Russia has sent nearly 100,000 soldiers to its frontier with Ukraine, prompting fears of war and rebukes from the U.S., the U.K., and the European Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin says such fears are “alarmist,” and Russian officials say Moscow has no intention of invading the Ukrainian region of Donbass, where Russian-backed separatists control a small enclave and have clashed regularly with the Ukrainian military since 2014. The latest confrontation apparently began in late October, when Ukrainian forces retaliated with a drone strike to artillery shelling by the separatists. But the Russian army reacted differently to this episode, bringing in armored vehicles and units usually stationed far from the area and repositioning troops at night, unlike previous public displays of strength. The situation recalls Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in the Black Sea, where Russia keeps a major naval base at Sevastopol. What’s behind the Russian military buildup this time?

Anatol Lieven is the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft’s senior research fellow on Russia and Europe and the author of Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry, along with two other books about Russia. According to Lieven, Ukraine simply means more to Russia than any other neighboring country—because of historical and cultural bonds, but also because so many Russians have Ukrainian ancestors or relatives. The prospects for war are uncertain, Lieven says, though Moscow would intervene to protect the separatists if Ukraine enters the breakaway enclave in Donbass. The key to understanding Vladimir Putin, in Lieven’s view, is that he’s utterly transactional. As Lieven sees it, Putin is maneuvering Russia’s armed forces to use as leverage for deals he hopes to cut with the United States and European countries.

Michael Bluhm: What is Putin’s strategy here?

Anatol Lieven: We can’t be sure that he is massing troops near the Ukraine border in a force strong enough to launch a new invasion. U.S. intelligence has proved exaggerated and false in the past. But the Russian government has made very clear that, if Ukraine tries to reconquer the separatist area of eastern Ukraine by force, Russia will fight. Russia will send in the army to defend them. That’s been clear for years.

There are two new elements that are worrying and could lead Russia to escalate.

One, Russia is deeply unhappy with the Ukrainian government moving against Russian language and culture in Ukraine. There is a large Russian minority in Ukraine, and many Ukrainians in the east and south speak Russian. More and more measures are being taken to shut down Russian media outlets, drive Russian out of the higher-education system, and so on. For Russia, this means abolishing its historic cultural ties to Ukraine.

Two, the Russians are very unhappy with America arming Ukraine. In the past, Moscow didn’t take that seriously, because they thought that, however many weapons America gives to the Ukrainians, Russia would still win. But the war in Nagorno-Karabakh last year, in which the Azerbaijan army achieved some remarkable successes with drone technology, has perhaps made the Russian military think Ukraine might not be such a pushover, after all.

Yakiv Gluck / The Signal

So, they’re trying to send a message to Washington: You can arm the Ukrainians, and it might be more difficult for us, but we still vastly outnumber them. We have much better armed forces. If it comes to war, we will win. Don’t dream that you can somehow build up Ukraine as a successful enemy of Russia.

Bluhm: How likely is this to turn into a war?

Lieven: It’s very difficult to say. In the past, both sides have backed off. Earlier this year, the Ukrainians seemed to be moving toward some kind of offensive, and Russia sent troops to the border, and the Ukrainians backed off. It could be that this is just posturing.

This article is for members only

Join to read on and have access to The Signal‘s full library.

Join now Already have an account? Sign in