MOSCOW BLOG: Is Russia’s build-up of troops on Ukraine’s border a new Cuban Missile crisis?

MOSCOW BLOG: Is Russia’s build-up of troops on Ukraine’s border a new Cuban Missile crisis?
There was a big build-up of Russian troops in April ahead of a Putin-Biden summit that the Kremlin used to put pressure on the US. Is the same thing happening again?
By Ben Aris in Berlin November 28, 2021

Russia has clearly been building up forces close to Ukraine’s border but as bne IntelliNews has reported, experts are convinced that Russia will not actually attack. So what is really going on?

This is not the first time that Russia has built up its forces on Ukraine’s border. In April the Russian army also assembled its forces on Ukraine’s border in a very public and obvious way that also created a major scare.

That confrontation only ended at the end of April when Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered the men back to barracks at the end of the month.

At the time, analysts speculated the gesture was designed to improve Russia’s hand ahead of a one-on-one summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden in Geneva on June 16. The idea was to show the US that Russia had the ability to cause serious trouble in the conflict in Ukraine, which the Kremlin turned on or off at will.

Now there is another build-up and a second Putin-Biden summit is being planned to happen sometime before the end of the year. Could the same thing be happening again? Some analysts think so.

Part of the puzzle is that the Kremlin is increasingly unhappy with what Putin called a de facto membership of Ukraine into Nato, even if the country is not being offered formal membership. The US has increased its military aid to Ukraine this year from the approximately $250mn it got in the last two years to $400mn. US navy vessels just delivered a reported 80 tonnes of arms and ammunition to Ukraine and the UK has also closed a $1.3bn naval upgrade deal earlier this year. UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace was in Kyiv earlier this month to discuss a follow up deal.

Putin has taken all this badly and said that the west is ignoring Russia’s “red lines” when it comes to arming Ukraine. To make matters worse Ukraine used its new Turkish-made drones against a rebel artillery unit in Donbas this month and fired a US-supplied Javelin missile for the first time as well.

Moscow has protested loudly, claiming that the US is whipping up “hysteria” about the troop movements and escalating the situation in Donbas with these arms sales.

All these moves could be taken as both sides playing a game of “multi-dimensional chess” ahead of the  next summit between the two presidents.

Putin's re-positioning of troops closer to Ukraine is part of a Russian push to secure and frame the terms of another summit with Biden, two sources close to official Russian foreign policy circles, told Reuters; The other big aim is to signal to the West that it should stop helping Ukraine upgrade its military and that Kyiv should avoid escalating a grinding conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, the two sources added.

"Putin needs another summit meeting with Biden," Andrey Kortunov, head of RIAC, a foreign policy think-tank in Moscow close to the Foreign Ministry, told Reuters. "Apparently he now believes that the Europeans cannot really do much without the Americans and that the U.S. President has the final decision on European security measures on behalf of the Western alliance."

In response to the western complaints Putin has complained about aggressive Nato troop movements, including naval exercises in the Black Sea and nuclear exercises that involve bombers flying within 20km of Russia’s border.

Nato admits there has been a significant build up in its own forces facing off against Russia since before the current crisis started, but dismiss this as an innocent reinforcement against potential Russian aggression.

In an interview with CNN Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said: “Nato has implement the biggest reinforcement since the end of the Cold War. For the first time in our history we have combat ready troops in the eastern part of the alliance. We have tripled the size of our response force. More presence in the air, on land, the sea – in the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea. And all this of course demonstrates to Russia that there will be consequences if they once again use force against and independent sovereign Ukraine.”

Some have suggested that by moving up troops closer to Ukraine, but in insufficient numbers to threaten an actual imminent invasion, Putin is creating a new Cuban Missile crisis to get some leverage over the White House in possible talks. His intention is to hammer home that the recent increases in weapons delivery and military aid is destabilising and Russia won’t tolerate Ukraine being turned into a “giant unsinkable aircraft carrier parked on Russia’s border,” as Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center called Ukraine last week.

"Obviously, since [the last build up of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border in] April Moscow has discovered that a new Cuban Missile Crisis over Ukraine could be very effective in getting Biden’s attention and inflaming his desire for a personal engagement with Putin," said Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat in the United States who is now a foreign policy analyst, as cited by Reuters.

The calculation seems to be that, as Biden clearly wants to downgrade the “Russia problem” so he can concentrate on China and domestic politics, that gives the Kremlin real leverage over the White House by demonstrating its ability to escalate the situation with Ukraine at will. The hope would appear to be by escalating, the White House will be willing to cut a quick deal or give the guarantees on freezing the situation with Ukraine – the “red lines” that Putin is talking about – so that the US can move on to deal with its foreign policy priorities.

In a big foreign policy speech last week, Putin said Moscow had no appetite for war, but suggested that Russia's posture in eastern Europe was paying some dividends and making its adversaries take heed.

"Our recent warnings have had a certain effect: tensions have arisen there anyway," Putin said. "It is important for them to remain in this state for as long as possible, so it does not occur to them to stage some kind of conflict on our western borders... we do not need a new conflict."

The Kremlin leader then ordered Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to push for serious long-term guarantees from the West that he said could ensure Russia's security.

Russia has taken a much harder line with the west since Lavrov gave a new rules of the game speech in February where he said that Russia was no longer willing to accept the dual policy in the west of imposing value-based sanctions with one hand and asking for cooperation in solving big geopolitical problems or doing business with the other. Moreover, Lavrov went on to say shortly afterwards that Russia was willing to break off diplomatic relations with Europe entirely. And the Kremlin went as far as actually breaking off diplomatic relations with Nato entirely in October.

Part of the explanation could also be that the US is playing the same card on Russia that the Kremlin played in April: deliberately fanning the flames of war talk in an effort to unite Europe around its backing of Ukraine and negate the threat of Russia’s troop movements.

One element that supports this take is that the concerns about the Russian troop build up have largely been driven by the US intelligence services. Russia did move up some powerful new military units close to Ukraine, but the White House has called the Kremlin's bluff by playing up these moves to make Russia look like an aggressor and put it into a defence position, forcing it to deny its spoiling for war.

The fears began with a Washington Post report at the end of October and that has been followed by regular statements. But what is different from the April build up is the lack of supporting evidence on social media and also the apparent lack of concern in Kyiv or any visible signs of preparation for war by Ukraine. Indeed, Ukraine’s border guards and military did start a large exercise this week, but on the border with Belarus that was designed to stop migrants crossing over in Ukraine.

“One of the interesting things about the latest uptick in “is Russia about to invade Ukraine?” speculation is that (unusually) it’s been western countries talking it up - not Ukraine,” Jonah Fisher of the BBC tweeted at the weekend. 

The US administration has been aggressively pushing this story with largest part of the reporing on the tensions still sourced from US intelligence reports and statements from a wide variety of senior US officials. Unlike the very public build up of Russian troops in April, the amount of social media footage showing troop movements and local reports from the ground on social media to support the story is signficantly less.

If this is a ruse by the White House to define the terms of the upcoming summit then it seems to be working. The Kremlin has sounded increasingly shrill in denials of an ill intent and its complaints about the US ignoring its “red lines” have become lost in the noise. In its place the talk of new even harsher sanctions is back that has already hit both the value of the ruble and ended a year-long stock market rally.

If the Kremlin’s goal was to scare the west into backing off Ukraine and limiting its arms deliveries then the current warmongering has created a climate where military aid to Ukraine could easily be increased – and indeed many are calling for just that.

The date of the summit has not been set, but both the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Department of State are actively talking on the terms of the meeting.

If this clash follows the same playbook as the last clash in April then the tensions will fade away very fast after the meeting. Both sides have indicated that they have a common interest in winding down the tensions and are already actively negotiating restarting many of the Cold War era arms control deals. But the tension remains prickly and both sides have shown themselves to play the big geopolitics game as they attempt to thrash out some sort of new working relation.

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