Why is Russia Amassing Troops on the border with Ukraine?
It is unlikely that Russia will invade Ukraine and declare an open war. Putin’s MO has been sable rattling and flexing his muscles to intimidate the EU and NATO. Since 2014 Ukraine has basically been a battleground for proxy wars between Russia and NATO. In the spring of 2014, Russia openly and illegally annexed Crimea and then has been “covertly” supporting Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine since then. Putin has never admitted to armed forces being there, but there is enough evidence to conclusively say that Russian troops have been in eastern Ukraine. The war has been mostly a stalemate since 2015 when the Minsk agreements were signed. Nevertheless, over 15,000 people have died since 2014 because of the conflict.
Putin is trying to demonstrate his military power right now because a combination of domestic issues and foreign policy desires. Domestically, COVID has ravaged Russia—way more than Putin expected or wants to admit. Furthermore, at the beginning of 2021, there were many protests against the Putin regime in favor of opposition leader Alexy Navalny. Putin allegedly tried to poison Navalny, but he lived and made it to Germany to recover. However, he decided to come back to Russia and was immediately imprisoned for some questionable political charges. He will be in prison for at least 3 years, but the Putin regime been trying to extend that sentence. Putin’s popularity, while still high, is starting to decline. His approval rating has dipped into the low 60s. He needs a distraction. Internationally, from Putin’s POV, NATO and the EU are threatening and the literal antithesis of his regime. He needs to remind them that Russia is still a superpower. And Russia has one more trump card over Europe. Russia supplies Europe with most of their natural gas and uses that as a tactical weapon to get political concessions. When Russia turns up the political pressure, they turn down the pressure (on natural gas). But that only gets him so far.
There are historical implications for Putin’s desires. Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire for 150 years and then part of the Soviet Union for almost 74. It’s a common sentiment in Russia that Ukrainians are “little Russians” and at the very least should be part of Russia’s political sphere of influence. Bringing back Ukraine into the fold would help recreate something reminiscent of the Soviet Union. Ukraine is an agricultural powerhouse and was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union.
There are also some historical implications with Putin himself. He was a KGB officer for the Soviet Union working in Berlin when the Berlin Wall fell. He was left to fend for himself and watched the demise of his country. He was a proud Soviet citizen and said the biggest catastrophe of the 20th, and potentially human history, was the collapse of the Soviet Union. NATO and the EU at least indirectly led to its demise through sanctions and a containment policy starting after WWII. Then these entities turned their back on Russia (and the rest of the post-Soviet bloc) in the 90s when they were transitioning to capitalism after the demise of the Soviet Union. 1990s Russia was an economic catastrophe, and the “West” (i.e., US, EU, NATO) did nothing to alleviate their suffering when they were the ones pushing for a capitalistic regime. Therefore, Putin does not have many reasons to trust or want to cooperate with the “West” Putin then came to power in 2000, and through shrewd political moves and the coincidental rise of oil prices in the mid 2000s, Russia reclaimed some of its political and economic might. Since then, Putin’s regime has been characterized with the following unspoken rule: I will give you stability and economic security in exchange for less civil liberties.
Thanks to COVID, the stability and economic security has been undermined. A little political confrontation with the “West” could be a nice distraction.