Russia is massing an unusual number of troops on the border with Ukraine, posing an early test for the Biden administration as it looks to repair relations with NATO allies and distinguish itself from former U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial approach to relations with Moscow.
The buildup of forces on the Ukrainian border, along with hundreds of cease-fire violations in Ukraine’s eastern territories controlled by Russia-backed separatists, has alarmed NATO and sparked a flurry of phone calls between senior members of the Biden administration and their Ukrainian and Russian counterparts.
“They’re probing, they’re trying to see what we’re going to do, what NATO would do, what the Ukrainians would do,” said Jim Townsend, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO until 2017. “Is this a jumpy administration, or is this an administration that’s going to act with resolve? They’re doing all of these things to assess where the new administration is.”
President Joe Biden spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday, according to a Ukrainian readout, the first conversation between the two countries’ leaders since Trump’s ill-fated call in July 2019 with Zelensky that sparked his first impeachment investigation. “We stand shoulder to shoulder when it comes to preservation of our democracies,” the Ukrainian leader tweeted after the 50-minute conversation.
Envoys from the 30-member NATO alliance met on Thursday to discuss the matter and expressed concern about Russia’s large-scale military exercises and the uptick in cease-fire violations, a NATO official told Foreign Policy. “Russia’s destabilizing actions undermine efforts to de-escalate tensions,” the official said. “NATO continues to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We remain vigilant and continue to monitor the situation closely.”
On Friday, the Kremlin warned that any deployment of NATO troops to Ukraine would escalate tensions further and prompt Russia to take additional measures to protect itself.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine between the country’s armed forces and Russia-backed separatists has periodically flared since a 2015 peace deal brought the worst of the fighting to an end. Observers of the conflict say the current escalation is of a different magnitude than previous scares.
Videos shared by Russian social media users, which are difficult to independently verify, appear to show trains and convoys of military vehicles streaming to the border with Ukraine and Crimea, the strategic Ukrainian peninsula on the Black Sea that Russia illegally annexed in 2014. Observers and experts are still trying to sort out Russian intentions behind the buildup, which appeared to outpace Moscow’s normal tempo for military exercises.
“[Russian President Vladimir Putin is] not so obvious when he pulls the big move. Why is he letting us see this?” said Townsend, the former Pentagon official.
Former U.S. officials saw this as a clear effort by Moscow to test the new Biden administration, which is still parsing policy reviews on how to craft a new strategy toward Russia after other escalations, including a massive hack on U.S. government agencies that Washington has blamed on the Kremlin.
“This could be a troop maneuver where they’re just testing to see how we react, it could be something military, or it could be where he parks people on the border,” a former senior Trump administration official told Foreign Policy. “They need to lay out publicly what the policy is. Further Russian incursions are not acceptable.”
The Crimea annexation in 2014 also started with a major snap military exercise along Russia’s western border with Ukraine, before masked men later poured into the Black Sea territory and overtook it.
Longtime observers of the conflict are skeptical that Russia is planning a renewed invasion of Ukraine, but they did not rule out the possibility entirely. “The thing about Vladimir Putin is that when we are thinking about what he is going to do, we are trying to think that it’s going to be something rational,” said Kirill Mikhailov, a researcher with the Conflict Intelligence Team, which tracks Russian military involvement in Ukraine. “He may have an entirely different view of the world, given that the information that he is getting is presumed to be highly curated.”
The Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer characterized this alternate worldview in comments to the BBC last month: “In the understanding of the Russian military, the West is waging hybrid war against Russia on many fronts: in Belarus, in Ukraine, with respect to Alexey Navalny,” he said.
Robert Lee, an expert on the Russian military and a Ph.D. candidate at King’s College London, said the moves were most likely intended to deter Ukraine from any future offensives in the region. “Russia is showing that they retain escalation dominance,” he said.
Zelensky has made a number of moves against Russian proxies in Ukraine, which some observers said may have factored into Moscow’s calculus. In February, the Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, a close Putin ally, was sanctioned by Kyiv, and three TV channels controlled by the magnate were shut down.
“It’s not about Medvedchuk as an individual,” said Michael Carpenter, who served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia during the Obama administration. “One of the main reasons why the Kremlin keeps these protracted conflicts percolating over time is precisely so that when its other levers of influence, whether they be oligarchs or corrupt politicians among neighboring countries, when they don’t deliver, they always have the option of turning up the heat on the conflict in order to gain influence in that way.”
Former U.S. officials also pointed to Putin’s desire to pressure Germany on multiple fronts, including the controversial construction of the undersea Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline that would bypass Ukraine and the Berlin-led Trilateral Contact Group that is tasked with ongoing cease-fire negotiations in eastern Ukraine.
But through Friday, the Ukrainian military continued going through its regular high-readiness training cycles, according to a source familiar with the preparations. Most assessments from the ground indicate that the Russians are conducting strategic posturing, but do not discount a sudden land grab, the source said. Ukraine could also move forward heavy equipment positioned in the west that is aimed at halting a Russian advance, including U.S.-made Javelin anti-tank missiles, which can rapidly be moved to the front lines under rules approved last year.
“The problem with the Russians is everything for them is a red line, and they bluster on everything, and when their position starts to collapse, they’ll backpedal,” a former senior U.S. defense official said. “The Ukrainians understand that better than anyone.”
The buildup comes amid a host of other escalatory activities by Moscow. “They have really brought out a continental-wide saber-rattling event,” said Ben Hodges, who was commanding general of U.S. Army Europe until 2017. Last Friday, the Russian defense ministry published a video of three Russian submarines punching up through ice in the Arctic, a difficult maneuver that Hodges said was a demonstration of capability in a region that has been subject to increasing military competition.
On Monday, NATO reported an “unusual peak” in Russian flights near the fringes of the alliance, with 10 flights being intercepted by NATO planes within a six-hour window. These events, combined with the buildup along the border with Ukraine, are “obviously not a coincidence,” Hodges said.
The tensions come as West-Russia relations have “hit the bottom,” according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Moscow recalled its ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, after Biden agreed to a comment that Putin was a “killer” in a recent interview.
But the Biden administration intends to keep its diplomatic channel open to Moscow despite the spike in bilateral tensions. A State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy that there are “no plans” to recall the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, John Sullivan, to Washington in response to Russia’s decision.
“We remain committed to open channels of communication with the Russian government, both to advance U.S. interests and reduce the risk of miscalculation between our countries,” the spokesperson said.
Even as tensions have increased in the last few days, former U.S. officials said Kyiv remains wary of escalating any conflict, potentially taking the bait from Moscow and allowing Russia-backed forces to further consolidate their gains in the east. Instead, Zelensky is likely to lean on the West, the person said.
“The Ukrainians are better off with a stalemate than escalating and getting their clock cleaned,” the former senior U.S. defense official said. “[Their] best play in the Donbass is international pressure and to wait Putin out. Plinking a few tanks with Javelins isn’t going to do much,” the official said, referring to Ukraine’s U.S.-supplied anti-tank Javelin missiles.