EXPLAINER International

Tensions rise over Russian border build-up

Need for dialogue: Delegates are seen at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) meeting in Stockholm, on December 2, 2021.   | Photo Credit: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND

The story so far: Russia has been building up its military forces close to the Ukrainian border. According to Ukrainian officials and those in Western nations , Moscow has amassed more than 92,000 troops around 300 km from the Russian border with the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. This territory is a conflict zone where Ukraine has been battling Russia-backed separatists. While Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of preparing for an invasion, Russia has, in turn, accused the West of ‘anti-Russia’ hysteria. With tensions escalating, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken warned on Wednesday that Washington will be “prepared to act” if Russia invades Ukraine. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Blinken were scheduled to hold talks on December 2 on the sidelines of a ministerial meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Stockholm.

THE GIST
  • Moscow has amassed more than 92,000 troops around 300 km from the Russian border with the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. This territory is a conflict zone where Ukraine has been battling Russia-backed separatists.
  • Russia’s recent escalation is because it is alarmed by the gradual expansion of military aid pouring into Ukraine from NATO member countries, which is allegedly being used in its war against Russia-backed separatists in the Donbas region.
  • In the event of Russia actually invading Ukraine, it is doubtful if NATO would intervene militarily to protect Ukraine, which is currently not a member. But the U.S. can increase sanctions; possibly against the Nord Steam-2 pipeline, which delivers Russian gas directly to Germany.

Why the Russian military build-up?

While the exact reasons remain open to interpretation, most strategic experts believe that an actual invasion is unlikely. Rather, the move seems aimed at signaling serious intent to impose costs on Ukraine if certain ‘red lines’ regarding Moscow’s security concerns are crossed. The background to Russia’s recent escalation vis-à-vis Ukraine is its discomfort with the steady eastward expansion of the U.S.-led North Atlantic Organisation (NATO). With even former constituents of the erstwhile Soviet Union such as Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia becoming NATO members, Russia is determined to protect its domain of influence in the case of larger neighbours such as Belarus and Ukraine. While Belarus has a pro-Russia regime, Ukraine has been courting – and courted by -- NATO. Russia is alarmed by the gradual expansion of military aid pouring into Ukraine from NATO member countries, which is allegedly being used in its war against Russia-backed separatists in the Donbas region. In this context, the troop build-up could be interpreted as a stern warning against any plans to escalate NATO activities or presence in Ukraine.

How has Ukraine responded to Russia’s mobilisation?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed that a coup plot has been hatched to depose him. Without saying so in as many words, he has hinted that Russia was behind the plot. Russia has denied any role in the alleged coup attempt. Ever since Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 and war broke out in eastern Ukraine a month after, relations between the two countries have been fraught. Russia annexed Crimea to protect its naval base in the Crimean capital of Sevastopol, which was necessary to retain its dominance of the strategically critical Black Sea, which is otherwise surrounded by NATO states (Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania, with Georgia and Ukraine being aspiring members whose induction has been stalled only by Russian opposition).

Does the Minsk Protocol have any bearing on the current scenario?

The Minsk Protocol was an agreement signed by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, OSCE, and the then heads of the two separatist groups, Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, to end the war in the Donbas region. It enjoins Ukraine to devolve more powers to the local governments – likely controlled by the separatist groups -- in the Donbas region. Ukraine, which has made no move to implement the agreement, believes that doing so would give Russia too much say in its internal matters. Russia, on the other hand, believes the Minsk Protocol to be the basis for lasting peace.

What are the larger geo-political ramifications?

With the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO’s original objective – to thwart an invasion of Western Europe from the east – had been achieved. But NATO, rather than disbanding, reinvented itself as a vehicle of American strategic dominance.

It began to expand, acquiring new members at a fast clip. Recently, with the U.S. viewing China rather than Russia as its primary security threat, American strategic focus has been shifting to the Asia-Pacific theatre. Some analysts believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin might have decided that it was a good time to test NATO’s (and the U.S.’s) strategic will to get involved in case things escalate in Ukraine.

What next?

The meeting between Blinken and Lavrov on December 2 could set the stage for further talks between the two countries.

In the event of Russia actually invading Ukraine, it is doubtful if NATO would intervene militarily to protect Ukraine, which is not currently a member. At the same time, it would not want to be seen as ineffective.

At the very least, Russia, which already faces an array of economic sanctions sparked by the Crimea invasion, might end up with more painful ones, including possibly against the Nord Steam-2 pipeline, which delivers Russian gas directly to Germany.


Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 20, 2022 11:52:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/tensions-rise-over-russian-border-build-up/article37818206.ece

Next Story