Over the past few months, Russia has amassed tens of thousands of soldiers, along with tanks, artillery, and other materiel near its border with Ukraine in what U.S. intelligence (and much of the world) has interpreted as a buildup in preparation for an invasion. At the same time, online propaganda and disinformation activity has increased , as have cyberattacks on Ukrainian targets, including one that took down several government websites on Friday.
It is no coincidence that these ominous activities look strikingly similar to the lead-up to Russia's 2014 invasion of its weaker neighbor, in which it annexed Crimea and launched the still-ongoing insurgency by Moscow-backed separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Indeed, if Russia does send troops into Ukraine in the coming weeks, it will be a continuation of the same conflict that has been going on since 2014, and in some ways since 2008.
The U.S. is taking the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine very seriously. The Biden administration, in concert with NATO, has prepared a package of multilateral sanctions to slap on Russia if it invades, including potentially cutting the country off from the global financial system. U.S., European, and Russian officials met last week to attempt to defuse the crisis, but the three days of talks ended inconclusively , with the Russians describing them as a dead end, but saying they were still open to a diplomatic solution.
In the meantime, the situation continues to escalate closer to the tipping point. U.S. officials revealed on Friday that they had identified a group of Russian operatives who have been sent into Ukraine to potentially conduct a false-flag operation against the Russian proxy forces in Donbas, giving Russian president Vladimir Putin the pretext he would need to invade. "We saw this playbook in 2014," White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Thursday.
The Biden administration is now being forced to decide how far it is willing to go to defend Ukraine's sovereignty if Russia follows through on its threats. The New York Times reported on Friday that the administration is considering supporting an insurgency to raise the cost of a Russian occupation higher than Moscow could afford. Arming and providing battlefield intelligence to Ukrainian insurgents would represent a significant shift in policy from recent years, during which the U.S. has only provided Ukraine with defensive military aid to avoid provoking Russia. Of course, a U.S.-Russia proxy war on the borders of the E.U. is a Cold War nightmare scenario, so the revelation of these plans is surely meant to deter Putin from invading in the hope that they will never need to be executed.
As long as a diplomatic solution remains elusive, however, the crisis still threatens to spiral into full-blown war.
So far, the emergency talks have broken down over a sticking point that is a sine qua non for Russia, but a nonstarter for the U.S. and NATO: namely, a promise to halt the alliance's eastward expansion and prevent Ukraine and any other former Soviet countries from ever joining it. Such promises were included in draft treaties Russia put out last month, which were summarily rejected. This has been a core foreign-policy goal of Putin's since NATO's 2008 Bucharest summit, in which the bloc invited Ukraine and Georgia to pursue membership. That statement started a chain of events that led to Russia's military intervention in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia in 2008, as well as its annexation of Crimea and proxy occupation of Donbas in 2014 following the Euromaidan revolution, in which Ukraine's geopolitical orientation tilted abruptly toward the West.
The other key backdrop for the present crisis is the Minsk agreements , a European-brokered peace deal Russia and Ukraine signed in 2015 to halt the fighting and take steps toward a more durable modus vivendi. The Minsk agreements provided for the withdrawal of troops and weaponry and the disarmament of militias, while its political sections strongly favored Russia, calling for Ukraine to decentralize and grant more local autonomy to its Russian-oriented (and largely Russian-speaking) eastern-border regions. Hastily drafted in the heat of an ongoing conflict, the Minsk agreements dissatisfied both sides: Ukraine would be forced to make major concessions to its sovereignty, while Russia didn't get all the assurances it wanted, such as a neutrality clause in the new Ukrainian constitution. As a result, neither side has done much to enforce the deal.
If the contradictions in the Minsk agreements are a driver of the current crisis, resolving them may be the key to defusing it. In a press conference last week, Russian deputy foreign minister Alexander Grushko indicated that finally implementing the Minsk agreements would settle Russia's concerns over Ukraine. The Biden administration is also looking into the Minsk agreements as a way forward, and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky's peace plan is broadly consistent with the Minsk framework as well.
Some analysts also see a solution to the current crisis via the Minsk agreements, decentralizing Ukraine and giving Russia some assurances of Ukrainian neutrality for at least the next decade or so, if not forever. Ukrainian nationalists will balk at granting as much autonomy to the Russian-speaking regions as Minsk envisioned, but there is nothing wrong in principle with a decentralized, federated state, especially in a multilingual, multiethnic country.
The problem is that the two sides have very different views of Ukraine's sovereignty, which are baked into what was (and was not) decided in Minsk seven years ago. The U.S., Europe, and Ukrainian nationalists envision a Ukraine that is free to make its own choices about which countries and alliances to associate with, whereas Putin insists on keeping Ukraine within the Russian sphere of influence, whether it wants to be there or not.
From the Russian perspective, leaving Kyiv with the option of NATO membership would leave in place a perpetual threat of NATO forces right on its border — an unacceptable outcome, especially considering that the former Soviet Baltic states already joined the alliance in 2004. From the Ukrainian perspective, ruling out NATO membership would leave in place a corresponding threat of Russian domination, invasion, or annexation. The Baltic states did join NATO for a reason , after all.
These opposing views are fundamentally irreconcilable, so if this conflict is to be resolved diplomatically, something has to give. In a recent op-ed at Politico , analysts Thomas Graham and Rajan Menon suggested a potential solution that would pragmatically accommodate some of Russia's security concerns without outright abandoning NATO's open-door policy or sacrificing European security. They envision "the creation of a pan-European security order that includes Russia and reduces the risks of crises and confrontations on the continent." This would include the resumption of Cold War confidence-building measures and a commitment not to deploy intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe, as well as a lengthy moratorium — not a permanent ban — on NATO accession by Ukraine or other ex-Soviet countries. In theory, this would address Russia's key concerns without forcing the alliance to abandon its open-door principle entirely.
A darker view of Russia's intentions, however, holds that Putin has no actual interest in Ukrainian "neutrality," but rather expects that country to retake its historical position as a subsidiary of Russia. Part of the reason the Minsk agreements have failed is that Moscow insists on holding elections in the eastern Ukrainian separatist regions while Russian forces and proxies still occupy them, effectively allowing Russia to dictate the outcomes. In an article published last summer entitled "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians," Putin espoused a revisionist perspective on Ukraine that casts any opposition to Russian influence there as the product of a western "anti-Russia project." He declared that the "true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia." In this framework, Ukraine is either a partner/puppet of Russia or a pawn in a western scheme to undermine Russia. If Putin is open to a third option, it is not apparent from any of his words or actions.
There are also good reasons to be suspicious of Putin's ultimate goals, which extend beyond Ukraine and encompass the entire former Soviet sphere. The recent military intervention in Kazakhstan, the propping up of Alexander Lukashenko's despotic regime in Belarus, and Russian-brokered cease-fire in last year's Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict are just the latest examples of Putin's consistent policy of reasserting Russian influence in its near abroad.
As historian Adam Tooze has pointed out , Russia can afford to throw its weight around: Between its massive foreign-exchange reserves and its abundance of natural gas, Russia is well-protected against economic sanctions. Iran-style sanctions on energy exports, for instance, would be a complete nonstarter with Germany, which depends too heavily on Russian gas to let that supply be disrupted. Russia will not be as easily isolated as it might have been 15 or 20 years ago.
Russia's growing power and confidence — along with its advances in military technology, nuclear-weapons modernization, and cyber warfare — underscore the more hawkish argument that a forceful U.S. response is needed to deter Russia from pursuing irredentist goals in Ukraine and beyond. On the other hand, the risks of escalation with Russia are frightening. And it may not be worth running to defend Ukraine, a country that has spent the past three decades failing to achieve political or economic stability.
Kyiv has done its part to stoke this crisis, as well. Zelensky was elected in 2019 on a peace platform, promising to resolve the conflict with Russia. But as Tooze explains , Zelensky has proved unable to walk the line between the Russian-speaking opposition in the east and the hard-line Ukrainian nationalists in the west, and his popularity has collapsed amid continued economic stagnation. His government has also taken further steps toward a closer relationship with NATO and cracked down on pro-Russian politicians and media.
Zelensky's gambit in this conflict may be to let things unfold and hope for enough western military support to drive Putin's proxy forces out of Donbas and maybe even recapture Crimea (Russia's annexation of which is now near-universally accepted as a fait accompli). This seems to be how Putin perceives the situation, or at least how his propagandists are representing it: as a Ukrainian (not Russian) land grab.
If a middle ground can be found between antagonizing Putin and capitulating to his threats — between containment and appeasement — it is likely the best option. To get there, the Biden administration and NATO leadership will need to decide whether drawing a line on the bloc's eastward expansion is a reasonable price to pay for peace, and whether the risks of rewarding Putin's aggressive behavior are greater than the risks of escalation. The stakes are high, not only in Ukraine but also in demonstrating to other authoritarian regimes ( especially China ) how far the U.S. will go to defend those regimes' smaller neighbors against aggression.
Slate's Fred Kaplan, advocating a diplomatic approach on the Minsk framework, concludes that the success of such diplomacy depends on whether Putin is a rational leader. If he is, he should happily accept something less than everything he wants in exchange for appearing statesmanlike and avoiding a likely costly and unpopular war. If he is not, then war and a further escalation of Russian-European tensions is inevitable either way. As much as the Biden administration should work tirelessly toward a peaceful resolution to this crisis, it must also prepare for the worst.
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