leader as ‘strong and powerful’ and appearing to accept Putin’s denial of election interference at face value, against the advice of the FBI. Furthermore, at the centre of Trump’s first impeachment was the president’s decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine until the country began an investigation into Joe Biden.
For his part, Biden has previously called Putin ‘a killer’ and has said he has ‘no soul’. His presidency is likely to return American foreign policy to a more adversarial stance with Russia. The support he’s offered Zelensky in the face of the Russian troop build-up suggests this will be the case, as does the $128 million military aid package for Ukraine Biden announced at the beginning of March. The package includes two armed Mark VI Patrol Boats and radar for use in a counter-artillery role. The inclusion of the patrol boats, which are equipped with 25mm autocannons, demonstrates that Biden is willing to provide Ukraine with lethal assistance, as opposed to non-lethal military aid like body armour and medical supplies.
As well as applying pressure to Ukraine, aggressive Russian military activity acts as Putin’s way of letting the newly-inaugurated President know that Russia is fully prepared to project its military influence beyond its borders. It is clear that the Trump-era of false friendship across the Bering Strait is at an end. A confrontational Russo-American relationship has returned.
For Ukraine, with an aggressive neighbour on its border and an entrenched insurgency occupying its eastern provinces, full throated Western opposition to Moscow couldn’t be more welcome.
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