Recent days have seen rising tensions along the Eastern European border, with hundreds of thousands of Russian troops nearing Ukraine. The Kremlin claims that these military movements are for nothing more than training excursions, though other countries – including Ukraine itself – have cast doubts on these assertions. The current fear is another invasion of Ukraine by its neighboring country, an act that could potentially see the fall of Kyiv, the nation’s capital, in a matter of days. Given the uncertainty of Russia’s plans, the United States has seen fit to react in a way so emblematic of its attitudes: send thousands of our own soldiers to nearby countries like Germany and Poland, with countless more ready for deployment at a moment’s notice.
In the aftermath of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many newly independent states spent the next several decades vying for candidacy in another group: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Some succeeded in becoming members, while others have found their paths blocked by staunch opposition. Ukraine is among the hopeful countries, whose relationship with the organization has hardly developed since the 1997 NATO-Ukraine charter. While it established a commission to navigate the communication on international security between the country and NATO allies, their opportunity to become members has been retained in a purgatorial state for over 20 years.
There is indeed little international desire for Ukraine to join the organization at all, both as a result of the country’s own internal conflicts as well as the perpetual pushback from Russia. But even stagnation has left avidly anti-NATO Russian President Vladimir Putin unsatisfied; the mere potential of the military alliance’s eastward expansion through Ukraine, even if it is a slim reality, is cause enough for concern.
Russia’s fears over an enlargement of NATO in Eastern Europe should be immediately apparent: Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty provides for the “collective self-defense” of its members, meaning an attack on one member is treated as an attack on all member-states. A strengthening of the United States and EU’s hold on Eastern Europe is what the Kremlin fears, and it is why they demand not simply the prolonged ambiguity of Ukraine’s possible joining of NATO, but the explicit refusal of membership.
While Putin has explicitly denied his intentions to invade Ukraine, it would not be out of character for the revanchist post-Soviet empire. As recently as 2014, Russia launched an attack that resulted in the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Many fear that this prospective invasion, in contrast to that of eight years ago, may see an escalation in conflict that could grow to involve nearby nations. It is these worries that prompted the Biden Administration to respond according to an anachronistic Cold War logic of brinkmanship, moving three thousand soldiers to the countries of several members of NATO.
At this time troops have not yet been sanctioned to enter the targeted country, and are more broadly aimed at defending the Eastern European line from a potential conflict that may arise from a Russian-Ukrainian exchange. Yet the potential for provocation of Russia by these military actions cannot be overlooked, even if American intentions are explained as anything other than a prodding of the Kremlin.
Statements from Pentagon officials reveal the United States as a country caught in the fog of war against an unpredictable adversary. Invasion is a possibility, but the reality remains that Putin’s suggestive movements may ultimately serve only as a deliberate bluff to provoke NATO into officially denying any and all opportunities for Ukrainian membership.
Or maybe it really is all in the name of training drills.
The United States already has tens of thousands of troops deployed throughout Europe, an enduring truth since the end of World War II, after which America established a permanent military presence in allied European nations. 3,000 more is not inherently a cause for concern, but Biden’s quick move to sound the alarms against Russia may perhaps be an unnecessary escalation of a conflict that was never to happen.
Russia has already responded to these acts as ones of provocation. The country’s foreign minister urged that through military deployments, the United States would “increase military tension and reduce scope for political decision.” That sentiment came only a few days after President Putin voiced disappointment at NATO’s refusal to comply with his country’s demands. He has argued that the United States aims only to use Ukraine as a pawn in an effort to impose severe sanctions on Russia in the event of a conflict. The country’s propaganda machine has effectively cast blame on the United States for provoking warfare, yet our nation’s actions do little more than play into Putin’s hands by seemingly validating his concerns.
Most polls in the United States concerning a potential invasion of Ukraine – and even of the United States’ current relationship with Russia – are reluctant to entertain an intercontinental conflict. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also discouraged giving into panic over a potential conflict with Russia, which he argues intends not to invade but rather to destabilize his country’s economy through the inexorable spread of fear. The mobilization of U.S. troops, he reasons, only helps to stoke the flames of tension.
The threats of conflict from Russia are not a novelty, according to Zelensky, but rather part of a reality plaguing Ukrainians. The newest actions from Putin, to him, do not yet constitute such grave precautions. Zelensky has instead urged the United States and allies to impose preemptive sanctions on Russia for its deployment along the border.
But Biden and officials have been reluctant to do so, claiming that any sanctions would come after a potential invasion of Ukraine, establishing restrictions such as embargoes on American-made technology or preventing Russian financial institutions from participating in global transactions. Officials have promised “swift and decisive action” against Russia, but there remains division on what responses are deserved for the varying actions that the country may take. What might the American reaction be if Russia invades Kyiv? What if a cyber attack is launched against Ukraine?
Past sanctions against Russia have arguably been too little and too late to prevent the country from taking Crimea or from forcing it to later withdraw from the invaded territory. Sanctions are generally an inconsistent method of deterrence or retaliation, a tactic that can prove impotent should it not be severe or thorough in its execution, while also running the risk of harming civilians within the targeted country.
Yet most diplomatic options are preferable to the current U.S. strategy: de-escalation through military deployment. The Biden administration has elected to intimidate Russia, a country with a history of brazen actions induced by fears of Western expansion, with a more prominent presence of Western troops in Eastern Europe.
The developing situation is one blemished with uncertainties, tainted by actions that may only serve to escalate heightened tensions to a point of no return. It is not without reason that the United States fears the fallout of conflict and the ramifications it may bear on its allies. But deploying troops so close to Ukraine should be a final act, a desperate bid to prevent warfare. It should not have been one of our first courses of action, our foremost bargaining chip in a game of chicken against an opponent scrambling to preserve its authority.