Talks between Biden and Putin on December 7, 2021. | Photo: Kremlin.ru | CC BY 4.0

The Russian Military Build-Up Near the Ukrainian Border: Offensive Intentions or Diplomatic Signaling?

The recent build-up of Russian troops on the border to Ukraine is making waves in the political debate. Predominant views in the West share the assumption that Russia has offensive intentions and aims at revising the established status quo. This blog post argues that Moscow’s motives are not as straightforward as usually assumed in the West. In fact, Russia’s military behavior and its crisis diplomacy suggests that Moscow is more interested in sending a signal than in preparing for war.

The recent build-up of Russian troops on the border to Ukraine – already the second this year – is making waves in the political debate. It was the topic everybody talked about at the recent NATO foreign ministers‘ meeting in Riga and it continues to dominate the headlines of major German and international media. Predominant views in the West share the assumption that Russia has offensive intentions and aims at revising the established status quo (Kofman and Kimmage, 2021). Alarmist voices (including in the U.S. intelligence services) anticipate a major Russian offensive in winter, which would include a takeover of Kyiv and splitting Ukraine in half (also see Bild’s idea of what “Putin’s Blitzkrieg” would look like). Against this backdrop, Western decision-makers including Biden in his recent video-conference with Putin are warning Moscow against instigating a new round of military escalation in Ukraine.

What is Russia Up To?

We argue that Moscow’s motives are not as straightforward as usually assumed in the West. If Russia wanted to conduct a large-scale invasion to revise the status quo it is allegedly so dissatisfied with, why did it not do so already in spring when it conducted its first exercises at the Ukrainian border? Moreover, why is Russia amassing troops in such an easily observable manner? In fact, Russia’s military behavior and its crisis diplomacy suggest that Moscow is more interested in sending a signal than in preparing for war. Russia has drawn its red line for quite a while: Ukraine should not be allowed to join NATO. The Western response has been equally uncompromising: Ukraine’s choice of alliance membership is none of Moscow’s business.

Even if Russia’s military build-up is primarily intended as a signal, this behavior is reckless as it creates the very real risk of an unintended escalation. This risk is aggravated if the West holds on to its principled and uncompromising stance. If Putin does not get anything tangible out of his meeting with Biden, it will be difficult for him to stand down without losing face. And as both leaders presumably used the meeting to repeat their positions, a de-escalation of the crisis has not become easier.

Towards a More Realistic Assessment of Russia’s Intentions

The interpretation that the military build-up is intended as a signal is underpinned by Russia’s recent diplomatic activities. During the past weeks, President Putin and other spokespersons of the Russian government have laid out Russia’s grievances and interests. Confronted with a process of ever closer relations between NATO and Ukraine, Putin has updated the Russian position regarding Ukraine’s alliance status. In his recent December address to foreign ambassadors in Moscow, Putin declared that not only “further eastward expansion of NATO” is unacceptable but also that the Alliance’s “deployment of its weapons systems in close proximity to Russia’s territory” is an absolute no-go. Earlier, in his remarks at the expanded meeting of the Foreign Ministry Collegium, he additionally expressed his satisfaction that Russia’s “recent warnings” in form of a military build-up “had caused certain tensions” in Western capitals which he asked the foreign ministry to use “to push for serious long-term guarantees that ensure Russia’s security in this area, because Russia cannot constantly be thinking about what could happen there tomorrow”.

The West has reiterated its stance that it does not accept Russia’s red lines, arguing that Moscow is not entitled to any special “zone of interest” in its neighborhood and has no right to decide the destiny of its neighbors. NATO has strengthened its political and military relations with Ukraine and individual NATO member-states have been supplying Ukraine with modern armaments, including U.S. FGM-148 Javelins anti-tank systems as well as Turkish TB2 Bayraktar drones (which brought Azerbaijan the victory in Karabakh last fall) – both of which have been already used in Donbas.

Western states and the U.S. in particular have also promised support for Ukraine’s efforts to regain the lost territories. As far as Kyiv is concerned, this includes first of all a reintegration of the Donbas region – on terms other than those spelled out in the internationally mediated Minsk II agreement that Ukraine had accepted in spring 2015 as a result of its military defeat in the battle for Debaltseve. Both of these factors unsurprisingly irritate Russia. What is more, unabating support of Kyiv by the United States plays into the hand of conspiracy theorists in the Kremlin who, since the Orange Revolution in 2005, have argued that Ukraine is seen by Americans as an “aircraft carrier” parked at Russia’s doorstep.

Weaknesses of a Policy Based on Ethics of Conviction

A first line of Western arguments in favor of its support for Ukraine rests on shaky foundations, claiming that NATO has always been a defensive alliance. This argument is self-serving as it does not take a lot of imagination to understand that Russian politicians and generals – just as their counterparts in the West – think and plan on the basis of worst case scenarios. Russia’s perception of the NATO campaign in former Yugoslavia in 1999 should also not be forgotten. Viewed through this lens, the military steps taken by NATO in recent years as well as the projection of those developments into the future can indeed be interpreted as a worrying threat.

A second line of arguments is equally lopsided. In their dealings with Moscow, Western states invoke international law and the principles of the Paris Charter for a New Europe (1990) as well as several subsequent documents to which Russia has subscribed. The principle of sovereign equality and the right of all states to freely choose memberships in international organizations and military alliances enshrined in these documents delegitimize a Russian say over Ukraine’s NATO aspirations. This line of argument, however, rests on an abbreviated account of what had been agreed in Paris. In fact, the Paris Charta that spelled out the vision of a “Europe, whole and free” had been based on two principles: the principle of sovereign equality and the principle of common and indivisible security. In the OSCE Code of Conduct (1994) which specified central principles of the Charta, the West also committed itself to respect the “legitimate security interests of other states” when exercising the right to “freely choose how to ensure their own security”. Russian voice opportunities concerning security issues in its neighborhood have thus always been an additional element of this commonly agreed and hoped for European order.

Most importantly, however, a policy based on ethical reasoning that does not take into account the likely consequences of its own actions is deficient, if not outright frivolous. Alan Kuperman (2008) has introduced the concept of moral hazard into the study of wars. According to this model, external powers motivated by ethical principles like the responsibility to protect may signal support for a weaker party in the conflict and entice it to engage in the kind of risky behavior it would not resort to without the hope of external support. When push comes to the shove, however, the strong powers may leave the smaller partner out in the cold. This causal mechanism played a role in the outbreak of war in Georgia in 2008. Today, Western and particularly American signals of support to Ukraine and its fight for NATO membership and for regaining lost territory on favorable conditions are equally perilous. Thus, good statecraft needs to combine ethical principles with prudence and a sense for the likely consequences of one’s decisions.

The Way Forward: Breaking the Downward Spiral of Military Escalations

Given the unsolved conflicts over Crimea and the Donbas region as well as Ukraine’s unsettled alliance status, it is no surprise that we witness another escalation of the conflicts in and about Ukraine. Even if (as we argue) Putin does not currently intend to invade Ukraine and, instead, is merely raising the stakes for negotiations about security guarantees, these conflicts need to be settled.

First of all, this involves a political solution for the ongoing militarized conflict in the Donbas region. Russia does not stand in the way of an implementation of the Minsk agreement. Instead, Minsk failed because the domestic constellation of forces in Ukraine does not allow its implementation. One way out of this impasse would be, as one of us has written elsewhere (Dembinski and Spanger, 2017, p.93), the imposition of an international administration for the region. Beyond the resolution of this violent conflict, negotiations on the status of Ukraine and on mechanisms to guarantee its security in the future are necessary. This involves a re-balancing of the two principles of equal sovereignty and common security of the Paris Charter. A balanced set of principles could then be applied to agree on the future security status of Ukraine. A solution modelled on the Austrian independence treaty of 1955 would neither be a bad outcome for Ukraine nor for European security.

Matthias Dembinski
Dr. Matthias Dembinski ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter im Programmbereich Internationale Institutionen und Projektleiter an der HSFK. Er forscht zu Fragen von Gerechtigkeit in den internationalen Beziehungen, regionalen Sicherheitsorganisationen und humanitären Interventionen. Sein regionaler Schwerpunkt ist Westeuropa. // Dr. Matthias Dembinski is a research associate in the programme area International Institutions and project manager at PRIF. His research interests are questions of justice in international relations, regional security organisations and humanitarian interventions. His regional focus is Western Europe.
Mikhail Polianskii

Mikhail Polianskii

Mikhail Polianskii ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter und Doktorand im Programmbereich "Internationale Institutionen" der HSFK. Er forscht zur Außenpolitik Russlands sowie den Russland-EU/NATO Beziehungen im Rahmen der Europäischen Sicherheit. // Mikhail Polianskii is researcher and PhD candidate in PRIF’s research department „International Institutions“. His research interests are Russia’s foreign policy and the relations between Russia, EU and NATO. | Twitter: @PolianskiyM

Matthias Dembinski

Dr. Matthias Dembinski ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter im Programmbereich Internationale Institutionen und Projektleiter an der HSFK. Er forscht zu Fragen von Gerechtigkeit in den internationalen Beziehungen, regionalen Sicherheitsorganisationen und humanitären Interventionen. Sein regionaler Schwerpunkt ist Westeuropa. // Dr. Matthias Dembinski is a research associate in the programme area International Institutions and project manager at PRIF. His research interests are questions of justice in international relations, regional security organisations and humanitarian interventions. His regional focus is Western Europe.

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