While Americans are distracted by an increasingly chaotic presidential campaign, half a world away, Russian troops are massing along the border of Ukraine again suggesting the possibility of a new escalation of the violence that has raged there since Moscow’s invasion of Crimea in 2014.
On Wednesday, the Kremlin announced that it had captured men it described as Ukrainian Special Forces soldiers on the Russian side of the disputed border between Ukraine and Russian-occupied Crimea. The men were said to be carrying weapons and explosives to be used in sabotage attacks against Russian forces in Crimea.
The Ukrainian government in Kiev has denied that any such operation exists, and Russia has offered no proof of what it described as a “massive” attack by Ukrainian forces. However, that has not stopped Russian President Vladimir Putin from promising to retaliate, or from repositioning troops in a way suggestive of a full-on invasion of the troubled Donbas region, where Russia-backed separatists, supported by Russian troops, have been locked in a stalemate with Kiev’s forces for nearly two years.
“Preparations for conventional conflict between Russia and Ukraine are accelerating and the likelihood of open war is increasing rapidly,” write Franklin Holcomb and Kathleen Weinberger of the Institute for the Study of War.
“Russia has not yet articulated any clear political objectives or demands, making it impossible to determine on what negotiated basis the looming conflict might be resolved,” they add. “Putin may be seeking to trigger a political crisis in Kiev designed to topple Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The situation for now, however, is moving clearly in the direction of open conflict between Ukrainian and Russian forces in Donbas or elsewhere in Ukraine.”
Not all analysts are equally convinced that an expanded conflict is in the offing.
Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University who studies Russia, told The New York Times that he views an all-out conflict as unlikely, and believes Putin is simply trying to ratchet up the pressure in order to strengthen his hand at the negotiating table.
Others suggest that a limited renewal of conflict would fit well into a recurrent pattern of Russian behavior.
“A strategic pattern has emerged whereby Russia, as a perpetrator of and party to a conflict, dictates the conditions of the cease-fire, and then actively pursues the violation of the same agreement for its own political, military, and territorial gain,” writes Carl Hvenmark Nilsson, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“This serves a dual function: it undermines the international legal norm of cease-fires and provides a diplomatic ‘process’ whereby eventually the international community loses interest and focus in resolving the conflict, allowing the freeze to be controlled by the Kremlin.”
However, at a time when Russia is suspected of attempting to influence the results of the US presidential election through the release of emails and other information stolen by Kremlin-backed computer hackers, the possibility that Putin’s aims extend beyond the resolution of the conflict in Donbas.
Increased Russian aggression against Ukraine, or just the continued threat of it, would add another element of uncertainty to the election. Republican nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed admiration for Putin and a desire to strengthen relations between the US and Russia.
Though he stumbled embarrassingly over a question about Ukraine in an interview two weeks ago, Trump managed to make it clear that he believes Putin’s aggression in Eastern Europe is a product of his lack of respect for the United States and for President Barack Obama in particular. While a renewed attack on Ukraine by Russian forces might make a warm relationship with Russia a hard sell on the campaign trail, it would play into Trump’s not-so-veiled suggestion that it takes a strongman to confront a strongman.
For now, though, the only certainty about the Russian troop buildup on Ukraine’s borders appears to be uncertainty about Putin’s real goal.