Understanding Russia’s Military Buildup on Ukraine’s Border
What is Russia’s grand strategy here? How are we seeing it influence the current situation with Ukraine?
I generally am not a fan of the term ‘grand strategy’ because it presupposes an official mind that knowingly and deliberately has a clear long-term program for acting internationally against a wide set of contingencies. Often how we construct a state’s grand strategy says more about ourselves than the country we are trying to describe. That said, expert opinion typically holds that Russia cares about its international status and wishes to be seen as a great power that should have a leading role in helping to define the European, if not global, security order. You can say that about many countries, but what is different about Russia is that it has a much higher willingness to use force to achieve those ends.
Yet we have to move down from the view at 30,000 feet to understand what is happening in Ukraine and Russia’s influence therein. The basic issue is that Russian leaders have had great difficulty reconciling themselves with the notion that Ukraine is now an independent sovereign state capable of deciding domestic and foreign policy for itself. This attitude is borne partly from a misplaced historical understanding that Ukraine was always a part of Russia, and partly from a misperception that contemporary Ukraine is a vassal state of the United States.
Although the Maidan authorities did not help things by trying to pass problematic language laws in early 2014, the Kremlin used that revolutionary moment to seize Crimea and to foment instability in eastern Ukraine. It then proceeded to assist proxy forces in the Donbas region to destabilize Ukraine and to impose a new political settlement. Ukraine obviously faced disadvantages and so had to accept what some would call a victor’s peace in the form of the Minsk Accords of 2014 and early 2015. But here’s the thing: Russia did not fulfill its end of the bargain by pulling out heavy weapons and allowing Ukraine to consolidate control over its eastern border, whereas Ukraine was able to reconsolidate its state institutions and over time increase its received support from various NATO members. Russia, too, has complained that Ukraine has not lived up to the Minsk Accords. As such, those agreements hardly represent a workable solution and Russia feels that Ukraine is slipping further away. Hence the current military build-up.
How do we distinguish threat from intent? Russia’s troop buildup is a threat, but does Russia intend to seize territory or mount an offensive? What are Russia’s likely motivations?
We really do not know what Russia intends to do. What we do know is that this troop buildup has been taking place since about March this year and has unfolded on a scale not seen in a long time. What is worrisome is the amount of pre-positioned equipment located at various points near the Ukrainian border as well as the recent uptick in anti-Ukrainian and, for that matter, anti-NATO rhetoric coming from Moscow. At best, we can determine that the Kremlin is giving itself the option to mount a major offensive if it decides to do so. I do not think anything is inevitable.
As mentioned, this build-up needs to be seen in the context of the Minsk Accords as well as how Russia perceives Ukraine and its position vis-à-vis Euro-Atlantic structures. The military build-up is an admission that Russian foreign policy towards Ukraine has so far failed. But the use of military force will represent a double admission since the use of force suggests that Russia cannot get what it wants through political influence alone. To be sure, I think Russian strategy involves goading Ukraine into launching some preemptive response that could be then used as a pretext for a wider intervention.
Of course, the Kremlin might not see force as an admission of failure. What they see is Ukraine being led an increasingly unpopular president who began his mandate being pro-dialogue before taking a hard turn against Russia. I would wager that bringing all this military power to bear on Ukraine along multiple vectors serves to intimidate Ukraine into accepting the Minsk Accords or some other lopsided settlement, while scaring off what support Ukraine might receive from the outside. NATO will certainly not be taking onboard Ukraine as a full-fledged ally any time soon, but it appears that, in light of recent rhetoric coming from Moscow, a new redline for Russia is any military support that Ukraine receives from the west. The Kremlin is confusing cause and effect here. If Ukraine receives more military aid these days, then it is because of the conflict with Russia.
How is Russia using psychological operations to destabilize Ukraine’s domestic political environment?
There are several vectors to those psychological operations. One is the ongoing war itself, which can be interpreted as a battle of wills via cost imposition. Another is the threat of military escalation that the current build-up represents. However, Ukraine has been a consistent target and subject of Russian disinformation since at least 2014. A lot of this disinformation aims to promote the idea that Ukraine is some sort of failed state characterized by right-wing extremism. It also serves to obfuscate Russia’s own responsibility in the war that has dragged on in the east. Some have argued that the relatively high level of vaccine hesitancy in Ukraine throughout the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is the result of Russian disinformation. These claims are anecdotal and difficult to verify. There may be a correlation, but that does not mean causation.
It is hard to measure the effectiveness of disinformation for all sorts of reasons. They can be diffuse and felt only over the long-term, with many confounding factors operating in the background. Still, one recent study, drawing from evidence collected in 2019, finds that Ukrainians generally can distinguish between “true stories” and “pro-Kremlin disinformation claims.” However, partisanship is a key predictor for believing in disinformation, with those having ethnolinguistic ties more likely to be receptive. What we do know is that a majority of Ukrainians do support NATO membership and, again, the heavy metal diplomacy that Russia has been pursuing illustrates the limits of its own influence.
To what extent has energy security contributed to the increased tensions? Could you discuss the significance of Nord Stream 2 and the challenge this poses to NATO in particular?
Energy security is vital for Ukraine because, despite having several nuclear power plants, it still relies heavily on gas and oil imports and has been a key transit country for Russian gas experts destined for other parts of Europe. Energy security is especially vital for its friendly neighbors who have had to rely more on imported energy. The three Baltic countries have been weaning themselves from the Soviet-era BRELL (Belarus-Russia-Estonia-Latvia-Lithuania) energy ring precisely because they fear Russia’s use of energy as a foreign policy instrument. One can see how the Russian state-controlled company Gazprom threatened to cut off gas to Moldova— a country now led by an pro-EU president—if it did not pay debts following the expiration of an old agreement. Russia insists that its motives are strictly commercial.
Hence the nervousness surrounding Nord Stream 2 in Poland, the Baltic countries, and Ukraine. With intermediary countries like Ukraine bypassed with a pipeline that directly connects Russia with Germany, those five countries worry that their security is decoupled from that of Germany’s, and that Germany would be soft on Russia for fear of being cut-off. It also empowers Russia because it assures a major European market that will depend on Russia. However, I think Nord Stream 2 has, at best, an indirect connection to the military build-up, but of course, it is all part of the big picture and part of the mood music. A recent news story does indicate that the German government is reluctant to impose sanctions if Russia steps up its aggressive activities.
What is the strategic significance of the Black Sea for Russia and NATO? How has this played into the ongoing escalation between Russia and Ukraine?
For Russia, the Black Sea connects it with the Mediterranean and southeastern Europe. As such, it has geo-economic importance because of trade flows and oil pipelines. It also provides a buffer from the instability that can come out of the Middle East. And indeed, Russia’s military footprint and ability to project hard power have expanded significantly since the annexation of Crimea.
NATO has three countries that sit on the Black Sea: Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria. Ukraine, of course, is not a NATO member but it is an Enhanced Opportunities Partner, which allows it to participate in greater information-sharing and military exercises with NATO. The three NATO members in the Black Sea, along with Ukraine, all have a shared interest in the Black Sea not becoming a ‘Russian lake’, so to speak. Unfortunately, given Russian behavior as of late, the Black Sea region has been at risk of becoming an anarchic environment where international rules strain under the weight of Russian military power and political assertiveness.
For NATO members further afield, like the United Kingdom, the Black Sea has importance as a corridor linking the Euro-Atlantic region to the Indo-Pacific. If the Black Sea does become a Russian lake or an anarchic zone where might makes right, then that development will have negative repercussions on the sovereignty and sovereignty of those NATO littoral states as well as the ability of others to use the Eastern Mediterranean freely without being held at risk.
What strategies can NATO members pursue to enhance resilience within the Region?
I co-authored a report with Mark Galeotti and James Rogers that considers this question a bit. The bottom-line is that NATO members must help the littoral states do more so that they can help themselves. Some members have the willingness to do more but remain under resourced—Romania comes to mind. Others, like Bulgaria, may be under resourced and unwilling to criticize Russia too much. Regional cooperation remains under-developed, in part because of the differences these countries have and in part because there is no leader to solve these sorts of collective action problems.
A number of measures should be on the table. One involves providing assistance to local security agencies, especially those in Ukraine and Georgia, by helping them to develop their capabilities in areas such as counterintelligence and cyber-security. Of course, this assistance cannot be given unconditionally. There must be progress in institution-building, strengthening the rule of law, and improving the quality of democracy.
Another involves bolstering regional alignment by helping to develop a mechanism for tracking and punishing maritime infractions, creating a Black Sea Forum to help arbitrate local disagreements, bringing in maritime democracies like the United States, the United Kingdom, and even Canada to partner with local states in exchanging information and lessons learned as well as to consider the formation of a maritime partnership modeled on the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force. Yet another involves upholding freedom of navigation, as what we saw with HMS Defender earlier this year, and resisting Russian efforts to craft a narrative that the Black Sea region is part of its own sphere of interest. Russia does indeed have legitimate interests in the Black Sea Region, but so do those other countries that are very wary of its intentions.
Should Canada enhance our role in the region through NATO?
Canada has a terrific reputation in the region among allies and partner states. It is the Framework Nation for the enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup in Latvia. It has also contributed to the training of over thirty thousand Ukrainian soldiers through Operation UNIFIER. Together with the European Union, the UK, and the US, it has sanctioned various Russian and Belarusian entities have played a destabilizing or anti-democratic role in the region. Although a lot of things are happening in the region and it is hard to keep track of everything, Canada has, to date a positive impact. It can enhance its role even further. It can do some of the things that I have described—if not alone, then with the United States and the United Kingdom.
I would caution against seeing solutions only through a NATO lens, however. A lot of the most tangible security goods that Ukraine has received to date is not through NATO, but through individual countries on a largely bilateral or mini-lateral basis. My understanding is that NATO plays a far smaller role in providing actual security support to Ukraine than is often believed. Part of the reason is that Ukraine remains outside of NATO and, as an alliance premised on unanimous decision-making, some of the heavy lifting can only be done via other channels. That is why it is important for Canada, along with the United Kingdom especially, to be a little more creative and think about what initiatives could be implemented that go simply beyond NATO. To be sure, I do want to state unequivocally that Canada should continue supporting Ukraine’s membership in NATO and Ukraine should maintain such aspirations. But we also need to be realistic about the short and medium term.