In March this year, as Russia massed up to 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, some analysts speculated that a new invasion was imminent, seven years after the previous one. In the event, no fresh assault on Ukraine was forthcoming: the tens of thousands of troops were pulled back after a few weeks.
The exercise did, however, mean that the world paid more attention than usual to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s lengthy annual press conference, held before the soldiers were called down.
Observers watched for clues about whether Putin would find a pretext for a renewed war on Ukraine. None was forthcoming, but the build-up on the western frontier did ensure that the world watched the Russian leader announce a few new handouts ahead of parliamentary elections, such as subsidies for children’s summer camps.
A little over six months later, and history is repeating itself. About 100,000 Russian troops are once again massing on the border with Ukraine as US intelligence reportedly believes that an invasion of Ukraine could be imminent. Kyiv, for its part, has warned that Moscow is likely to destabilise Ukraine over the coming winter.
The ratcheting up of tensions comes amid an escalation in a migrant crisis orchestrated by Belarus, Russia’s closest ally, at its border with Poland. A gas crisis, which some European politicians have in part blamed on Russia withholding supply from the continent, and Nato military exercises in the Black Sea, are also points of contention between the West and Russia.
As in April, only the most excitable observers believe that a renewed invasion is coming. The troop build-up has once again been conducted very publicly – meaning that it is likely intended to serve more as a signal to Kyiv and the West than to foreshadow a renewed conflict, according to experts.
Moreover, the conditions for an invasion are far less favourable to Russia than they were seven years ago. There are fewer Ukrainians living under Kyiv’s authority who would prefer to live in Russia than in 2014, as the majority of pro-Russian Ukrainians now live in the areas controlled by Russia or its proxies, such as annexed Crimea and the occupied Donbass.
Though pro-Russia sentiment lingers in Ukraine’s south and east, there are no longer many places not already under Russian authority where Russian troops would be welcomed as liberators by the majority of the population, reckons Orysia Lutsevych, the manager of the Ukraine Forum at the Chatham House think tank. The Ukrainian army is also much better armed and organised than it was in 2014. Together, those factors would render the costs of an invasion much higher.
The current build-up is, however, testing the West’s commitment to Ukraine, a non-Nato ally. Support for Kyiv from Western allies has been forthcoming, though generally expressed in vague terms.
The French president Emmanuel Macron told his Russian counterpart, Putin, that France was willing “to defend the territorial integrity of Ukraine”, according to an Élysée Palace readout. The UK has similarly stressed its “support” for Ukraine. The US secretary of state Antony Blinken said that his administration’s commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity was “ironclad”.
Yet these commitments remain ambiguous and untested. Concrete guarantees to Kyiv are far less forthcoming. Every time Russia escalates tensions by threatening war – which it would be near-certain to win on the battlefield, if not in the hearts and minds of Ukrainians – Kyiv is reminded that for all its aspirations to EU and Nato membership, for the time being, it remains very much on its own.
“Ukraine is not part of Nato, meaning is Ukraine is not covered by our collective defence clause, Article 5,” Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said in a recent interview when pressed on how the alliance would support Ukraine were it to be attacked by Russia again.
The build-up also helps pile pressure on the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. His government has faced criticism from Russia in recent months for bringing treason charges against Viktor Medvedchuk, an oligarch viewed as an ally of the Kremlin, as well as closing several allegedly pro-Russian TV channels.
Zelensky has refused solutions to the conflict favoured by Russia, such as a federal constitution granting autonomy to the eastern regions. Were tensions at the border to escalate into full-scale war, by accident or by design, many Ukrainians would ask: “Is it worth it? We should compromise,” said Lutsevych.