April 7, 2021

IntelBrief: Ukraine Back in the Spotlight as Russia Engages in More Sabre Rattling

Russian President Vladimir Putin watches a navy exercise from the Marshal Ustinov missile cruiser in the Black Sea in Crimea (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Conflict between Ukraine and Russia has flared again, reigniting a dormant yet uneasy stalemate between Kiev and Moscow in the seven-year war.
  • Peace talks have stalled and Russian military exercises along the border could be an attempt at intimidation, or something beyond mere posturing.
  • EUCOM shifted the status level from “possible crisis” to “potential imminent crisis”—leading many to believe that increased fighting is inevitable. 
  • In growing recognition of the importance of great power competition, Ukraine is a test-case for conflict between Washington and Moscow.

Conflict between Ukraine and Russia recently flared back up, reigniting an uneasy stalemate between Kiev and Moscow in a war that began seven years ago. To date, the conflict has killed more than 13,000 people. In fighting last week, four Ukrainian soldiers were killed by Russian-backed separatists operating in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. Twenty Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in fighting since the beginning of 2021. Russia has been sending reinforcements; some estimates suggest upwards of four thousand additional Russian troops were deployed to the Ukrainian border. In addition to increasing military activity in Ukraine, Russia has recently flown military flights near Alaskan airspace and increased naval activity in the Arctic. There is growing concern in Washington and Brussels that Russian President Vladimir Putin is testing the Biden administration. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley also spoke last week with Russian General Valery Gerasimov and Ukrainian General Ruslan Khomchak in an effort to gain greater situational awareness, while also urging restraint.

Peace talks have completely stalled, and Russian military exercises along the border could be an attempt at intimidation – something more nefarious than mere posturing. European Union and U.S. sanctions targeting Putin and his inner circle, as well as Russian financial institutions and energy companies, have been ineffectual. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called for tougher sanctions against Russia and has also been pushing for Kiev to be invited into NATO’s Membership Action Plan. On the other hand, Russia has warned NATO not to send troops to Ukraine; Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated, “There is no doubt such a scenario would lead to a further increase in tensions close to Russia’s borders” which would lead Russia to take “additional measures…to ensure its security.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his counterpart in Ukraine, Dmytro Kuleba, and reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to Kiev. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stated that Russian and U.S. officials recently met to discuss the renewed fighting and Russian troop movements.

United States European Command (EUCOM) has shifted its readiness posture from “possible crisis” to its highest status—“potential imminent crisis”—leading many to believe that increased fighting in the coming days and weeks is inevitable. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also expressed his “significant concerns” regarding an escalation in the region. Durable ceasefires have proven elusive with previous agreements falling apart amidst renewed fighting. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) brokered a cease fire agreement in July 2020, but Russia’s destabilizing activities violate the terms of that accord. Throughout the conflict, troops have remained dug into their positions, stationed in trenches and fighting holes along the 250 mile long barricade known as the line of contact, and the most recent skirmishes have involved artillery and machine gun fire.

In a growing recognition of the importance of great power competition, Ukraine is a test-case for gray zone conflict between Washington and Moscow. The importance of what happens in Ukraine is evident for the Kremlin and reflected in the advanced weaponry Russia has supplied the separatists with, including anti-tank guided weapons (ATGWs), rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launchers, anti-aircraft guns, and man portable air defense systems (MANPADs). Moscow has also resupplied the separatists with ammunition and provided additional manpower. The Russian private military company Wagner Group has also deployed to support Moscow’s operation in eastern Ukraine, although Russia denies any hands-on involvement, alluding only to Russian citizens fighting in Ukraine as “volunteers.” As it did with Crimea, Russia views Ukraine as within its traditional sphere of influence and resents what it sees as the encroachment of NATO on its periphery. Active U.S. diplomacy is designed to prevent any escalation. However, Moscow’s lack of transparency and repeated denial of obvious military activity increase the chances for miscommunication and misunderstanding, which in turn could lead to further escalation. Russia could be seeking to exploit the leverage it has gained by assuming a more direct role in other foreign conflicts, including Syria and Afghanistan, which now depend more on Russian engagement to find a solution.