February 2022 has seen tensions between Russia and Ukraine reach a fever pitch. In January 2022, official confirmation that Russian President Vladamir Putin had assembled over 100,000 troops at the Ukrainian border sparked fears of a mass incursion, leading North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its allies into uncharted territory.
In 2013, conflicts between Ukraine and Russia started over a political land deal with the European Union (EU). The suspension of the talks—reportedly due to pressure from Moscow — touched off weeks of protests in Kyiv. In March 2014, Russia annexed Crimea in a move that was slammed as illegitimate by Ukraine and most of the world. Shortly thereafter, Russian separatists declared independence from Kyiv, which brought months of heavy fighting. The United Nations estimates that over 3,000 civilian deaths in eastern Ukraine since 2014 have been a result of border skirmishes between citizens of both countries. Tensions between Russia and Ukraine are anything but new.
Ukraine claims that Russia is attempting to destabilize the country in preparation for an invasion. As a result, NATO has issued warnings to Russia against any further hostile activity. However, the Kremlin has denied any plans of an attack, instead claiming that NATO support for Ukraine —which includes increased weapon supply and training — represents an offensive on Russia’s growing western flank.
In late 2021, satellite imagery confirmed an arsenal of self propelled guns, battle tanks, and military vehicles amassed around 186 miles from the border. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III described this combination of Russian arms assembled at the Ukrainian border “far and away exceeds what we would typically see them do for exercises.”
General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it more bluntly, saying that “[…] you’d have to go back quite a while to the Cold War days to see something of this magnitude.”
After three rounds of diplomatic talks between Russia and NATO countries to avert a military confrontation failed, Western allies have launched into military preparation as NATO signaled forces to stand by and ready for potential military conflict. The U.S. Department of Justice has placed around 8,500 American troops on alert and stated that they will join the NATO Response Force if necessary. The NATO Response Force is composed of 40,000 multinational troops that are trained for land, air, and maritime maneuvers, with a focal purpose “to provide a rapid military response to an emerging crisis.” The force has yet to be deployed, but it teeters by a thin diplomatic string.
While the U.S. and NATO have been planning for an invasion, Europe has been noticeably absent in last-ditch negotiations. This has led Emre Peker and Alex Briedeau, two members of the Eurasia Group, to come to the conclusion that the European Union (EU) has been sidelined in their own territory.
“The EU has failed to unequivocally rally behind a strategy to counter Russia’s increasingly aggressive posture against Ukraine, and will struggle to do so going forward […] as the U.S. and Russia discuss the future of Europe’s security architecture,” Peker and Briedeau noted.
Ukraine has noted that it has been left out in negotiations between the U.S. and Russia, although it is the focus of the conflict. This is shaping the situation into something more Cold War-esque, reflecting many of the past proxy wars fought between the two world superpowers.
Amid this whole situation, the question is now how far the world is ready to go to defend Ukraine. As Ukraine is technically not a part of NATO, no NATO countries are obligated to protect the nation. In talks between the U.S. and Russia, Russia has requested assurance that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO. As of now, all demands have been refused by the U.S. and NATO, foreshadowing the willingness of both parties to move forward in this conflict.
Currently, the situation seems to be at a tipping point, and only time will tell how far it will escalate. However, as more and more countries are preparing to take Ukraine’s side in this conflict, the ball is now on Russia’s side of the court.
By: Daniel Seong