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SITUATION UPDATE 14 December, 2021 Back

Situation Update - Renewed Russian military build-up on Ukraine eastern border

Benjamin Olson

Russian military build up on Ukraine border

Summary

  • Renewed Russian military build-up along the Eastern Ukrainian border is occurring where Ukrainian forces have been battling pro-Russian separatists since 2014, as mentioned in our April 2021 update.
  • Armed skirmishes continue to transpire along border regions between pro-Russian separatist and Ukrainian armed forces.
  • Recent Ukrainian Intelligence has revealed a possible coup attempt to overthrow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
  • Spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, alleges that Ukraine has deployed half of its armed forces to the Donbas.
  • Ukrainian volunteer regiments are reportedly being formed due to civilian fear that a Russian invasion is imminent.
  • On 7 December, US President Joseph Biden and Russian President, Vladmir Putin held a 2-hour virtual meeting to discuss the ongoing security situation and attempt to diffuse the increasing military tension.
  • US and NATO allies are prepared to implement severe economic sanctions against Russia, disrupt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, and provide additional defensive measures in support of Ukraine against Russia.

Situation

Recent satellite imagery released in late November shows a renewed Russian military build up along the Russian-Ukrainian border, which is causing Ukraine, the United States of America, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies much concern.

On 3 December, US intelligence officials released a report that Moscow is considering a multi-front invasion plan into Ukraine involving up to 175,000 troops as early as 2022. Currently, approximately 70,000 to 100,000 Russian troops are stationed in military encampments along several locations in border areas of eastern Ukraine with persistent activity, growth of heavy military equipment, and armament stockpiling. Images from the ground show Russian military vehicles with insignia and identification marks painted over, as the uniforms of soldiers had been during the annexation of Crimea.

On 26 November, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated he received Intelligence indicating a group of Ukrainians and Russians were planning a coup to overthrow him, sponsored by the Russian Government. Even though Russia denied the allegations, neighboring Eastern European countries, with the exclusion of Belarus, fears of full-scale military conflict have escalated.

In response to the growing fears of a possible Russian invasion and Russia’s destabilizing efforts towards Ukraine, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken held a meeting with Latvian President Egils Levits in Riga on 30 November. Blinken stated the US and its NATO allies “must prepare for all contingencies and there would be severe consequences.” The deterring rhetoric continues with the Ukrainian defence minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, declaring that if Russia invades Ukraine, it will be a “really bloody massacre” and “Russian guys will also come back in coffins.” Reznikov affirmed as well that international consequences would derive from any sort of conflict due to Ukraine being a major food supplier to Africa and Europe.

On 6 December, in honor of the Day of the Armed Forces, Ukraine showcased its military capabilities and arsenal. In response, Russian President, Vladmir Putin, has noted in several speeches that a threat is growing in Ukraine, which could encapsulate western NATO borders. He further mentioned that Ukraine and Russia “are of one people,” a comment that disregards Ukraine’s efforts since independence to create a national identity separate from Russia. Putin expressed that a significant response would be conducted by Russia if it finds this threat imminent. The next day, rocket grenades and an exchange of gunfire occurred, resulting in several fatalities along the border.

Despite a ceasefire agreed under the Minsk Package of Measures, armed clashes continue to be recorded between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region, which has seen conflict since 2014 shortly after the Russian armed forces annexed the Crimea Peninsula. From 11 to 13 December 2021, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission recorded 810 ceasefire violations, including 137 explosions. Overall, the conflict has claimed approximately 13,000 fatalities and displaced over 1.5 million people.

US President Joseph Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a 2-hour virtual meeting on 7 December focused on the ongoing security situation and attempting to defuse the strong military tension between Russia and Ukraine. Afterwards, leaders from France, Germany, Italy, and United Kingdom held a follow-up meeting with Biden to discuss the key points discussed between the two leaders and a joint response if Russian military aggression escalates.

Analysis

As national and international concerns continue to intensify over a possible 2022 Russian military invasion into Ukraine; the US and its NATO allies have readied to deploy military equipment and aid and are prepared to implement severe economic sanctions against Russia.

The first measure of sanctions includes halting the certification process of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline that is linked from Russia to Germany. It has also been stated that the allies are prepared to cut Russia off from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) payment system, which gives Russia world market access and the capability to convert the Russian ruble into the US dollar.

Russia has consistently denied the possible Ukraine invasion allegations. While the Russian military build-up along the Ukrainian border started in April 2021, the official statement from Moscow on the military build-up has changed. Previously, the military activity was reported as part of a three-week war game drill. Now, the Russian government officially declares the mobilization of troops and military equipment are part of a set of measures to modernize the Russian armed forces. The Russian government has stated that they are open to more international talks/possible summits to mitigate the tensions. However, Biden continues to confirm the pro-US stance on Ukrainian sovereignty and is leaning towards economic sanctions as a deterrent.

Domestic factors constitute a possible cause contributing to the situation. Opinion ratings of President Putin have been sliding since 2014, with the most notable drop occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic. Russia has openly signalled its willingness to hold bilateral meetings with the United States of America. In doing so, two messages are signalled to Putin's domestic audience; Russia is regaining its international importance that was diminished following the collapse of the USSR, and Putin prioritizes the Russian population. Bilateral meetings with the US boost the popularity of the incumbent. Building up troops on Ukraine’s border led to the virtual summit between Putin and Biden on 7 December, which was widely covered by Russian state-owned media channels.

Notwithstanding, one of the primary causes of the tension is Ukraine’s desire to join NATO. Ukraine has been striving to obtain NATO membership status since 2002 but currently is valued as a partner. NATO has denied membership due to several membership obligations not being met. Russia has not changed its stance, is strongly opposed to possible Ukrainian membership, and would feel vastly threatened due to “the creeping encroachment of western military aggression.” During the recent virtual meeting held by Biden and Putin, it was stated that Putin was seeking a binding agreement to ban Ukraine from ever being admitted to NATO as a member. Putin stated recently that if NATO deploys missiles within Ukraine, this action will cross a “Red Line” and Russia would be forced to military aggression on its western borders.

It is unlikely Biden will accede to the demands and recently stated to Ukrainian President Zelensky that membership is possible. The US and European NATO allies have been sending military aid and heavy equipment to uplift the Ukrainian army further, showcased recently during the Ukraine Day of Armed Forces Celebration. A 300 million dollar US defence aid bill for Ukraine recently passed on 7 December. Additionally, domestically, Ukrainian civilians fear an invasion is imminent and are volunteering in militant regiments being formed nationwide to help defend against Russian aggression.

At the heart of the sanctions against Russia is the stoppage of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline constructed by the Russian Company Gazprom. This natural gas pipeline is a link from Russia to Germany and would provide an economic outlet for Russia to sell more natural gas to Europe. Many natural gas pipelines pass through Ukraine, but the Nord Stream 2 passes through the Baltic Sea. The European Union receives approximately 40 percent of all imported natural gas from Russia and this pipeline will increase the current supply.

Another sanction considered as a last resort measure is removing Russia from the SWIFT payment system. International trade is primarily conducted in US currency, disconnecting Russia from this system would make its international trade nearly non-existent, further isolating Russia and hindering the health of the Russian economy. However, threats of economic sanctions from the global community have not previously stopped Russian military operations. Furthermore, on 9 December, Belarusian banking systems integrated into the Central Bank of Russia Financial Messaging System, likely due to the recent threat of this economic sanction measure. It is believed that this integration is Russia’s attempt to uplift its economy if it is cut away from SWIFT.

Advice

  • Continue to monitor national and international sources for situational updates regarding military movement and tension between both countries
  • Be aware of the increasing military presence in Crimea and the border areas. Adhere to any instruction issued by military personnel.
  • Exercise extreme caution if transiting near the border regions, Crimea, and the Ukrainian eastern provinces due to armed clashes that take place between the pro-Russian separatist and Ukrainian armed forces.
  • Have an evacuation plan ready if a Russian invasion occurs. Implement robust security measures and leave the country immediately.