The art of the possible Russia is massing troops on the border with Ukraine for the second time this year. Is an all-out war imminent?
The renewed Russian troop buildup near the border with Ukraine has been grabbing headlines for more than a month now. Citing intelligence sources, U.S. and European media report that Russia may be preparing for large-scale attack. These tensions brought about a video call between presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin on December 7, after which the U.S. leader announced plans for high-level talks involving at least four major NATO allies and Russia. Is this what the Kremlin wanted? Or is an all-out war really on the table? Meduza turns to political scientists and military experts for some insight.
Military observer, retired colonel
The current situation is more about politics. From the point of view of strategy nothing tells me that in the near or foreseeable future Russia will invade Ukraine. Currently, Russian troops are in a concentration area [near the border] and they aren’t taking any further actions, they’re sitting in field camps. If an invasion were being planned, strike groups would be created, logistical, medical, and technical support systems would be deployed. All this wouldn’t go unnoticed, not only by intelligence, but also by citizens.
Sometimes a concentration of Russian troops [near the border with Ukraine] has been “tied” to military exercises. But what this current concentration is “tied to,” I don’t know. In this case, I find it difficult to say why Russia needs this transfer of troops. Just as I find it difficult to say what presidents Putin and Biden talked about during their last meeting [on December 7].
This war benefits neither Ukraine, nor Russia. For example, Russia may provoke such a response from European Union countries, the United States, and the entire Western community that everything that came before will seem like a light slap on the wrist.
Moreover, Russia is currently in a situation where it has no allies (South Ossetia and Abkhazia can’t be regarded as allies). A possible confrontation is taking the shape of “Russia versus the rest of the world.” Who [in history] has ever won in such a situation? No one.
Political scientist, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council
It seems to me that after the meeting between Biden and Putin there’s less talk about Russia attacking Ukraine. But there are still concerns about increased Russian military activity along the borders. There was a period of similar activity in the spring of this year. At the time, there was a lot of speculation about inevitable hostilities between Russia and Ukraine.
Under the current, not-so-simple political conditions there’s a tendency to analyze events according to the worst case scenario. From my point of view, this isn’t necessarily the right approach — but it’s actively used in the media and by analysts.
I think that everything we know about how the Russian leadership — and Putin in particular — behaves should lead to the conclusion that if they wanted to carry out a military operation, it would be covert. And we’d only find out about it afterwards. As was the case [in Crimea] in 2014.
The troops’ current behavior is demonstrative and open. This means that the task isn’t to prepare for an offensive operation, but to send a signal to Kyiv and the West. [Apparently, the Russian leadership] is concerned that Kyiv may return to the idea of a military solution to the conflict over the Donbas — and the Russian troops are a warning. And the signal to the West is a demonstration of Russia’s concern over what Putin has referred to as the development of NATO’s military infrastructure on the territory of Ukraine.
If Russia sends troops into Ukraine, of course there will be sanctions [from the West]. I don’t think sanctions on individuals and companies would strongly affect Russia. But if suddenly a big war starts, then Moscow will face sanctions of a different order [of magnitude]. There will be sanctions on the Russian financial system, disconnecting Russia from the SWIFT international banking system, sanctions on Russian energy, and attempts to take Russian oil and gas off the world market. This would do serious damage to the Russian economy. But beyond that, such sanctions would destabilize the world financial system and energy [sector]. Among other things, they would hit the American economy, and the Biden administration has no interest in that. So such sanctions remain only as a last resort.
International relations and security policy expert
Russia is moving its military equipment visibly, it’s not very hidden — on the contrary, it’s on display. We remember how after the war with Georgia in 2008, people were caught and tried for treason when they photographed military equipment on the eve of the August events. Now a huge amount of [similar] information is being posted [on social media] and no one is arresting anyone. This speaks to the fact that Russia isn’t hiding its actions, but using them as a means of putting pressure both on Ukraine and on Western countries directly.
For Russia, Ukraine is placed in the broader context of Russian relations with NATO countries and the United States. Naturally, Russia is achieving its aims — it’s demonstratively moving [military] equipment and Western media is writing about it (just like in the spring). This is a way to attract attention, to force the West to engage in dialogue on the Russian agenda. If you consider yourself a world player and claim a leadership position in the world, [but at the same time] are fading into the background, not setting the agenda but reacting to someone else’s, then you lose your positions automatically. Russia doesn’t want to lose its positions, so it creates its own agenda and forces the West to talk about it.
Russia is interested in discussing international security issues. Almost four weeks ago we blew up our own satellite, and now we’re conducting regular tests of hypersonic missiles. Moreover, this is not just advertised in the dry language of Defense Ministry press releases, but filmed from different angles. All this is part of the Russian course: we want to agree with the West that Russia will be one of the guarantors of security on the European continent.
Russia has been declaring its claims and ambitions for this since the 1990s. Russia claims that the post-Soviet space— with some exceptions in the form of the Baltic countries — is its sphere of [political] interest. And if the West seeks to do something on this territory, it must coordinate this with Russia. The Russian political elite denies the countries [in this “sphere of influence”] full-fledged international subjectivity, saying that Kyiv’s fate must be discussed not only with Ukraine, but also with Moscow. And if the West agrees that Russia has a special sphere of influence, it signifies that Russia is being institutionalized as a great power. And this is the first step toward Russia becoming a guarantor of security.
We last observed the same demonstrative military movements in the spring. At the time, the new U.S. administration, headed by Joe Biden, was ignoring Russia: all previous presidents met with the Russian leadership first thing [and Biden did not]. In parallel, President [Volodymyr] Zelensky has long been asking to involve the United States in resolving the conflict in the Donbas. But from Russia’s point of view, if the U.S. is going to be involved, then it will only be on Russia’s terms. The military maneuvers [in the spring] forced Biden to call Putin and by summer there was a meeting in Geneva — on a completely different level. Their [the Russian side’s] logic is if this mechanism works, why not use it again?
There’s no sense or political purpose for Russia to attack Ukraine — it doesn’t present a threat. In 2014, there was such a threat because of the Maidan [revolution] and the danger that Ukraine would begin to implement economic reforms that would make it an attractive alternative Russia. Putin wrote about this absolutely honestly in his July  article. Roughly speaking, the logic is that Ukrainians shouldn’t live better than Russians, otherwise their example will be infectious for Russian society. The same goes for Belarus.
As for Ukraine itself, politics is the art of the possible. Russia is dragging tanks back and forth with its own aims. The Ukrainian authorities are trying to use this in their relations with the West — and thus receive more support and assistance. The Ukrainian administration loves the rhetoric that it should be brought into NATO, but no one is prepared to do this. The Ukrainians are trying to use this situation [the Russian troop build] to their own advantage. At the same time, it’s clear that Ukraine doesn’t want to fight and unfreeze an all-out conflict.
As long as Russia doesn’t take any serious actions outside its borders, there will be no sanctions; as long as there’s the possibility that Russia will talk [with the West]. And if the world gets distracted by some other event — Russia can turn up the heat.
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart