The White House said this week that Russia now has more troops near the Ukrainian border than it has ever had since 2014 – when the Crimean peninsula was annexed. Further south, military intelligence reports revealed that around 4,000 heavily armed Russian forces were on the move in Crimea, a US defense official told CNN.
Moscow also speaks the game. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has announced rapid checks for the army. The Kremlin envoy for the conflict, deputy head of the presidential administration, Dmitri Kozak, said Moscow would, as pretty much always suggested, come to defend the eastern population of Ukraine if necessary. And he said the beginning of a conflict was the “beginning of the end of Ukraine”. Russia’s statements are pretty loud.
For Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky brought some units closer to the Donbass and made a very high-profile trip to the region on Thursday. Like Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Zelensky’s domestic ratings are not as healthy either. He spoke the language of peace. He tried to be close to the troops, knowing that US President Joe Biden had announced that he would be at his side.
The White House said it was “increasingly concerned about the recent escalating Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine,” and US officials have also hinted they could send warships to the Black Sea, a signal of increased involvement despite American planes entering the area have monitored regularly. Chancellor Angela Merkel asked Putin to withdraw his armed forces when he called on Thursday. Everyone gets very excited, very quickly.
Speculation about what’s next in Europe’s largest land war in two decades is as widespread as the Kremlin certainly hopes. The only cost so far is the fuel cost of moving many tanks.
The central, as yet unanswered question is what Russia’s goal would be in the event of a military intervention. Some analysts have speculated that it could flood the separatist areas and adjacent conflict areas with a huge Russian “peacekeeping force” that is supposed to impose its will and rules on the area and seriously annex Donbass.
However, this would almost guarantee a Western response, likely initially in the form of sanctions. It would achieve essentially the same control for Moscow as it now has in these areas, albeit with much more expensive Russian skin and hardware at play. It’s all the pressure without the juice, and therefore probably not that cheap for the Kremlin.
The second option that analysts are considering is the creation of a land corridor between the separatist Donbas in the east and Crimea, the annexed peninsula in southern Ukraine. For years, water has been a scarce resource in the Crimea. A crisis that a senior Ukrainian official warned me about two years ago could reach a critical stage in the summer of 2019. It still exists, along with the greater challenge for Moscow of maintaining a reasonable standard of living in the Crimea through sea supplies and a small, new bridge over the Kerch Strait. It is not a sustainable state for the long-term acquisition of Russia in the long run.
A land corridor – a strip that runs through the Ukrainian city of Mariupol and into the Armiansk region above the Crimea – would also be extremely vulnerable for all Russian crew members. You would be trapped between the Sea of Azov and a very angry, better-equipped Ukrainian army than before. To keep this corridor effective, they would have to go deeper into Ukraine and then face even more resistance from the Ukrainian army and local people. The 2014 hope that Russian soldiers would be seen as the “liberators” of a corrupt Kiev government is long gone. Hostility is much more tangible.
So the job of the Russian army is either to do so little that the inevitable western minimum-gain sanctions appear to have been imposed. Or do so much (far too much) that you have to occupy large parts of Ukraine for years. It’s a mess both ways.
In Moscow’s eyes, perhaps a much better option is to amass your armed forces, make loud noises about Ukraine’s desire for war, point out diplomacy, and cross the border with the heavy metal hand to force a better negotiated solution. Of course, this assumes that the Kremlin head always makes the best decisions. Putin is also capable of overreach or folly.
A third invasion of Ukraine in 2021 is also a much more dangerous game for Putin than the one he embarked on in 2014-15. US President Biden has made it clear that he will offer Kiev “unwavering support”. Washington’s mindset is irrevocably tightened on the idea that Russia poses a threat. And Ukrainian leader Zelensky, as politically and militarily inexperienced as he is, will undoubtedly benefit domestically from being drawn into a conflict he has not yet started.
However, two permanent, unquantifiable risks remain. The first is that, amid all the chaos of the next few weeks, Putin can see a moment of opportunity to strike and simply choose to deal with the consequences later. The second is the inevitable danger of amassing angry forces on both sides of an already active front line. An unexpected mistake or a wave from both parties could lead to a major war.
If Moscow hopes its build-up will result in its phones ringing more frequently and taking over diplomacy, then it had better be soon.