To say that Russia is threatening to invade Ukraine is avoiding the obvious: That already happened. But on Tuesday, President Joe Biden will hold a video call with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an effort to halt the Russian dictator’s growing thirst for restoring the Soviet empire.
Over the last few weeks, Russia has moved thousands of troops to its border with Ukraine, along with tanks, armored transports, short-range missile forces, and support aircraft. As of last week, the total number of Russian troops gathered along the border was estimated to top 175,000. A full bore invasion of Ukraine certainly looks possible, with Putin said to be weighing the costs of reprisals against the value of natural resources and access that would come with occupying Ukraine. Not only would the capture of Ukraine give Putin access to natural gas, oil, titanium, and a great deal of arable land, it would again place Russian forces on the borders of European nations from Poland to Romania.
This is certainly not the first time Russian forces have appeared to be mounting an invasion of Ukraine. Other buildups of forces near the border have happened at least twice in the last six years. But the scope of preparations at this point seems particularly serious, making the outcome of Tuesday’s call with President Biden potentially critical in staving off the largest military invasion in Europe since World War II.
That call was underway as this article was being prepared.
Biden and Putin have now finished their talk, which lasted over two hours. Details forthcoming.
A White House statement following the call:
“President Biden voiced the deep concerns of the United States and our European allies about Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine and made clear that the U.S. and our allies would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation. President Biden reiterated his support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and called for de-escalation and a return to diplomacy.”
The possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine is very real. As the BBC reports, other regional leaders are calling for the West to send strong signals to Putin that the price of such an invasion would be very high—including the possibility of direct military confrontation. President Biden has spoken with the leaders of United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy and urged them to take no cards off the table when it comes to how they will handle Putin.
Most of the potential pushback seems to be in the way of potential economic restrictions, including blocking the ability of Russian banks to easily convert rubles into other currencies, and disconnecting Russian banks from the SWIFT system, which allows money to move readily around the world through electronic transfers.
As The Guardian reports, the foreign minister of Latvia—a country that shares a border with Putin’s Russia—is urging more extensive steps. These include a call to station U.S. forces and Patriot missile batteries in the Balkans. Such a move would place U.S. and Russian forces within the sort of proximity that’s largely been avoided since the 1990s.
To even say that Russia is on the brink of invading Ukraine is ignoring that Putin has already done this. Twice.
Ukraine gained independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991, after citizens there rallied to prevent their nation from signing a new agreement to remain a part of the USSR. A large majority of Ukrainians in every province—including Crimea—voted for independence. Over the next two decades, the relationship between Kyiv and Moscow cooled as Ukraine looked to the West and began to seek participation in both trade deals and military unions, such as NATO.
Ukrainian leaders attempted to cobble together a coalition government that would lead the country away from an era of strong-man rule and work toward making Ukraine part of the European Union. A Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement was prepared.
However, oligarchs aligned with Russia brought in future Trump Campaign Manager Paul Manafort to support the ascendance of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine. Manafort launched an effort to vilify coalition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. Then, by working to increase fractures in the pro-West coalition and promoting a spoiler candidates, Manafort secured a narrow campaign victory for Yanukovych in 2010.
Though Yanukovych had continued to campaign on stronger ties with the rest of Europe, he followed his victory by refusing to sign the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement and instead made a series of deals with Putin. Tymoshenko was jailed as the justice system was increasingly used against political opponents, and Manafort hung around long enough to fund faux protests against European Union and U.S. forces in Ukraine as a prelude to making an agreement with NATO.
The public didn’t exactly buy it. In 2013, the Euromaidan protests broke out across the nation. By 2014, Tymoshenko was released from prison, parliament voted to strip the powers from the president, and Yanukovych fled to Russia.
It was in this period of chaos, created with the assistance of Manafort, that Putin moved to capture Crimea. Russian forces entered Ukraine in February 2014 at a time when the country was being run by an interim president whose authority had not been fully restored. Meanwhile, Yanukovych was in Moscow calling his ouster a “coup” and supporting Russia’s military advance into a portion of the nation where he had been president a month before. Since then, Russian forces have never left.
Since 2014, Ukrainian leaders have been forced to govern not just with Russia in control of a portion of their country, but with more Russian forces providing arms and support to rebels in multiple areas. They are also operating within Ukraine while masquerading as “pro-Russian separatists.” In July 2014, one of these units shot down a Malaysian Airlines flight, resulting in the death of 298 passengers and crew. Additional Russian forces gathered along the borders of Ukraine in 2015 but did not expand their invasion. However, low-level warfare has been conducted throughout eastern areas of Ukraine, particularly the Donbas region, during the last seven years.
In 2019, Donald Trump held U.S. support for Ukraine hostage as he attempted to extort the leaders of that nation into supporting a conspiracy theory against Joe Biden, who Trump recognized as a likely candidate in the upcoming U.S. election. That included the infamous phone call to President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump made it clear that the price of continued U.S. assistance in fending off Putin was going along with a series of lies about the actions of Biden and his son in Ukraine. That call was the primary subject of Trump’s first impeachment.
Over the last year, warfare in Donbas has actually decreased, with Ukrainian casualties dropping. However, that trend saw a strong reversal in the last few months with Russian forces in the region building up along the border since spring. In just the last few weeks, the number of Russian forces has grown to a level not seen since 2015.
The reason Russia didn’t roll forward its invasion in 2015 may have had little to do with U.S. or European pressure, but more with Russia expanding operations on another military front: Syria. Over the next two years, Russia helped allied dictator Bashar Assad to crush an uprising among the populace in an effort that included both large-scale bombings of civilian neighborhoods and the use of chemical weapons.
In 2019, in addition to his call to Ukraine, Donald Trump withdrew U.S. forces from Syria and neighboring areas along with support for Kurdish allies in the region. Russian forces swiftly occupied former U.S. bases and gained control of disputed regions.
By the end of that year, Russia was able to begin withdrawing its forces from Syria with Assad firmly back in control, areas in rebellion reduced to rubble, and tens of thousands of documented civilian causalities. Moscow made it clear it intended to have a permanent military presence in Syria, but by 2021 the number of forces there had been reduced to around 4,000.
This means that Russia how now freed up its elite military units—many of whom gained experience fighting in Syria—and is able to mount a large, well-equipped and experienced force on the border of Ukraine.
Ukraine has been struggling desperately to forge stronger ties with the West and seek protection from the European Union, NATO, and the United States. However, all of the above are struggling to determine exactly what responses they are willing to take if Putin marches his highly effective troops into Ukraine.
It seems likely that in exchange for not invading, Putin will make demands that should be unreasonable—such as the surrender of Donbas to pro-Russian forces, official recognition of Russia’s control of Crimea, and long-term protections for Russia’s gas pipelines. It also seems likely that if the U.S. and Europe aren’t willing to appease Putin, the only way to stop him will take more than threats of economic sanctions.