Russia’s Ambition or Desperation?

Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Russian Federation has received renewed attention, given its increased presence in Europe. The annexation was a bold statement made by Russia to make a point of increasing their influence over the former Soviet states, such as Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, etc. 

This was due to increased cooperation by Ukraine with the West. Kremlin support for separatist movements, such as the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, shows Russia’s determination to regain influence over the former Soviet space. This clearly is shown through the Moscow’s establishment of puppet governments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in order to regain territory lost to Kremlin control since the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

Despite the ongoing hostilities over the years after 2014, there was hope, among some influential policy makers in the West that this conflict would come to an end with the ceasefire and implementation of German Foreign Minister Steinmeier’s agreement signed in 2019. After this event occurred, the Ukrainian government thought this would bring the conflict to a conclusion. However, Ukraine’s continued cooperation with the EU and U.S. has only continued to aggravate the Russian government further, with renewed aggression in the form of a military buildup consisting of troops and equipment on the Russian-Ukrainian border. 

Many experts and political officials who support Ukraine believe this buildup announces preparations for a full-scale invasion of the Ukraine. “Additionally, the buildup, which has not resulted in a full withdrawal of these units from their forward positions near the border areas, sends a strong signal to Kyiv and its Western supporters: namely, that Moscow can choose to escalate the Donbas conflict at any time” (Jamestown Foundation, June 30th). The risk is high that Kremlin aggression toward Ukraine will increase in tandem with this year’s ZAPAD, which means west, war games which will be played September 10– 16. 

Although the Moscow versus Kyiv conflict is not recent, the sudden increase in tension and violence has been building up since March of this year. The total estimated number of Russian troops that have been stationed on the Ukrainian border is close to 100,000. This brought alarming attention to the U.S. government as stated in this quote from a CSIS article, “On March 31, U.S. European Command raised its awareness level to “potential imminent crisis” in response to estimates that over 100,000 Russian troops had been positioned along its border with Ukraine and within Crimea, in addition to its naval forces in the Sea of Azov” (CSIS, April 22). The main concentration of this force was massing in the training facility of Pogonovo, which from March to June was receiving large reinforcements of troops and equipment as shown by satellite imagery provided by the Ukrainian military to the American government. These images were sent to inform the U.S. government about the alarming situation brewing on the Russian-Ukrainian border. Although the troops in Pogonovo have not invaded Ukrainian territory, this buildup is meant to be a message. A message of readiness on behalf of the Russian government to launch a punitive expedition to deter action by the Ukrainian government in Donbass or Crimea.

In addition to this message of readiness, the defense minister of the Russian Federation, Sergey Shoigu, had justified the military buildup as a response linked with an incident that may have occurred in August of 2016. A citation from an article about this event mentioned the incident and had this to say, “The current crisis escalated following August 8th when Russia accused Ukrainian special-forces of attempting to infiltrate Crimea on August 7th. Russia has used the allegation to engage in a rapid military buildup on the peninsula and in the separatist regions of Donbas” (Business Insider, August 15th, 2016). Since that alledged incident, the Russian military has also conducted military exercises in Transnistria, which is an unofficially recognized state that lies between the Moldova-Ukraine border. This is yet another security risk for Ukraine. While there have been talks of reduction in Russian forces this year on the border, the numbers suggest anything but a ceasefire. As confirmed in the following observation by the Ukrainian president: “Hence, Russia is only declaring in words the withdrawal of its forces and the fulfillment of its obligations. In total, only about 10,000 servicemen have been withdrawn” (Jamestown Foundation, June 30th). Despite these aggressive maneuvers by Russia this year, what has changed to spark up the recent military buildup and desire for more military exercises? What explains the Kremlin’s bellicosity?

One explanation is the Kremlin’s ambition to reconquer the former Soviet space. After a closer look, it appears the Kremlin’s aggression is driven by desperation. Russia is losing influence with most of her neighbors. The Russian Federation has not had difficult relationships with all of its neighbors. In fact, the Russian Federation has enjoyed a very friendly relationship with Belarus and Armenia. However, recent developments this year, like Lukashenka’s loss of popular support and the armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has left Russia puzzled of what to do next. 

Russia depends more heavily on Belarus now that Ukraine strongly desire to join the West, after the ouster of Pro Russian Viktor Yanukovych, and the continued anti-Russian sentiment in the Baltic States. Therefore, when protests erupted in Minsk, demanding a more democratic and less autocratic government, this brought shook Russia’s confidence in Lukashenka’s regime. Belarus has been a key component in Russia’s defense strategy against NATO forces. This explains the state of panic in Moscow about what has been happening in Belarus. Here we can see the significance of Belarus in Russia’s defense strategy,

…a compliant Belarus plays into the Russian high command’s planning as a staging area from which to take control of east-west rail links to isolated Kaliningrad Oblast. In the western strategic direction, mainly targeting Poland, Russian radars on Belarusian soil and Belarusian air-defense assets as well as Belarusian forces may be expected to defend supply lines through Belarus during a broader Russia-NATO confrontation. (Jamestown Foundation, August 31st).

Furthermore, the return of political opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, has challenged Putin’s monopoly over the popular vote in Russia. In fact, over the past five years Putin’s popularity rating has gone down about 20%, since the start of the Trump administration. The missed opportunity to handle the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh has made Russia look weak as well. The loss of Russia’s influence in this situation and Turkey sidelining Russia, by ultimately handling the negotiations, did not help to increase Russia’s prestige. Therefore, what many are seeing as a power move to fuel Russia’s ambition might actually be Putin’s desperate attempt to protect all the work he has made to return Russia to the global arena.

By PAC Policy Intern Robert Bankowski

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References

Conley, Heather A., et al. “Unpacking the Russian Troop BUILDUP ALONG UKRAINE’S BORDER.” Unpacking the Russian Troop Buildup along Ukraine’s Border | Center for Strategic and International Studies, Center for Strategic & International Studies, 4 Aug. 2021, www.csis.org/analysis/unpacking-russian-troop-buildup-along-ukraines-border.

McDermott, Roger. “As Russian Military Prepares for Zapad 2021, Heavy Armed FORCES Stay Close to Ukraine.” The Jamestown Foundation, 30 June 2021, jamestown.org/program/as-russian-military-prepares-for-zapad-2021-heavy-armed-forces-stay-close-to-ukraine/.

Milosevich, Mira. “Russia’s Westpolitik and the European Union.” Russia’s Westpolitik and the European Union | Center for Strategic and International Studies, 8 July 2021, www.csis.org/analysis/russias-westpolitik-and-european-union.

Myers, Nicholas J. “Russia’s Western High Command and the Role of Belarus in Russian Strategic Planning.” The Jamestown Foundation, 31 Aug. 2020, jamestown.org/program/russias-western-high-command-and-the-role-of-belarus-in-russian-strategic-planning/.

Weinberger, Kathleen, and Franklin Holcomb. “This Map Shows the ALARMING Russian Military BUILDUP Encircling Ukraine.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 15 Aug. 2016, www.businessinsider.com/this-map-shows-the-alarming-russian-military-buildup-encircling-ukraine-2016-8

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