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Russia’s Military Buildup: A ‘Bluff’ Or ‘Blackmail’ For Biden On Ukraine?

A U.S. Army instructor is seen near Ukrainian servicemen during the Rapid Trident 2019 drills, in which 14 NATO and partner countries participated near Lviv, Ukraine.
A U.S. Army instructor is seen near Ukrainian servicemen during the Rapid Trident 2019 drills, in which 14 NATO and partner countries participated near Lviv, Ukraine.

Russian and Ukrainian analysts warn that the December 7 video call between U.S. President Joseph Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin about the presence of tens of thousands of Russian troops near the Ukrainian borders could backfire without a tough White House response.

“What we’re seeing now around Ukraine is not so much an attempt by Russia to invade Ukraine as cheap blackmail,” charged Vladislav Inozemtsev, a board member of the non-governmental Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow. “If the Americans give into it, this will only signify the weakness of the U.S. administration.”

In recent days, amidst increased international media coverage about the risk of a Russian-Ukrainian war, Biden administration officials have emphasized that the U.S. will not treat Putin with kid gloves.

An unnamed “senior U.S. administration official” stated on December 6 that “severe economic pain” could ensue for Russia if it opts to invade Ukraine, Reuters reported. The official did not elaborate about these potential measures.

Citing unspecified individuals “familiar with the discussions,” CNN reported that same day that discussions with the United States' European allies about a coordinated response to Russia have included blocking Russia’s access to the international SWIFT payment system as well as targeted sanctions against Russia’s energy producers, banks, and oligarchs.

Meanwhile, the Air Force Magazine, a publication of the veterans-focused U.S. Air Force Association, reported on December 3 that the Pentagon has dispatched a group to Ukraine to determine “what the country needs to protect itself from air, naval, electronic, and cyber warfare threats” in the "short-term" as Russian forces take position along the border.

U.S. military support for 2021, including a $60 million supply of anti-tank Javelin missiles, reached $400 million.

As the U.S. Senate considers next year's support, President Vladimir Putin asserted on November 30 that the placement of “offensive military systems” within Ukraine, an aspiring NATO member, would cross a “red line” for Moscow as a threat to its own security.

The Kremlin has signaled that it wants written guarantees from the U.S. and other NATO members that Ukraine, Russia’s western neighbor, will not join the military alliance. NATO has long rejected such ultimatums.

Biden told reporters on December 3 that he would not accept “anybody’s red lines,” but some observers caution that, in a sense, Biden may already be acting according to the Kremlin’s game plan.

The two leaders’ December 7 virtual meeting follows a scenario already established this spring, when President Biden proposed a June 2021 Geneva summit with Putin after a Russian military buildup in April 2021 along the Ukrainian border and in annexed Crimea, these analysts say.

After Biden proposed the summit, a partial Russian withdrawal began, but, by mid-autumn, amidst Congress’ consideration of expanded U.S. military aid for Ukraine, the buildup had resumed.

Russian political analyst Fyodor Krasheninnikov, an outspoken Putin critic, called Moscow’s actions “simple but very effective technology.”

Declarations of alarm from first Putin, and then Kyiv, essentially “force” Western leaders “to enter into talks, which also is, of course, the aim of Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] ….” commented Krasheninnikov.

“For the sake of getting Biden to agree to meet with him, he would not hesitate to move troops or do anything else,” the analyst, now based in Lithuania, continued. “He is willing to go far in order to force the leaders of the West [to talk].”

Political scientist Maria Snegovaya, a visiting fellow at George Washington University's Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies and Illiberalism Studies Program in Washington, D.C., agrees that the Kremlin is repeating its April 2021 tactic.

“The Kremlin, without a doubt, needs the meeting more” than the White House since it has been “trumpeting from every corner” that the U.S. proposed the call, Snegovaya said. This enables Moscow to present Putin as a “great” world leader who, together with the U.S., “will resolve anything,” she said.

“Putin just wants to be on the agenda,” with his demands for NATO and Ukraine, scoffed Inozemtsev, an economist who heads Moscow’s Centre for Post-Industrial Society think tank.

Yet, according to the Kremlin, Ukraine will not be the only discussion point. Aside from bilateral ties with the U.S. and the “intra-Ukrainian crisis,” Putin presidential aide Yury Ushakov listed topics ranging from Libya and possibly Syria to Iran and Afghanistan.

The heavily criticized U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 has provided the Kremlin with an additional pressure point, reasons former Russian parliamentarian Ilya Ponomaryov, the sole Russian legislator to oppose Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Ponomaryov, now a Ukrainian citizen living outside of Russia, calls the border buildup a “bluff” intended, in part, “to put pressure on Biden who can’t allow himself some kind of new political defeat after Afghanistan.”

U.S. intelligence, however, appears to see the buildup as more than that.

A document from an unidentified intelligence agency states that Russia plans to position 175,000 troops near the Ukrainian border by early 2022 as part of a military offensive twice the size of earlier exercises in the area in 2021, The Washington Post reported on December 3. Nearly half of these troops already are distributed along the border, an anonymous U.S. official told the Associated Press.

Interviewed analysts, though, dismiss the notion that President Putin currently intends a full-out invasion of Ukraine.

Wars “generally don’t usually start via the publication of plans for expanding a territorial takeover and demonstratively marching troops along border,” objected Krasheninnikov, noting the absence of such tactics during Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

By comparison with 2014, the potential costs – economic, military, and for any occupation – are now too high, others stressed.

Krasheninnikov, who emigrated from Russia this summer, contends that “Putin’s real aim is the collapse of Ukrainian statehood in its modern form” as well as the country’s destabilization.

“To achieve these goals, a war is not absolutely necessary,” he said.

International officials have warned about Moscow allegedly increasing disinformation campaigns in Ukraine to target its pro-Western president, but what effect, if any, such campaigns have had on Zelenskiy’s public support has not yet been quantified.

Dogged by longstanding complaints about COVID-19 restrictions, corruption, the lackluster economy, and relations with Russia, Zelensiky has seen his poll ratings sour since his 2019 landslide election win.

Nearly 52 percent of 1,203 Ukrainians surveyed nationwide do not believe Zelenskiy could “work effectively” as commander-in-chief during a Russian invasion, according to a November 26-29, 2021 poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology. Only 34.3 percent stated that they would support Zelenskiy if he runs for a second term in 2024.

On December 1, following a presidential claim of a supposed coup plot involving unnamed Russians, thousands of Ukrainians marched in Kyiv to demand the resignation of both Zelenskiy and his influential chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, often portrayed as overly sympathetic to Russia and wary of reform.

Yet former Federal Security Service (FSB) colonel Gennady Gudkov, an ex- advisor to the director of Russia’s FSB, a successor to the Soviet KGB, cautioned against believing that the Kremlin is following a precise timeline on Ukraine.

“Putin himself doesn’t know whether he’ll go to war or not. That is, we need to understand that the Russian president doesn’t have a clear-cut plan … but reacts to situations as they arise …” said Gudkov, a retired opposition politician. “Putin tests all the time to see how far he can go.”

If the April 2021 buildup of Russian forces was a test for President Biden, the current buildup “is now an even bigger test,” concluded Ukrainian political analyst Vladislav Faraponov.

-With additional reporting from TASS
-Maria Snegovaya's position has been updated from the Atlantic Council, where she formerly was a nonresident fellow.