Controversy erupted in the global community as Russia began a large military build-up at the Ukrainian border over the past several weeks. These two nations have a long history with one another, the latter having been conquered by the former in 1920, and then the two separating as sovereign nations following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. For a time, they maintained relatively successful bilateral relations; however, it took a turn for the worse following the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, otherwise known as the “Revolution of Dignity,” which saw Ukraine sway closer to the European Union. Mere days after the removal of Ukrainian president Viktor Yakunovych, on March 1 Russia led a sweeping campaign capturing the then-Ukrainian territory Crimea, launching the Russo-Ukrainian War. The conflict, though never officially finished, has protracted with both nations left in a tense standoff, interspersed by the activities of separatist forces in Ukraine armed by the Russian government.
Whether the radical build-up of Russian forces at the Ukrainian border is intended as an intimidation tactic against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenski, a test of the United States and the young Biden administration’s foreign policy, or is a precursor to a looming military campaign is unclear, however global leaders have expressed strong suspicions of the latter. With the slumping support of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party going into the country’s 2021 parliamentary election cycle, a likely successful military campaign could be an effective means to boost his party’s popularity. Furthermore, relations between Russia and Ukraine have steeply deteriorated following the inauguration of Zelenski. Originally viewing the Russian-speaking politician with optimism, Russia came into strong opposition of him as he boosted Ukraine’s focus on integration with Western Europe and territorial sovereignty. Thus, separatist activity gradually grew within Eastern Ukraine, with 19 military personnel having been killed so far this year. This could also mark a boiling point in political tensions with Ukraine. Fearing this outcome, almost immediately the United States European Command raised its alert to the highest level, with President Biden promising the United States’ “unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Widely considered the second most powerful military in the world behind the United States, there is no question that Russia would hold an advantageous position in a new conflict with Ukraine. With approximately 900,000 active personnel and two million on reserve, the Russian military dwarfs the Ukrainian forces of 255,000 active personnel and 900,000 on reserve. Russia likewise possesses a military budget easily a dozen times the size of that of Ukraine. The only question in such a conflict would be the extent to which Ukraine could expect aid from abroad. Ukraine, an aspiring member of NATO, has urged the powerful military alliance to expedite its road to membership to dissuade Russian activities. Meanwhile, the United States under the Trump administration sold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of lethal armaments to the Ukrainian military along with significant upticks in security aid from the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department. Whether Ukraine can expect similar support from the United States now, or if President Biden will revert back to the more passive assistance offered by President Obama whom he served as vice president to is yet unclear.
Many experts, however, are more skeptical that this military build-up could result in a military conflict. Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at RAND, argues that this is more likely a “readiness check and some type of Russian flex or coercive signal to Ukraine and its supporters.” Retired lieutenant general Ben Hodges, a former commanding general of the United States Army Europe, believes this is most likely a “demonstration and a test of the Biden Administration,” though he also finds it possible that this may be a precursor to a seizure of infrastructure to supply Crimea with, as Ukraine greatly cut off water to the region following its takeover by Russia. Either way, he believes that Russia’s overarching goal is to pressure NATO out of the region and isolate Ukraine, allowing for Russian control of the Black Sea.