Russian Troops Build-up Around the Ukrainian BorderJanuary 11, 2022 in Ukraine
Diplomacy in Eastern Europe in December was dominated by heightened tensions between Russia and the West, after a US intelligence report on Russian troop movements, sounding alarms in the West that Russian military forces were amassing near the Ukrainian border in preparation for a potential invasion as early as the first months of 2022. Russia and Ukraine have been in conflict since February 2014, when the Euromaidan protests resulted in the removal of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. In early March 2014, the Russia launched an overt military operation to annex the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, after which a Russian-organized referendum held in the region returned a result heavily in favour of joining the Russian Federation. On 18 March 2014 Russia formally annexed Crimea and has since supported the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in their conflict with Ukraine, supplying troops and equipment.
On 3 December 2021 US intelligence assessed that over 94,000 Russian military personnel were assembled near Ukraine, along with medical, fuel and supply stockpiles. Russian authorities dismissed the invasion accusations as lies and blamed NATO for escalating tensions, citing armaments transfers to Ukraine and military exercises close to Russia’s borders. A series of telephone and video-call negotiations were held throughout December between Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden and his EU and NATO allies, in which the West pushed for a de-escalation and a drawdown of Russian forces, while Moscow attempted to leverage the situation to secure ‘redline’ security guarantees, including a pledge to end military deployments in Eastern Europe and former Soviet states, as well as a bar against any future Ukrainian membership of NATO.
The US, EU and NATO strategy in addressing the crisis has been to attempt to present a united front in standing firm against Moscow’s demands, jointly agreeing a raft of sanctions that would be enacted in the event of an invasion, including financial sanctions against Russian banks and a block on the exchange of Rubles into foreign currencies. Meanwhile, the US put pressure on the new German government of Olaf Scholz to delay the completion of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline between Germany and Russia. US President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg issued clear statements to Russia that the future membership of NATO would be decided only by the alliance itself, refusing Russia’s demand for a bar on Ukrainian membership.
The Russian strategy during the conflict appears to be a continuation of the ‘hybrid warfare’ – the combination of military tactics with political warfare methods such as cyber warfare, disinformation, and diplomacy – that was employed during its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Senior Russian politicians have vigorously denied accusations that Moscow is planning any invasion of Ukraine, while accusing Ukraine and NATO of escalating tensions through their own military build-ups in the region. Simultaneously, Russian officials have issued repeated warnings of unspecified military responses if their demands are not met, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stating that “if there is no constructive response within a reasonable time and the West continues its aggressive line, then Russia will be forced to take all necessary measures to ensure strategic balance and eliminate unacceptable threats to our security.” Vladimir Putin has publicly projected a desire to negotiate a diplomatic de-escalation of tensions by engaging in one-on-one talks with President Biden over the course of the conflict, however his insistence on demanding security guarantees to which he almost certainly knows NATO cannot agree call his sincerity into question.
Despite some reports in late December that a small fraction, around 10,000, of the Russian build-up around Ukraine has been withdrawn, there is little evidence to believe that a significant thawing of relations over military build-ups over the Russian-Ukrainian border is imminent. A Russian diplomatic delegation is scheduled to meet with US, NATO and European allies in three meetings from 9-13 January. However, with neither side appearing willing to abandon its own ‘red lines’ it is difficult to anticipate that significant progress will be made toward de-escalation.