Home / Europe / The Russian build up on the Ukrainian border

The Russian build up on the Ukrainian border

19 February, 2022

by Hamish Cruickshank – Research Assistant

The Russian invasion of Georgia on 8 August 2008 sparked what has been called the ‘first European war of the 21st century’. When Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sent troops into the province of South Ossetia in response to the shelling of Georgian villages by Russian-backed separatists, Russia launched a full-scale land, air, sea and cyber invasion that saw troops come within striking distance of Tbilisi. The fighting came to an end shortly after, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy brokering a ceasefire agreement between the two states. However, the conflict’s legacy endures and to this date roughly 20% of Georgia remains occupied. Coming a few months after the Bucharest Summit, where NATO promised Georgia a seat at its table, the Russian invasion was a clear message that Moscow would not tolerate Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration aspirations.

More than a decade on, a similar situation is unfolding on the eastern border of Ukraine. Towards the close of 2021, roughly 100,000 Russian troops along with a host of tanks and artillery amassed on the Ukrainian border. Coinciding with this, the Kremlin made a host of security demands to the West, seeking to halt NATO’s eastward expansion and reduce the alliance’s presence on the continent. The Kremlin’s rhetoric since has been fierce and Russian state media has claimed that the world will be turned into “radioactive ash” if the demands are not met.

Talks between the US and Russia have already taken place in an effort to resolve the situation, and talks with the US and Russia along with several other European countries have also followed. The impact of these has been limited, with the Kremlin stating that its demands are not being taken seriously and the West refusing to budge, and the situation remains uncertain. One thing that is for sure, however, is that the recent demands from the Kremlin amount to a form of high-stake blackmail and Ukraine’s sovereignty is once more at stake.

Rewriting the security settlement

At the start of December, US intelligence published Russian plans for a multi-front offensive in Ukraine in the new year, involving up to 175,000 Russian troops. By this time Moscow had already begun moving its armed forces towards the Ukrainian border and the unclassified intelligence document showed battalions amassed in four different locations along with tanks and artillery. US Secretary of state Anthony Blinken told reporters “We don’t know whether President Putin has made the decision to invade. We do know that he is putting in place the capacity to do so on short order should he so decide.”

It was under this pretext that the Kremlin proposed two treaties –  the Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Security Guarantees and the Agreement on Measures to Ensure the Security of the Russian Federation and Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization  – to ‘alleviate’ tensions in Europe and defuse the situation in Ukraine. Amongst other things, the treaties called for a permanent ban on Ukraine’s admission to NATO and the removal of NATO troops and weapons from eastern Europe – an essential return to 1997 before the eastward expansion.

These proposals received short thrift with the West and NATO head Jens Stoltenberg quickly ruled out any agreements denying Ukraine the opportunity to eventually join the military alliance. President Biden has now held two one-to-one conversations with Putin and a series of Russian-American, Russian-NATO, and Russian-European security talks have followed without substantial progress being made.

Why now?

The purpose of Russia’s sabre-rattling is hard to tell. The Kremlin maintains that it still fears NATO and needs guarantees on its security. The potential inclusion of Ukraine in NATO would add another of Russia’s neighbours into the security alliance and erode Moscow’s buffer zone between itself and the West. A few weeks ago, Putin said “What the United States is doing in Ukraine is at our doorstep, and they should understand that we have nowhere further to retreat to. Under [US] protection, they are arming and urging on extremists from a neighbouring country at Russia.”

As many have noted over the years, these fears seem folly due to the inherently defensive nature of NATO. Whether Putin truly believes them as well is up for debate. One thing that is for sure though is that the sentiment has been ramped up in recent weeks and has been cited as the Kremlin’s primary motive for mobilising its troops along the Ukrainian border.

Alongside this ‘defensive’ posturing, some commentators have suggested that Putin has larger ambitions with Ukraine. Putin has long argued that Ukraine and Russia are closely linked in history and culture. For example, the Kremlin has promoted a version of history that depicts Russians and Ukrainians as brothers born out of the medieval Kievan Rus – the first East Slavic Orthodox state.

Moscow and Kiev have been involved in intense memory wars on the matter over the past decade. For Ukraine, the majority’s collective memory is one of the foundations of the independent state, whereas for Moscow it serves as a pretext for preventing Ukraine’s Western integration. In July, Putin published a 5,000-word essay titled ‘on the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, in which he emphasised the two states’ shared ties and decries the actions of ‘radicals and neo-Nazis who drove Ukraine westward tempered relations between the two states.

With Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy stating that a membership action plan for NATO is now central to his foreign policy, Putin’s Slavic brothers continue to seek distance from Moscow. Anne Applebaum commented in The Atlantic that “Every year, Ukraine becomes more confident, more united, more European.” And a flourishing, democratic, European Ukraine on the doorstep of Russia would be a bitter blow for the Kremlin.

Following the recent unrest in Kazakhstan, Russia sent ‘peacekeeping troops’ as part of a Collective treaty Security Organisation (CSTO) unit to prevent armed groups from undermining the basis of power in Kazakhstan. Putin said that Moscow “would not let anyone destabilize the situation at our home and implement so-called colour revolution scenarios”. The swift deployment of troops is a further indicator that the Kremlin is seeking to maintain the current status quo in its Near Abroad and Ukraine’s western ambitions seriously jeopardise this.

Keeping Ukraine at the centre of discussions

Whether it is genuine security concerns, a desire to preserve Slavic bonds or a fear of further Western integration driving the Kremlin’s current policy, it is vital that Ukraine’s sovereignty and right to determine its own fate are preserved. President Biden vowed a “decisive response” if Ukraine invades Russia, but the Eastern European state has so far been left out of serious talks on the matter.

The first set of high profile talks between the US and Russia took place in Geneva, but Ukraine had no seat at the table. It has been noted that Putin has no time for Zelenskiy and seeks to go above the Ukrainian leadership to negotiate directly with the US and NATO. But to achieve a lasting settlement, Ukraine must be party to any talks and the US must maintain a firm line and not grant any appeasements.

The recent renewal of Normandy format talks has been a good start, and saw Ukrainian, Russian, French and German negotiators meet in Paris to attempt to edge the situation closer to a resolution. However, the state has been absent from further US-Russian talks and Kyiv remains urging the West to remain “vigilant and firm” from the sidelines.

Western states have made displays of support for Ukraine in recent weeks, with the UK, France and Poland, among others, mobilising troops for deployment in Eastern Europe and sending weapons to Ukraine itself. While this has been a boost for Kyiv, its impact as a deterrent will be limited. To properly support Ukraine, the West should demand Russia grants its eastern neighbour a seat at the negotiating table and enforce direct mediation.

Since the fall of the USSR, Ukraine has come a long way. While the country still struggles with corruption and economic challenges, it has made strides towards becoming a successful, Western-facing democracy. To safeguard this progress, and the state’s territorial integrity, the West should stand firm against Russia’s recent manoeuvres in forthcoming talks – and Ukraine must be involved.

Image: U.S. President Joe Biden holds a video call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 7 December 2021 (source: Kremlin.ru via CC BY-SA 4.0)

About Hamish Cruickshank

Hamish Cruickshank has an undergraduate degree in history from the University of Edinburgh and recently completed a master’s degree with distinction at the University of Amsterdam where he specialised in Russian and Eastern European Affairs. He produced his master’s thesis on Russia’s Arctic turn and examined the transforming security dynamics of the High North. Hamish has a strong interest in international relations and security studies and has conducted considerable research on Russian foreign policy, Eurasian geopolitics and Arctic security.