On April 23, 2021, Russia “withdrew” its forces, which it had built up along its border with Ukraine. It was the largest military build-up on the border since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, with more than 100,000 troops in the area at the peak of the tensions. Justifications for this build-up were centered on it being a routine military exercise and the growing threat of NATO to Russia.
After a rather rapid escalation and then stagnation of tensions, Russian forces have still not fully withdrawn from the area. Thus, the question remains: is Russia an opportunist, taking advantage of an “opening” it found, or is this event a real, viable threat to regional stability? Is Russia trying to start an international war or is it merely testing Western waters to see what it can reap without damaging consequences?
Opportunism or Strategy?
The debate of whether Russia is an opportunist in the global arena has been at the center of Euro-Atlantic debates since the mid-2010s. If Moscow operates in a zero-sum world, in which its economic and military goals are deeply intertwined, there could be more to this event than meets the eye. If not, it would follow many theorists’ opinions that this is nothing more than an opportunity taken by Moscow in a moment of “Western hesitation or inactivity”. In the case of Ukraine, the mere economic response via sanctions taken by the West in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, could be understood as relatively “low stakes” for Putin to risk in exchange for the reward of a new territory. So, a hypothetical annexation of Donbas – or even a more encompassing invasion of Ukraine – would also have a relatively low-risk factor, while delivering a relatively high reward factor.
Unfortunately the truth of what is really going on behind the scenes at the Kremlin is ultimately impossible to verify. The only source of information that can provide insights is the events themselves and the way that Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, presents the situation to his own constituents. In this way, Putin’s diplomatic rhetoric can provide a great insight into Russia’s geopolitical vision.
A Rhetorical Analysis of Vladimir Putin
Putin has been talking about a “Great Power Competition” since the early 2000s, long before that phrase was common among scholars or world leaders, demonstrating that there is at least an outward focus on “show of force”, and the need for traditional, realist displays of strength and power. His political legacy, which he has developed since coming into power in 2000, has been similarly characterized by strongman qualities and outward demonstration of military and economic capacity.
Unafraid of pitting himself against US leadership, Putin has never shied away from accusing the US of being a superpower that seeks a unipolar world through what he deems “illegitimate” diplomatic and militaristic means. This approach signifies that Putin views Russia much like US leadership often views itself: as a “savior” which will “liberate” the world from opposing superpowers. In this way, Putin’s speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy in 2007, in which he describes a world where the US is the ultimate aggressor in the global arena, sends a strong message to the Russian public and any other public which feels threatened by US power.
In his 2007 speech, Putin also points out a discretion in international norms. He affirms that legitimate military action is never attributed to any actors other than the West via NATO and the EU, instead of being something that is mediated through the UN. Moreover, Putin paints Russia as a victim of the West. A victim which can, of course, stand its own ground, but is constantly being cheated by a Western-made system that constantly points to Russia as an opponent, while centering itself as the source of democratic values and liberation. In other words, why would any military action abroad by US armed forces stand unchallenged by international organizations, while Russia’s would be immediately condemned?
Later on, in 2008, Putin said that he wanted Russia to be “as involved as possible in global and regional integration”, emphasizing the role that natural resources, like oil, would play. In relation to the case of Ukraine, there is a very strong geo-economic explanation, beyond the obvious geo-militaristic explanations, for Putin’s actions: Russia needs a landmass connection to its newly acquired warm water port in Crimea. Moreover, Putin’s strategic use of its own oil supply to create dependency puts Ukraine in an extremely vulnerable position. This was demonstrated when Putin completely cut Ukraine off of its energy supplies in 2014, following a dispute over Ukraine’s gas debt.
After listening to Putin’s State of the Nation address this year, his moves on the Ukrainian border were almost predictable. Warning of “a red line not to be crossed” – a line that Putin would draw himself – the build-up at the border was very much just that: a response to the threat of NATO. Further, in his speech at the celebration of the anniversary of the “reunification” of Russia with Crimea on March 18, 2021, his rhetoric proposed the historical narratives around Russia’s “legitimate” claim to the territory of Crimea, harkening back to past land grabbing. These two speeches, when taken together, are very clearly a justification for his actions.
Even though Putin’s rhetoric shows trends and similarities over time, whether his efforts are strategized or opportunistic still remains debatable. To understand the situation in Ukraine further, there are other important factors to consider.
Important Developments to Watch in Ukraine
First, at the time of the escalation, Navalny had just been moved into the prison hospital following his starvation protest against Putin. The US warned that his death would have triggered a retaliation if it happened at the hands of Russian authorities. The international focus on Navalny could have allowed Putin to make strategic moves with minimal international attention. Moreover, Navalny’s release and the symbolism of the abuse of his human rights remains a top priority for the US but ultimately detracts from the focus on the near crisis in Ukraine.
Second, Russian-Belarusian relations have thrived since the ongoing protests – ended in police violence – against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko have isolated the latter from the international community. Tightening relations with a free nation that remains between the “Great Powers” of the East and West could legitimize further “reunifications” of former Soviet states with Russia. In other words, it will be important to watch the tightening of relations between Belarus and Russia, because it can ultimately bolster Russian confidence in its ability to continue land grabbing efforts.
Third, significant changes in global leadership, including the election of US President Biden and the upcoming departure of German Prime Minister Angela Merkel both provide an opportunity for Putin to make significant moves geopolitically during a time of Western “weakness” and “instability”. On a similar note, Biden’s reinvigoration of US relations with international organizations, which Former President Trump sought to move away from (or leave altogether), has proven threatening to Putin. Namely, Putin’s military build-up in Ukraine can be, at least partially be attributed to an increase in the threat by the US-NATO alliance. The way that US-Russia and EU-Russia relations develop over the course of 2021 will set the tone for the next steps Putin takes in Ukraine.
Finally, Russian pipeline projects have serious political implications. Just like Putin mentioned in his early speeches, natural resources play an important role in his geo-economic and geo-political strategies. As was already mentioned, Putin’s move to cut Ukraine off of its energy supplies in 2014 following a dispute over Ukraine’s gas debt, shows both willingness and capacity to use Russian pipelines in a strategic, militaristic manner. Most recently, Putin has already threatened to use the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to cut Donbas off of oil in a retaliatory act for Ukrainian aggression in the area. The upcoming Turkstream project can, and most likely will, eventually serve a similar purpose.
Fallout of the Ukraine Near Crisis and International Coherence
As mentioned, though the near crisis is “over”, at least in a de facto sense, the number of troops at the Ukrainian-Russian border has not actually decreased, remaining around 100,000, along with weaponry that could be used for rapid escalation. Putin stated that he intends to continue building up troops, despite international backlash. Since the near crisis, important international meetings have taken place which can provide insight into the severity of the conflict in the eyes of the international community.
The G7 meeting, held from June 11-13, 2021, focused heavily on the threat of China, but also addressed Russian aggression, under the more encompassing premise that the G7 has an obligation to resist authoritarianism. However, on June 14 at the NATO summit, President Biden reiterated that Ukraine is not yet ready for NATO accession. That being said, Biden was careful not to inspire doubts of American support for Ukraine and on June 18th, major news sources reported that the Biden administration had set aside a military aid package worth tens of millions of dollars, including lethal weaponry, for Ukraine, in case Putin should decide to continue the aggression.
Right before the G7 meeting and the NATO summit, Russia withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty on June 8, 2021 (note: the initiation of the decision began in January 2021). The multilateral agreement no longer includes the US, since President Trump withdrew in 2019, citing Russian violation of the treaty as his motivation to withdraw. However, it still includes the majority of the European Union and many former Soviet states, including Ukraine. The Ukrainian Foreign Minister noted that, “Russia is completing a course that it deliberately began in the mid-2000s… Through the destruction of arms control regimes, Russia created the conditions for covert preparations for sudden armed aggression against Georgia and Ukraine. Russia continues this aggressive expansionist course to this day.”
Moreover, international agreements meant to preserve coherence are not currently protecting Ukraine to the fullest extent that they could. Uncertainty over EU/NATO accession and an increasingly distant Russia from the international arena are reasons to be concerned when it comes to regional security. Whether Russia, specifically Putin, is an opportunist or an intentional aggressor with a grander plan, remains uncertain and though this remains an important debate, it is clear that in the case of Ukraine, Western actors should certainly not relax yet as this near crisis remains very much on the brink of becoming a serious, full-blown international conflict.
- How realistic is EU/NATO accession for Ukraine?
- What is there to be said about a retaliatory Ukrainian military build-up? Is it justifiable or does it contribute to the conflict in a negative way?
- How realistic is it that a military build-up on the border can spiral into serious regional crisis? What is Putin’s real motive in the build-up?