Nobody knows. But Russia has been deploying troops around its border with Ukraine, particularly around the Donbas, the area where Russia has been carrying on a small war since late 2014. Earlier that year, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, part of Ukraine.
The latest buildup, according to military experts, looks like it could be in preparation for a major invasion of Ukraine. But why? A great deal of speculation is possible on the basis of official Russian statements and history. It’s hard not to be snarky about some of this – Vladimir Putin seems to live in a land all his own, part pre-1905, part World War II, part nuclear age. Living in a land of his own, however, doesn’t mean that he can’t precipitate a war, so I’ll avoid snark.
Putin has put forth an error-filled history of Russia in which Christian Russia begins in Kievan Rus. That’s Kyiv, now the capital of Ukraine. So, Putin’s reasoning goes, Ukraine and Russia are intimately related, perhaps the same country. The reference to Christianity is important, because Putin would like Russia to be seen as the world representative of a conservative worldview that includes Christianity. Russian Orthodox, of course, but he has courted American Christian conservatives.
There is also the matter of the Soviet Union, and before that the Russian Empire, both of which included Ukraine. Putin has said that the collapse of the Soviet Union “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
Putin would also like for Russia to be seen as a Great Power. Neither fully European nor Asian, Russia’s position in the world is unique and should be recognized. Russia’s primary claim to this status is the possession of roughly as many nuclear weapons as the United States, far more than the next contenders. Russia has wanted more of a say in European affairs for centuries, and the EU and NATO are part of what grates in Ukraine.
Ukraine has leaned toward the EU and NATO since its independence in 1991. Russia seems unable to consider that grabbing parts of its territory and threatening war are more likely to drive Ukraine toward the EU and NATO than to convince them that Russia is their friend.
There’s a lot more history that I could mull, but let’s look at the current situation. Putin is asking for “legally binding” guarantees that NATO will never make Ukraine a member. Boris Yeltsin asked Bill Clinton for that assurance, and Clinton said no. So will Biden. Which brings us to another point.
Ukraine, like other countries, should be able to determine its own future. Putin wants to confer with the US President to make a decision without Ukraine’s participation. That, too, will not happen. For that matter, what NATO does is not solely up to the United States. Ukraine is not a NATO member, so the United States is not obligated to intervene if Russia attacks.
It’s unlikely that Putin will fully invade and occupy Ukraine. That would require commitment of significant Russian resources for years. Ukrainians carried out partisan warfare throughout World War II and after, and have been training recently for that eventuality. More here about military possibilities.
President Joe Biden will talk to Putin in a video call on Tuesday. Perhaps that will help to clarify things. I have to say I’m not at all clear on what Putin’s issues are or how they might be addressed, and my sense of what I’ve read is that others aren’t clear either. Michael Kofman is very good on the military side of things. Keir Giles has an analysis that I mostly agree with. I also agree with Pavel Podvig’s argument in this thread that there is no military solution, but his solution depends on a “Beautiful Russia of the Future” that we won’t see any time soon.
The middle of a pandemic in which millions have died and no end is in sight is a hell of a time to start a war.