Fears of Russia launching an offensive against Ukraine have raised tensions between Moscow and the West, with Russia’s massing of troops near Ukraine stoking fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin may once again invade the former Soviet state.
President Biden is emphasizing diplomacy to cool tensions and avoid a military confrontation, while the U.S. is a key supplier of arms to Kyiv.
But reported intelligence is raising alarm that Putin is amassing more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s border and preparing for an invasion in early 2022 — raising the stakes over a planned call between Biden and Putin on Tuesday.
Here are five things to know about the emerging crisis:
Could be more serious than 2014 invasion
Experts warn Russia’s military buildup on the border of Ukraine is posing a more serious threat than its previous invasion and annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and its ongoing support for pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country, called the Donbas.
“Russia is not signaling a repeat of its 2014 operations on the Donbas, in fact they are signaling this current situation could be larger and more overt,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.
“I am concerned about the impact of Russian air and missile strikes conducting rapid punitive strikes on Ukrainian military facilities or other important locations — in many cases from Russian territory or Russian proxy-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine,” Massicot said.
Russia’s posturing and more heated rhetoric is aimed at forcefully testing the Biden administration’s resolve to support Ukraine in the face of aggression, said retired Lt.-Gen. Ben Hodges, who served as U.S. Army Europe Commander until 2017.
“I think the Kremlin is testing how high a priority that is and what we’re willing to do to protect and respect Ukrainian sovereignty,” he said in an interview with C-SPAN on Sunday.
Biden is upping the diplomatic consequences
The Biden administration has raised the possibility of action against Russia including economic measures and increasing the delivery of lethal defenses for Ukraine.
“We’ve been very clear that there would be serious, serious consequences,” if Ukraine invades Russia, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview Sunday with a Swedish television network.
“We’re looking, for example, at economic measures that would have a very high impact and things that we have refrained from doing in the past when we’ve had profound differences with Russia,” he added.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said at the Reagan National Defense Forum on Saturday that deterrence should be a “whole-of-government” effort.
“The way you deter is you impose some type of cost — to make sure the cost is worth more than the benefit,” McConville said. “Making sure people understand you just can’t go into another sovereign country and conduct malign activities without having some type of cost.”
Yet U.S. troops maintaining readiness
A senior administration official hinted on Monday that an invasion would result in U.S. troops being deployed in the region, noting that the 2014 invasion was followed by the U.S. sending additional forces to NATO’s eastern flank.
“I think you could anticipate that in the event of an invasion, the need to reinforce the confidence and reassurance of our NATO allies and our eastern flank allies would be real and the United States would be prepared to provide that kind of reassurance,” the official said.
Angela Stent, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, suggested that Russia could launch a limited incursion to retake the Donbas “quite soon”, but would likely hold back from launching a major offensive on the capitol of Kyiv.
“In Russia, this conflict is not popular. … People don’t want to see Russian soldiers coming back in body bags,” she said.
Part of Russia’s broader destabilizing behavior
Along with Russia’s amassing tens of thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine, U.S. officials have also denounced Moscow’s support of Belarus’s illegitimate President Alexander Lukashenko and his alleged efforts to spark an immigrant crisis in Europe.
This is on top of worries that Russia may use its position as a key supplier of energy to Europe — in particular for the cold winter months — as leverage to extract concessions from the West.
“What we’re seeing in Belarus on the borders of three countries, the really outrageous use of migrants as a political weapon — well, that can sow chaos and instability and at the same time the mounting pressure against Ukraine, and yes, energy too, especially heading into the winter. I think these things are joined,” Blinken said in an interview with Reuters on Friday.
Minsk said last week that it would conduct joint military drills with Russia near Ukraine’s borders in response to new military deployments to the west and south of Belarus, Reuters reported.
“We see troop formations around our state borders… We can only be concerned by the militarisation of our neighboring countries, which is why [we] are forced to plan measures in response,” Belarus’s Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin said Monday, according to the outlet.
On top of this, Russia controls large deliveries of energy to Europe and there are fears Putin could hold delivery hostage — during critical winter months — in an effort to extract concessions from the West.
Ukraine’s security a rare area of bipartisan support
Ukraine is a key U.S. ally and Kyiv’s shift away from Russia and towards the West is viewed as both a symbolic and strategic advantage, bolstering the protection of neighboring NATO-allied countries and as a key economic partner connecting Europe and Eurasia.
This has made support for Ukraine’s security an area of bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism, told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that he hopes Biden’s meeting with Putin can “bear fruit,” but warned of a strong U.S. response if Kyiv is threatened.
“But let me say this — If Russia does decide to move further, it would be a mistake of historic proportions for Moscow,” Murphy said. “Ukraine can become the next Afghanistan for Russia if it chooses to move further, and it’s up to us in the Congress that we are going to be diplomatic, political and military partners with Ukraine.”
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) also sounded the alarm during a panel at the Reagan National Defense Forum.
“This is a moment in time where we need to show leadership and we need to push back and say to Putin, you can’t do this,” Ernst told the forum. “ We need to show that [if] you do this there are going to be repercussions.”
Morgan Chalfant contributed.