That year, Moscow entered into an agreement with NATO that made clear ex-Soviet states could join the Western alliance and, since then, more than a dozen countries in the region have become NATO members, including the former Soviet Baltic republics Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 2004.
Four years later, NATO declared its intent to bring Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova into the fold and Moscow said a red line had been crossed. Russia now has “nowhere further to retreat to”, Putin has complained. “Do they think we’ll just sit idly by?”
During Montenegro’s bid to join NATO, the tiny nation accused the Kremlin of involvement in a 2016 failed coup and assassination plot against its prime minister. (Two Russian secret-service agents were later convicted in absentia over the thwarted plans, but Montenegro did join NATO.)
In 2008, America lobbied to let Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance but was blocked by Germany. In the years after, both Georgia and Ukraine were invaded by Russian troops.
“Russia’s demand is this,” says Wilson. “Russia claims no state should seek its security at the cost of the insecurity of others. But that is actually what they’re doing ... They believe their neighbours must be weak and neutral while Russia can be a military superpower.”Loading
If Ukraine does join NATO, it will be afforded the full protections of the alliance – member countries will be bound to defend it if it comes under attack. Of course, Horvath says, that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. “NATO decision-making is by consensus, and it will be a very long time before all of its member states agree.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine is caught in a sort of tug-of-war between East and West, a grey zone “where Russian influence ends and Western influence starts,” says Griffith University’s Dr Matt Sussex. “From Putin’s perspective, the Ukraine question has to be settled.“
And many experts say Putin has chosen his moment well. The world is still reeling from the pandemic and US President Joe Biden has just overseen a messy withdrawal from Afghanistan. Russia, which has now set up its own loose defence alliance in the region with Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, may be betting that the US is not of a mind to intervene in another long, messy conflict.
“But Europe cannot be defended without American support,” says Besemeres.
Sussex and Wilson say the border standoff is designed to test Ukraine’s connections with the West and to test Biden himself. “Putin has come to think Biden is weak (and preoccupied with domestic problems),” says Sussex.
What has been the response from NATO countries?
Peace talks have not been uncommon between Western leaders and Russia over Ukraine since fighting broke out. In April last year, a build-up of Russian troops at the border coincided perfectly with Putin’s push to meet the new President Biden in another “perfectly engineered crisis”, Besemeres says, “to make Biden agreeable to what Putin wanted from that summit”.
But this time, experts note his demands seem beyond the reach of compromise (and have so far been refused).
“Russia won’t accept Ukraine into NATO. The West won’t accept a Russian sphere of influence,” says Sussex.
US officials have, however, said that America is willing to deal with Russia on new arrangements around military exercises and tougher rules on nuclear weapons, which all sides still agree are off-limits).
On January 7, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the organisation would engage in talks with Russia in good faith, but warned: “We have troops, we have forces ... We have the plans to be able to defend, protect all allies … to make sure that we preserve peace in Europe.”
The US is now threatening tougher and wider-ranging sanctions designed to shut off more of Russia from Western banking as well as blocking US technology imports. The UK and the EU have also agreed to sanction Russia if it invades.
Ukrainian artist Kovalska, who took part in the Maidan protests, says sanctions should also be imposed on some Ukrainian oligarchs in the pocket of Moscow who profit from the chaos and enduring poverty of a Ukraine under siege. The longer Ukrainian democratic institutions falter, the stronger Moscow can spin the narrative of Ukraine as a failed state.
What is the reaction in Ukraine?
Ukraine’s government has been noticeably sidelined from some of the recent peace talks, and forced to set up an informal channel with Moscow. (“It’s unacceptable, but there is no choice but to watch two states deciding the destiny of a third one,” says Barandiy). Ukrainian president Zelensky has said his country is ready to take the necessary decisions to end the war in Donbass. That could include more prisoner swaps and another ceasefire.
But Barandiy says most Ukrainians will not accept more appeasement of Moscow “because we know it does not work”. “I believe that no matter what the results of “the talks” are, Putin will not let Ukraine go: the more that is given in, the more he will want to take later, to restore ‘the empire’.”
Indeed, former Ukrainian minister of defence Andriy Zagorodnyuk argues that accommodations in the past by the West have only emboldened Putin to continue “negotiations at gunpoint”, ratcheting up the prospect of war.
Above: A meme posted by the Ukrainian government in late 2021 as Russian troops built up at the border.
Sussex agrees: “If you’re Putin, why not keep doing this? Because every time you do, you get rewarded. The Russians are prepared for a 25 per cent risk of war to achieve what they want on the border. So many wars are started by accident, particularly when someone decides to send a patrol close” to enemy lines.
The best way to avoid war now, Zagorodnyuk says, is to make the cost of a full-scale invasion too high for the Kremlin. Russia has built up its reserves in recent years and is well-placed to weather another storm of sanctions. Instead, he argues, a Russia waiting for the West to “blink first” in its dangerous diplomatic dance, should be reminded that a long, difficult occupation of Ukraine will not be popular back home, just as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s was not.
“And Ukraine is not a helpless hostage”. It has an army of about 145,000 and there are 300,000 veterans of the long-running conflict in Donbass with Russian separatists. Polling says one in three Ukrainians are willing to take up “armed resistance” to an invasion.
The US and the UK are sending weapons to help the Ukrainian military, including anti-tank missiles and training. The US is considering supporting Ukrainian insurgents fighting against separatists in Russian-controlled territory too. It’s part of a so-called “Porcupine strategy”, laying down resistance as far across Ukraine as possible to make the country so spiky with threats it becomes too difficult for Russia to swallow.
Will Russia really invade?
The signs are there on the ground, and they could be genuine preparation or pure theatre – or a little of both.
Even before peace talks had begun with the West this month, the Kremlin was emptying its Ukrainian embassy and issuing more than 500,000 passports to Russian separatists fighting in Ukrainian territory (so it can claim to be “coming to the defence of its citizens” if it invades).
Ukraine says the cyber attack that knocked its government websites offline this month came from Russia, Microsoft has issued a warning more malware is in place in the country’s networks, and on January 10, Ukraine arrested a Russian military intelligence agent allegedly trying to recruit others into terrorist attacks on the Ukrainian city of Odessa. The US says it’s also gathered intelligence of “false flag” missions – operatives trained in urban warfare dispatched to sabotage Russia’s own proxy forces, and so provide Moscow with a cause for war.
Meanwhile, Kremlin ally Belarus has been running joint military drills with Russia near its own border with Ukraine, which leaves the besieged Ukraine facing troops on three sides. Moscow’s recent military intervention to put down uprisings in Kazakhstan has cemented Russia’s ties to that country’s forces too.
Just as it did before seizing Crimea, the Kremlin has also been flooding Ukraine with disinformation – ramping up the narrative that Russia must defend against “dangerous” Ukrainian nationalists.
Besemeres points to a “long, and frankly, horribly tedious” essay Putin himself wrote last year claiming there was no distinction between Ukrainians and Russians; therefore Ukraine could not be its own country. “And they’ve been making the army learn all this propaganda too,” he says. “Why? Well, those people might have to invade Ukraine at some point.”
If Putin wants to invade, he has a narrow window to movein this northern winter. The land at the border is expected to freeze by February, allowing tanks and other heavy military equipment to cross. If he waits into March, that ice will turn to mud. Experts expect he would need somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 troops for a full invasion of Ukraine – on the scale of what the US and its allies sent into Iraq in 2003. As Russia itself learnt from Soviet incursions in the Middle East, that would be costly, messy and potentially damaging back home.
But Hovarth, like many seasoned observers of Russia, says “the danger is real” this time. ”Putin has already unleashed one war in Ukraine. He’s committed atrocities in Syria.”Loading
And Horvath believes Putin’s motives are less about Russia’s interests than his own. Putin was a little-known secret service chief before he catapulted to power as the strong man launching a bloody war with neighbouring Chechnya. Annexing Crimea gave him another polling bump. But “it was a catastrophe for Russia’s long-term national interests. It turned a kindred people into an adversary, and guaranteed Ukraine’s Western trajectory.”
It’s an old trick of Putin’s, Horvath says, “aggression on the international stage is a way of shifting the focus”. And he says the ageing autocrat could use a distraction right now. The poisoning and jailing of his main critic Alexei Navalny, as well as Navalny’s exposes on Putin-era corruption, has drawn the wrong attention.
Of course, if Russians suddenly cannot buy iPhones under fresh Western sanctions, or soldiers begin returning home in body bags because of an expensive war over the border, the risk may backfire.
Instead of seeking to take over all of Ukraine, including Kiev, Russia could attempt to take a larger slice of the east of the country, but US officials have indicated they will treat any incursion at the border seriously. (How the US will respond to a major cyber offensive, of the kind that has knocked the lights out in Ukraine in the past, is less clear).
Also complicating the picture is the major Russian pipeline Nord Stream 2, which runs under the Baltic Sea to carry gas to Europe. When it opens, Russia will have more leverage over Germany and wider Europe. And so the US and Germany have been at loggerheads over the future of “Europe’s most politically divisive infrastructure project” for months. Its fate is now closely tied to Ukraine’s. If Russia invades, Germany, which has historically been reluctant to confront Russia on Ukraine, has now hinted it will withdraw approvals for Nord Stream 2. But if the pipeline opens and war hasn’t come, one of the last levers to pull Russia back from conflict will be gone.
In 2014, Western governments were largely unprepared for the Kremlin disinformation offensive that accompanied their invasion of Crimea. But this time the White House is taking nothing from the Russians at face value.
On January 8, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia of pushing a “false narrative” that it was under threat from Ukraine and NATO to justify its troops at the border. Sussex says there has “certainly” been an “evolution in approach” from the West on public communication with Russia. The question now is whether the US is “trying to pre-empt (and hence prevent) invasion with forewarning based on solid intelligence?” Or is the US actively trying to “shift the narrative” to put Russia on the defensive in the public sphere.
Indeed, all minds might be on the Kremlin, trying to anticipate Putin’s next move, but eastern Europe is looking just as anxiously at the US.
“A Russian invasion of Ukraine would be a humanitarian catastrophe and a disaster for Ukraine, for Russia, for Europe and the world,” says Horvath.
The Biden administration has made it clear that its response will be limited.Loading
“When the bluff is called,” the West will have to decide what to do, says Sussex.
By then, he says, Putin will have succeeded in further eroding the post-Cold War order. With news of the talks in the headlines, some Western commentators and members of the public are asking, “‘Why should we be involved in Ukraine?’ Partisans, hard-core realists, isolationists all ask: what does eastern Europe mean to us? [And] if you’re Poland or a member of a Baltic state, you’re terrified.”
Barandiy says Ukraine is used to being let down by the West. “Even if the West does not help Ukraine now, Ukrainians will still rise,” she says.
“But that will be the final fight and the independence that we gain, will be the real one – from the West as well.”