What will Russia do with forces massed on Ukraine’s borders?
20 Apr 2021|

Can Russia accept living peacefully next to a sovereign, independent and undivided Ukraine? Or is open war inevitable? This has long been the paramount question for Eastern Europe, and it has abruptly returned to the fore with the massive buildup of Russian military forces in Crimea and along Ukraine’s eastern border.

Ukrainian independence was the issue that definitively broke up the Soviet Union 30 years ago. While the departure of other Soviet republics would not necessarily have been an existential threat, Ukraine’s declaration of independence absolutely was. It sealed the Soviet Union’s fate, a collapse remembered by Russian President Vladimir Putin as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe’ of the 20th century.

For two decades after the Soviet Union’s breakup, Russia focused primarily on building its own state and forging its own identity. That changed when Putin decided to return to the presidency for a third term in 2012 (having served a single term as prime minister while his crony, Dmitri Medvedev, held the presidency until Putin was constitutionally eligible to run again). He then embarked on a revisionist course to create a so-called Eurasian Union.

Ukraine, meanwhile, had developed a strong preference for alignment with its Central European neighbours. And though those countries had joined the European Union, there was no reason why closer ties with them should weaken Ukraine’s historical and cultural links with Russia.

In this context, the EU’s Eastern Partnership, which resulted in its Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area with Ukraine, was part of a broader attempt to meet Ukraine halfway. None of the EU–Ukraine trade agreements were incompatible with the trade agreement that Ukraine had with Russia. But the Kremlin saw things differently. Unable to accept these agreements, it started pressuring Ukraine’s weak and vacillating president, Viktor Yanukovych, to turn away from the EU. That prompted a popular uprising that ousted Yanukovych (who fled to Moscow) and set the stage for the war that began in 2014.

The Kremlin saw Ukraine as a weak and fractured state that would fold under sustained pressure. To justify Russian revanchism, officials subjected the outside world to lectures about how Ukraine was really just a collection of the pieces left over from defunct empires. While true to some extent, the same could be said about Russia and every other modern nation-state, depending on how far back one goes.

Committed to the idea that Ukraine isn’t a real country, the Kremlin seems to have convinced itself that snatching Crimea in early 2014 would precipitate Ukraine’s collapse. The hope was that Russia could then carve out a so-called New Russia (Novorossiya) in Ukraine’s east and south, while leaving a rump ‘Western Galicia’ that remained outside its control.

With these grand ambitions in mind, Russia started deploying insurgents, ‘volunteers’ and weapons, accompanied by a massive disinformation operation to turn Ukrainians against one another. But this effort failed. Invading other countries is rarely a good way to make friends and this time was no exception. Instead of dividing Ukraine, the Kremlin managed to unite the Ukrainian population like never before. By 2014, Russia had to deploy regular army battalions to rescue what was left of its separatist redoubt in Ukraine’s Donbas region.

Since then, efforts to achieve a political settlement (through the two Minsk agreements) have failed. The ongoing low-level conflict has taken 14,000 lives and forced millions to flee their homes. While the Ukrainian public has had difficulties accepting some of the compromises that any settlement would entail, the real barrier to progress has been the Kremlin’s refusal to give up its enclaves in Ukraine. The nationalist segment of Russian public opinion, the bedrock of Putin’s support, will have a hard time swallowing ‘defeat’ in Ukraine.

Now, according to Russia’s defence minister, Russia has amassed two full armies and three airborne units to Ukraine’s east and south, supposedly for the purpose of holding military exercises. But exercise for what? The mobilisation is clearly directed at Ukraine. Putin’s own spokesman has explicitly said as much, claiming that Russia intends to intervene if necessary to prevent attacks on Russian speakers in Ukraine.

Regardless of whether this brinkmanship leads to open conflict in the coming weeks or months (of this even Kremlin decision-makers probably aren’t sure), the situation will remain dangerous until Russia gives up its revanchist ambitions. The question ultimately is about war or peace. Until Russia can accept living alongside a sovereign, democratic Ukraine, there can be no stable middle ground.

The outcome has implications far beyond Russia and Ukraine. A successful Russian revisionist agenda would not stop with the reconquest of Kyiv, but would seek to unravel Europe’s entire post–Cold War security order. That would be profoundly dangerous for everyone, not least Russia itself. As long as the Kremlin remains locked in confrontation with the rest of Europe, it will not be focused on building the democratic and prosperous future the Russian people deserve.

One way or the other, the broader region’s fate is now tied to that of Ukraine.