Conflict Alerts # 464, 16 December 2021
In the news
On 14 December, commenting on possible nuclear missile launches, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said: “Lack of progress towards a political and diplomatic solution to this problem will lead to our response being of a military and technical military nature.”
On 13 December, the EU foreign minister imposed sanctions on the Russian-based Wagner Group, accused of acting on behalf of the Kremlin.
On 12 December, following the G7 foreign ministers’ meet, the group released a statement that read: “Russia should be in no doubt that further military aggression against Ukraine would have massive consequences and severe cost in response.”
On 11 December, US President Joe Biden stated: “I made it absolutely clear to President Putin… that if he moves on Ukraine, the economic consequences for his economy are going to be devastating, devastating.”
On 10 December, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned: “Aggression needs to come with a price tag, which is why we will communicate these points ahead of time to Russia.” On the same day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy stated: “I do not rule out a referendum on Donbas in general… It might be about Donbas, it might be about Crimea, it might be about ending the war in general.”
Issues at large
First, the recent crisis. The second troop buildup this year, latest statistics show about 100,000 troops along the border; it is expected to go up to 175,000 according to US intelligence. The standoff, however, is not only about military might, energy plays a very important role in the unfolding of the crisis. The activation of Nord Stream 2 implies a greater security concern for Ukraine as it reduces the volume of gas Ukraine transits. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba expressed the “vulnerable security situation” that would arise on the launch of the pipeline, leading to an increased vulnerability to “potential Russian aggressive actions”.
Second, the Minsk process. If the Minsk Protocol I failed as a ceasefire agreement, Minsk Protocol II saw its failure via lack of implementation. The shooting in the region has never really stopped. Allegations also exist on Russia not having fulfilled its commitments as part of the Minsk agreements. In an attempt to resolve the crisis, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called for the revival of the Normandy format talks. The format which involves leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia has not taken place since 2019.
Third, Russia’s endgame. The West’s military proximity concerns Russian President Vladimir Putin; security seems to be his primary concern as NATO advances geopolitically. In Putin’s words, acceding Ukraine into the organization is a “red line”. Alternatively, Russia eyes Ukraine’s east – Donetsk and Luhansk – along with the already annexed Crimean Peninsula. The separatists in this region only make it easier for Moscow. Any attempt to oppose Russian efforts could be met with costly consequences such as seen in the case of Georgia’s Saakashvili.
Fourth, the Western response. Besides the widespread condemnation, deterrence has been the West’s sole response. Burdened with the responsibility of having to engage post a Russian invasion, the subsequent fear of the measures to be considered leaves them in a dilemma. Their limited response also attributes to the fact that a tough stance could break into an all-out war that is detrimental for the region.
First, the larger picture. Unlike all the other times Russia has militarized the borders, the growing concerns over their latest build-up may attribute to the potentiality of the situation. The West remains unaware of what such a situation would include. Deterrence measures seem to be the only hail Mary.
Second, the growing tensions between Russia and the West. From the Belarusian migrant crisis to now the Ukrainian border standoff, Russia and the West are experiencing severely strained ties. As Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda suggested, the agenda behind Russian efforts at destabilization could be to “test the unity of the West”. It is imperative that the latter does not fail this. Meanwhile, both sides are to keep in mind the invasion’s collateral damage will exceed potential gains.