When soldiers in unmarked green army uniforms appeared during the Ukrainian crisis in February 2014, the Kremlin initially vigorously denied the presence of Russian forces. Seven years later, President Vladimir Putin makes no secret of a military build-up along its borders to Ukraine, which amounts to Russia’s largest massing of troops since the illegal annexation of Crimea. EU High Representative Josep Borrell reports the deployment of 150.000 troops and military equipment. Additionally, 15 Russian warships have shut off access to the Black Sea over the Kerch Strait. These actions speak of a country that has given up trying to have a good image—regardless of strong sanctions and many years of condemnation.
However, Ukraine’s allies followed the same old patterns in their responses. In a G7 statement, the foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, the US, and the EU High Representative have called for an immediate de-escalation. Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg considered Russia’s military mobilisation “unjustified, unexplained, and deeply concerning.” Seemingly unhappy with mere statements, on April 15, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba appealed for more practical assistance from its Western allies. He says “words of support aren’t enough.” Despite further discussions among EU-27 and in the Normandy format, no tangible result has been achieved so far.
At first glance, action with regards to recent developments on the Ukrainian frontiers was taken by the Biden administration, as he imposed additional sanctions against Russia on April 15. However, these were not directly linked to recent events along the Ukrainian border. US-Russia relations have plummeted to a historic low, evidenced by the sanctions package, which includes a ban for US financial institutions on trade-in newly issued Russian state debt, and bonds issued by the Russian Central Bank and the National Wealth Fund. Additionally, 32 individuals and organisations are targeted based on accusations of meddling with the recent US Presidential Elections, while six Russian technology companies face sanctions for their involvement in the SolarWinds Hack. Despite strong condemnation of Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s borders, no further sanctions were deemed necessary in that regard. President Biden keeps underlining US hopes for a “stable, predictable relationship” with Russia. His recent cancelation of warship deployment to the Black Sea after the Kremlin issued warnings demonstrates that the US fails to match its words of “unwavering support” for Ukraine with actions. In doing so, the Biden administration sends a stronger message to Russia and the rest of the world than any harsh statement could.
On the other hand, Russia claimed that its large-scale military exercise along the Ukrainian borders merely responds to security-threatening unrest in Ukraine. It also maintains that NATO’s major operational training events with 40.000 troops in the Black Sea region and the Baltic have a “clear anti-Russian focus.” Even though the Kremlin’s true intentions remain unclear, war intentions have been strongly denied. Nevertheless, the military build-up has sparked fears of an invasion. Others suspect an intimidation tactic and increased pressure on Kyiv to fulfil its part of the Minsk-2 agreement, or perhaps a signal to Western allies.
Either way, considering the possible backlash at home and abroad, the Kremlin must pursue clear goals. And pooling strength at the moment seems to be only the calm before the storm. At the same time, shallow statements and the lack of an unequivocal stand of Ukraine’s allies are only emboldening Russia in its actions. Whatever Russia is planning, Ukraine will be at the centre of the storm. The question now is: Will it stand alone?
Edited by Dorothy English; Photo credit: Tactical exercises of the 4th Guards Tank Division, 2018 – The Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation