Moscow’s military buildup is raising eyebrows in Washington

By Emma Ashford, a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! Greetings from Abu Dhabi! While you are dealing with cooler temperatures in Washington, I’m just getting back from a swim in the Arabian Gulf! How are things back home?

Emma Ashford: Ahem, it’s the “Persian Gulf” according to AP Style and the Foreign Policy copy editors. As far as aquatic adventures here, I got to go to Pittsburgh over the weekend, so I’m pretty jealous of you right now. I’m fairly confident one shouldn’t swim in the Allegheny River even when it isn’t freezing.

But Washington is still much the same as you left it: getting colder, and hyperfocused on the threat du jour. This week, Washington’s commentariat is pivoting back to Europe, as concerns about Russian troop deployments near Ukraine and Belarus’s increasingly provocative steps against the European Union are commanding a lot of attention. Shall we pivot with them?

MK: Yes. Let’s start there. I am quite concerned about the Russian troop buildup. I was relaxed after the first signs a few weeks ago; I thought it was typical Russian posturing. But the Russian forces near the border continue to grow (estimated now to be close to 100,000 troops), and many of my colleagues in government fear this time could be something significant—maybe a major Russian military invasion of Ukraine. What is your take?

EA: Well, there are some good reasons not to worry: Russia did the same as recently as April, building up troops and using them as coercive leverage against Ukraine. Strategic stability talks with Russia have apparently been going well, and the question of military aims is the same as usual (i.e., it’s not clear what the Russians would actually try to achieve militarily).

But, at the same time, there are some reasons to worry: Tensions with Europe have been rising thanks to the provocative behavior of Russia’s Belarusian ally, Aleksandr Lukashenko; the Russians are upset about ongoing U.S. and NATO naval patrols in the Black Sea; they’re worried about U.S. and British soldiers present in Ukraine on training missions; and there’s no obvious reason for the troop buildup like an upcoming military exercise or seasonal troop rotation.

In short, it’s impossible to know. I’m not even sure if Russian leaders know themselves yet if they intend to take action against Ukraine.

MK: That is a fair and balanced take. Let me add some weight to the worried side of the scale. The capability for an invasion is in place. That is not in doubt. So what about Russia’s intentions? First, Russian President Vladimir Putin would like to reincorporate Ukraine into a greater Russia if he could do so at reasonable cost. After all, Russia traces its founding to Kyiv in the Middle Ages.

Second, the Russian war in the Donbass has been costly for Russia over the past seven years; Putin might believe it would be easier to just conquer and occupy the country up to the Dnieper River or beyond. Third, it is not clear the West can or will do much to stop him. This week, we have heard a lot of rhetorical support for Ukrainian sovereignty from U.S. and European leaders, but no clear threat of a response to any potential Russian aggression. In Putin’s eyes, I’m afraid, an invasion might look tempting.In Putin’s eyes, I’m afraid, an invasion might look tempting.

EA: I don’t think that’s what we’re dealing with. First of all, let’s remember that Ukraine is the largest country in Europe other than Russia. It is bigger than Germany, France, or Poland. Conquering and reincorporating all of Ukraine into a greater Russia is not feasible. The less ambitious goal of incorporating Ukrainian territory east of the Dnieper River—roughly half the country—is perhaps possible, especially if the Russians bring substantial military power to bear on the problem.

But even then, the Russians would likely face resistance from the Ukrainian population.  You’re right that Ukraine is extremely historically and politically significant to Russia. They only became separate countries during the 20th century—the exact date depends on who you ask—but Russia has typically sought closer political and economic ties, not to conquer Ukraine.

But that said, Russia might still use military force for other purposes: to force an unattractive peace settlement on Ukraine, to signal their displeasure at the failure of the Minsk protocols, or to impose direct control over smaller areas of the country. It’s a big risk for the Kremlin, though, and I’m not sure that the benefits would outweigh the costs.

MK: I doubt Putin is looking for a peace settlement. He has ignored the Minsk agreements for years and kept the fighting going. I think you might be right that he aims to only conquer “smaller areas of the country,” but that is still cause for concern! After all, Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a significant geopolitical development that infringed on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the fundamentals of a rules-based international system. Western leaders should not let him get away with the next land grab.

EA: The Ukrainians have also ignored the Minsk protocols, and Washington has done very little to push them on that question. It’s not out of the question that Russian leaders think further military action is the only way to end the existing stalemate. This situation only highlights the risks inherent in letting conflicts like this metastasize into frozen conflicts, rather than finding a peace settlement.

MK: What do you mean Ukrainians have ignored the protocols? When Russian forces remain on their territory, killing their people, they defend themselves? It is hard to blame them. And, moving beyond the diagnosis of the situation, what should we do about it? Do you think the EU and U.S. rhetorical support is sufficient? To me, it seems pretty weak.

EA: On the Minsk protocols, I thought a report by the International Crisis Group last year put it well: “Among the greatest impediments to peace in eastern Ukraine are the warring sides’ fundamentally different views of the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements.” The central problem on the Ukrainian side is that there is not much agreement in Kyiv on whether Ukraine should abide by the Minsk protocols, which require the reintegration of the rebel-held areas into a more federalized Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government couldn’t overcome domestic opposition to do so. And with no progress on the reintegration question, the Russians claim that it is Ukraine that is stalling the full implementation of the process.

I think it’s important to understand this context. Because we can talk all day about EU or U.S. rhetorical support, but if there is no practical plan to de-escalate the conflict and resolve the underlying political problem—in this case, the question of the future of the Russian-backed separatist zones—then that rhetoric is meaningless.

Neither the United States nor its European allies were willing to fight Russia over a peripheral U.S. interest like Ukraine in 2014, and I don’t think they’re willing to do so now.

To be blunt: We all know at this point that the United States and the EU states will not come to Ukraine’s defense. Being clear about that limited commitment and seeking to de-escalate the overall conflict is the only way to prevent further bloodshed.

MK: That is the problem. If the United States and Europe had imposed a steeper cost on Russia after 2014, Putin wouldn’t be contemplating more aggression. Now is the time for the United States to back its words with threatened actions that will follow further aggression, including increased military support to the Ukrainian government and more punishing economic sanctions against Russia. Rhetorical support for Ukrainian sovereignty is only cheap talk if countries are unwilling to take steps that would actually restore Ukrainian sovereignty.

EA: Neither the United States nor its European allies were willing to fight Russia over a peripheral U.S. interest like Ukraine in 2014, and I don’t think they’re willing to do so now. I don’t think the threat of further sanctions will dissuade Putin, but perhaps that is worth a try. The best thing Washington can do now is to look for diplomatic off-ramps: pushing the Ukrainians on the Minsk settlement, and perhaps slowing or shifting training by U.S. forces in Ukraine to areas further from the conflict. At the end of the day, only time will tell if there’s really anything to this buildup.

But perhaps we should talk about Europe’s other problems. We talked a few weeks back about Belarus’s attempts to weaponize migration on the Polish and Lithuanian borders. That crisis has continued to escalate. Meanwhile, Lukashenko has announced that he may try to cut oil transit to the West, complete with a three-day shutdown of the Druzhba pipeline to Poland for “unplanned maintenance.” What do you think?

MK: Lukashenko’s actions are despicable. He is luring vulnerable populations from the Middle East to Belarus and then shoving them into limbo on the Belarusian-EU border. Essentially, he is weaponizing migration.

EA: “Despicable” is a good description. But there was a good article here in Foreign Policy the other day exploring the reasons why this tactic is working so well. As the author put it: “the EU’s panic-stricken, warlike approach to a manageable migration problem is precisely what makes its dysfunctional system so ripe for exploitation by hostile actors.”

MK: That was a thought-provoking piece. It certainly pointed out some of the inadequacies of EU immigration policy. But it is easy to criticize and harder to provide workable alternatives. The EU can’t offer refugee status and an airline ticket to every person in the world who might be deserving. The numbers would be staggering; it is not practical. Ultimately, the long-term (and also difficult) solution has to be in ending conflict and establishing better economic and political conditions in the countries that people are fleeing, starting with Belarus!

EA: But no one has been doing that. And I’m not sure it’s really practical to say that the solution is to solve hunger and poverty around the world.

As I see it, EU states have two choices. They can liberalize on immigration: allow more people to apply for refugee status while in their home countries, quickly and efficiently process applicants at the border, and come to an understanding among the member states about sharing the burdens of migration. Or—if that isn’t politically feasible—then they need to abandon the pretense that they’re still abiding by international rules on refugees and asylum, and they must work toward a more effective system. For too long, Europe has relied on bordering states to turn back migrants, simply so it doesn’t have to make difficult political choices. That doesn’t work anymore.

This is part of a broader pattern, where authoritarians abuse the West’s own internal inconsistencies—and, rather than fixing our problems, we assume that the problem is elsewhere.

MK: I agree that it is unfair for Northern European countries to outsource the burdens of managing irregular migration to the Southern and Eastern European countries that are often less well positioned to deal with the challenge. But I also think it is unfair to criticize Europe for the current crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border. Even if Europe had a perfect immigration system, Lukashenko’s behavior would still be unwelcome and destabilizing.

EA: That’s probably true. But on the upside, Lukashenko is also his own worst enemy. In addition to the migration crisis, he started to suggest last week that he might cut off oil and gas shipments to Europe. This week, he announced an unplanned three-day “maintenance” stoppage on the Druzhba pipeline, which carries Russian oil to Poland.

But I don’t think he’s going to get very far with this ploy. Putin’s response to this suggestion last week was to tell reporters that any move against pipelines carrying Russian energy to Europe would “risk harming ties between Moscow and Minsk.” The Russian state depends on energy revenues—and on being a reliable supplier. If Lukashenko tries to disrupt that, I think he’ll find his support from Moscow drying up faster than the Polish oil supply.

One of the core reasons why Russia wants Nord Stream 2 online is to avoid problems like the one Lukashenko has just created.

MK: Good point. It might also encourage other NATO and EU members to reconsider relying on Russia and Belarus to meet their energy needs. Lithuania smartly built a large terminal to import liquefied natural gas from the United States, and I was pleased to see this week that Germany suspended approval of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia. The temporary suspension was due to German legal procedures, not geopolitics, but still, any delay of this new instrument of Russian economic coercion is welcome. Energy security is national security, and it is too risky for Western democracies to depend on revisionist dictators to fuel their economies.

EA: It’s funny. One of the core reasons why Russia wants Nord Stream 2 online is to avoid problems like the one Lukashenko has just created. After all, most people forget that during the 2006 pipeline crisis, Ukraine siphoned gas flowing through pipelines to Western Europe, causing shortfalls. In that case, Russia wanted to have its cake and eat it too: cut off Ukraine’s supplies while maintaining the flow to Western Europe. To put it another way, energy dependency is actually an interdependency; Russia needs the gas and oil to flow as much as Western Europe does.

So, while I applaud European states for taking steps to build resilience against energy shutdowns, I’m not as concerned as you. That LNG terminal is good for security needs, but it’s not really economically viable. If states are really worried about Russia, they can subsidize similar terminals. That they haven’t so far suggests they’re not that worried.

The European Union has done lots of other—less visible—things to improve supply resilience and make it difficult to target any single state. This situation just shows how effective they have been: Belarus’s actions on the energy front aren’t a particularly big deal.

MK: Well, thanks for helping us end on some good news. I hope you are right about this—and about a Russian invasion of Ukraine not being imminent. I know what is imminent, however: my flight back home.

EA: I just hope Belarus isn’t in charge of providing you with airline fuel. It will be a long walk home.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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