May 26, 2021
The announcement by Russia’s Defence Minister, Sergey Shoygu, on 22 April that Russia would be withdrawing the forces it had assembled for the ‘snap exercises’ launched on 7 April has been met by as much confusion as relief. In the time that has passed since that announcement, statements by the Biden administration and the proposed Biden-Putin summit have increased confusion rather than dispelled it.
The augmentation of forces on Ukraine’s borders and in the illegally annexed Crimean Peninsula raised dramatically and by an order of magnitude the level of concern prompted by steadily rising tensions (and Ukrainian casualties) on the so-called Minsk demarcation line that began in February, some five months after a cease-fire came into effect on 27 July 2020. The contingents deployed amounted to the largest assembly of Russian force in the region since the withdrawal of the Soviet/Russian Federation Armed Forces from most of Ukraine after 1991. It is noteworthy that Joe Biden’s phone call to Vladimir Putin did not follow Shoygu’s announcement but preceded it by nine days. Whether the call itself and the ‘measured and proportionate’ sanctions that followed were designed to restore the initiative to Washington or camouflage retreat is still subject to debate.
For Russia, confusion, like war itself, is an instrument of policy. In its 2011 treatise on military policy in the ‘information space’, Russia’s Ministry of Defence states that the aims of information war are ‘undermining the [adversary’s] political, economic and social system… destabilising the society and the state and also forcing the state to make decisions in the interests of the opposing party’.1 Whereas Shoygu stated that the forces would be withdrawn because the ‘exercise was successfully concluded’, the matter is not so simple.
On 18 January, less than three weeks before the escalation of Russian proxy attacks in Donbas, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov issued an ‘ultimatum’ to Ukraine’s so-called Normandy partners, Germany and France: if Ukraine were not brought into compliance with the Minsk accords, Russia would ‘revise [its] actions accordingly’. What followed was a cascade of accusations against Ukraine for preparing ‘provocations’ and a military offensive in Donbas. Between early and mid-April, Putin and two other high-level figures warned that the consequence of such actions might be ‘the loss of Ukrainian statehood’.2
What Is in a Withdrawal?
When announcing the withdrawal on 22 April, Shoygu also announced an end date: 1 May. By then, two unsettling facts had emerged. First, Shoygu stated that one sizeable formation, the 41st Combined Arms Army, would be leaving its equipment in place; moreover, it is not clear that other units have taken all of their assets with them. Second,
Shoygu’s announcement conspicuously said nothing with regard to naval and ancillary forces deployed to Crimea. This now represents a substantially augmented force, including 5,000 naval infantry. As a result, Russia for the first time since 2014 possesses a formidable amphibious warfare capability with clear offensive potential against southern Ukraine. Moreover, the restricted zones announced in the Black Sea for the period 24 April to 31 October — including the de facto blockade of the Sea of Azov — are still in place. US intelligence sources estimate that 80,000 troops remain in theatre after the completion of the stipulated withdrawal.3
Russian statements that this deployment must be viewed in the context of NATO exercise Defender Europe 2021 and Russia’s exercise Zapad 2021, scheduled for August, provide little reassurance. Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 commenced 16 days after exercise Cossack Steppe concluded on 23 July. The Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia took place after conspicuous withdrawals of forces. In 2009, a study conducted by Ukraine’s General Staff concluded that large Russian military units could not be redeployed to the theatre rapidly enough to achieve strategic surprise if they had previously withdrawn with all of their equipment.4 The corollary is that with equipment prepositioned in theatre, such redeployment can take place. The snap exercises that unfolded between 7 and 22 April showcased Russia’s ability to transfer major contingents of forces rapidly and over considerable distances. This demonstration of strategic mobility is more significant than the scale of the deployment itself.
Lest the point be lost, Russian statements since the withdrawal have underscored Russia’s unprecedented ability to change the correlation of forces in a zone of tension, dramatically and with limited warning. In his address to the Federal Assembly on 21 April, Putin warned that Russia’s response to those who threaten its ‘core interests’ will be ‘asymmetrical, swift and tough’.5
The Audit of Crisis
The audit of war brooks no ambiguity. But in the audit of crisis, the arbiter is perception. Today, perceptions are strikingly out of kilter, and it remains to be seen whether war is required to bring them into alignment.
In the pellucid judgement of Nigel Gould-Davies of London’s International Institute of Strategic Studies, ‘Putin lost far more than he gained in this crisis’. What emerged in April was an ‘unfolding contest between local Russian military and global US financial superiority’.6 In his Letter to Congress of 15 April, Biden attached an Executive Order declaring a ‘national emergency’ in response to ‘the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security’ posed by Russia.7 The prohibition of the direct purchase of Russian sovereign debt took sanctions into new territory. But they were crafted as a foretaste of still more stringent measures if Russia attacked Ukraine. There is little doubt that the US believes it has the means to crash Russia’s economy, and in his phone call to Putin on 13 April, Biden appears to have said as much. An unspecified but similarly sharp message was delivered by the Chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6).8 Does this explain Russia’s troop withdrawal announcement?
In its official pronouncements, Russia treats this suggestion as risible. In scarcely more modulated tones, so does its corps of establishment experts. According to Alexander Baunov, Senior Fellow of Moscow’s Carnegie Center, Russia’s deployments showed ‘that from unfriendly rhetoric and escalation there is a price. And the price is a risk of real conflict, which nobody wants. The Kremlin’s words were heard’. Several more disinterested experts in the West have rendered a similar judgement. Michael Kofman, Senior Research Fellow of the US Center of Naval Analysis, argues that the Russians ‘really wanted to make Kyiv sweat and… to show Ukrainians exactly what they can do to them eventually — that Ukraine will ultimately be largely on its own and that this is a reality [Zelensky’s] administration needs to face’.9
The views of other observers, openly partial to Ukraine, are no less stark. Former Commander of US Army Europe, Lt Gen Ben Hodges, regards Biden’s response as ‘weak’. Putin ‘is not spending a zillion rubles just to test’ the new Biden administration. ‘He is going to press to find out how much of a priority Ukrainian sovereignty really is to the president of the United States’.10 Kurt Volker, US Special Representative for Ukraine from 2017-19, is no less categorical. Putin wants ‘to demonstrate that he has substantial military capability and the political will to act if he wants to… He is trying to demonstrate that the West is not willing to match that — and therefore, Ukraine had better watch out.’11 Yet the difference between these two sets of observers is also stark. For the latter, the lesson of the crisis is that the West can and must do more. For the former, Russia has given the West a reality check, and both the US and Ukraine need to adjust their goals and expectations accordingly.
The Normalisation of Crisis
Despite all the controversy, three conclusions can be drawn.
First, both Russia and the US ‘blinked’ during this crisis. In Moscow, the threat of yet more severe sanctions before those just imposed could be assessed and absorbed argued for a pause. Moreover, France and Germany had shown no sign of accepting Lavrov’s January ultimatum. Despite one infelicitous statement that ‘both sides’ should show restraint, Macron and Merkel took a tough approach with Putin in private conversations. Volodymyr Zelensky repeated his demands for a revision of the Minsk accords, and neither Paris nor Berlin rebuked him. His demands for a widening of the composition of the Normandy format were met with silence; but so they were before the crisis began. Europe did not wobble during the crisis.
For his part, Biden unveiled a conciliatory tone new to this administration, simultaneously standing down two warships scheduled to enter the Black Sea. Talk of ‘rolling over’ vanished; ‘lowering the temperature’ became the new imperative.12 Sensing that the conflict was heading onto terrain that neither could navigate, both sides retreated.
Second, Russia does not perceive that its cause or position have been compromised. Zelensky might not have blinked, but he has fluttered. As Vladimir Socor notes, ‘the war scare has sent [him] sliding down from the mid-point of his learning curve about Russia back toward [its] low starting point.’13 His mystifying fixation on a bilateral summit with Putin — the political equivalent of lunch with a cobra — betrays panic as well as weakness. His plaintive lament that ‘NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbas’ is a political form of self-harm, tying Ukraine’s future, as it does, to the suspension of political reality.14 To all of these manoeuvres, Lavrov’s response is ‘let Zelensky and his team squirm as they will’.15
Moreover, as the Zapad 2021 exercise draws near, Russian forces will augment, and tensions will rise again. The exercise will do nothing to diminish pressure on Belarus for full military integration, let alone Ukraine’s premonitions that a northern front will be added to those that already exist in the south and east. Whatever the outcome of Zapad 2021, Ukraine is likely to face a ‘new normal’ of military tension and danger well into the future.
Third, Biden’s ‘carefully calibrated’ response will not deliver the ‘stable and predictable relationship’ that he seeks. Russia perceives that it is in an existential conflict with the ‘collective West’. ‘Stability’ is an abstraction and a mirage. Once it assumes a concrete form, the mirage evaporates, and the systemic reality of conflict — in outlooks, interests and perceived entitlements — reappears.
The causes of ‘stability’ with Russia and ‘unwavering support’ for Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence are incompatible. For some years after Minsk, the West could safely assume that, so long as Ukraine abstained from a forceful solution to the Donbas impasse, a fraught stability could be preserved. That assumption is no longer sound. Since 2014, Putin has resolved to subordinate Ukraine or wreck it. Six years after the Minsk accords, he has abandoned confidence that diplomacy will subordinate it. The alternative is ‘coercion into friendship’. Whether this takes the form of coercive intimidation, kinetic conflict or a mixture of the two will depend on the correlation of forces and Putin’s assessment of it.
Juxtaposing US ‘global financial superiority’ to Russian ‘local military superiority’ is a logical strategy. But it also is a gamble. It rests on the dubious assumption that Moscow will adhere to a scheme of rationality, and a calculus of ends and means, devised in Washington. As Edward Luttwak observed in a different context many years ago, ‘if trade can be used as a weapon and sanctions used as a weapon, weapons can also be used as a weapon’.16 That has been Putin’s default calculus since 2014. If it returns, what is the West left with? Swingeing sanctions to be sure, but as we noted in 2017, ‘one cannot confront an armed assailant by robbing his bank account’.17
Apart from the staged augmentation of lethal arms deliveries to Ukraine and the training and advisory contingent already in place, Biden’s strategy has no military component. Moreover, its failure to deploy naval warships to the Black Sea scheduled for deployment — and taking this decision against a background of Russian threats — showed a disconcerting lack of fortitude.18 Unless it reconsiders its approach, the US (and by default, the collective West) could find itself without options if its gamble fails. The form that the military dimension might take, and the risks it might entail, exceed the scope of this discussion.19 The question is how far the United States will go in meeting two challenges:
a) to demonstrate that if Ukraine is forced to confront the ultimate threat to its independence, it will not be left on its own.
b) to demonstrate in this eventuality that Russia will incur unacceptable geo-strategic as well as financial costs.
In the ‘new normal’ of heightened military tension, these will be enduring questions. For now, the answer to them is unknown.
1 ‘Conceptual Views Regarding the Activities of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in the Information Space’ [Kontseptual’nye vzglyady na deyatel’nost’ Vooruzhennykh Sil Rossiyskoy Federatsii v informatsionnom prostranstve], RF Ministry of Defence, 2011, p 5.
2 ‘Expert predicts action by the Russian and Ukrainian armies during an offensive by Kyiv in Donbas’ [Ekspert predskazal deystviya armii RF i Ukrainii pri napadenii Kiev na donbas] Don24.ru don24.ru/rubric/politika/ekspert-rasskazal-kak-bud…; ‘Kozak: Russia will stand by the defence of its citizens in case of war in Donbas’ [Kozak: Rossiya vstanet na zashchitu svoikh grazhdan v sluchae voyniy v Donbasse], Kommersant, 8 April 2021, www.kommersant.ru/doc/4762951 ‘Slutskiy predicts the end of Ukrainian statehood in case of war in Donbas’ [Slutskiy predskazal konets gosudarstvennosti Ukrainiy v sluchae voyniy v Donbasse] Rossiyskaya Gazeta, 10 April 2021, rg.ru/2021/04/10/sluckij-predskazal-konec-gosudars…
3 Helene Cooper and Julian E Barnes, ’80,000 Russian Troops Remain at Ukraine Border as US and NATO Hold Exercises’, New York Times, 5 May 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/05/05/us/politics/biden-putin…
4 Viktor Muzhenko, ‘Russia demonstrates readiness to take military action in southern Ukraine’ [Rossiya demonstriruet gotovnost’ nachhat’ boeviye deystviiya na iuge Ukrainiy] Radio Svoboda, 28 April 2021, ru.krymr.com/a/voyennaya-eskalaciya-rossii-ugroza-… /31226705.html
5 He added, ‘they will regret what they have done in a way they have not regretted anything for a long time’. Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly, 21 April 2021, en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/65418
6 Nigel Gould-Davies, ‘With Russian-Western relations at a low, what pay-off for Putin?’, IISS, 5 May 2021, www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2021/05/russian-wester…
7 ‘A Letter on Blocking Property with respect to Specified Harmful Activities of the Government of the Russian Federation’, 15 April 2021, www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releas…
8 Times Radio, 25 April 2021, www.thetimes.co.uk/article/mi6s-c-we-warned-putin-…
9 Max Seddon, Henry Foy, Roman Olearchyk, ‘Russian brinkmanship leaves clear message for Ukraine and allies’, Financial Times, 23 April 2001, www.ft.com/content/65e2bdb6-6c1d-4033-b677-a07bb34…
10 Natasha Bertrand and Lara Seligman, ‘US considers more weapons shipments to Ukraine amid Russian buildup’, Politico, 21 April 2021, www.politico.com/news/2021/04/21/us-weapons-ukrain…
11 John Silk, ‘West needs to do more to help Ukraine fend off Putin threat, ex-US diplomat says’, Deutsche Welle, 23 April 2021, www.dw.com/en/west-needs-to-do-more-to-help-ukrain…
12 e.g, ‘Now is the time to de-escalate’. Interview to CNN, 16 April, 2021, edition.cnn.com/2021/04/15/politics/russia-joe-bid…; see also ‘Remarks by President Biden on Russia’, White House, 15 April 2021, www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/…
13 Vladimir Socor, ‘The Kremlin Sets Insuperable Preconditions to Meeting With Zelenskyy’ Eurasia Defence Monitor (Washington: Jamestown Foundation), vol. 18/issue 68, 28 April 2021.
14 ‘Zelensky urges NATO to set up membership path’, Deutsche Welle, 6 April 2021, www.dw.com/en/ukraine-urges-nato-to-set-up-members…
15 ‘Let them squirm as they will: Lavrov explained the position of Zelensky on Donbas’, [Izvivaetsya kak mozhet: Lavrov obyasnil pozitsiyu Zelenskogo po Donbassu] RIA Novosti, 28 April 2021, ria.ru/20210428/lavrov-1730265233.html
16 Lecture in Oxford University, ca. 1978.
17 Chatham House Report, The Struggle for Ukraine, October 2017, p 16.
18 On 13 April Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov warned the US to keep its ships away from Crimea ‘for their own good’. ‘Ryabkov called the intrusion of US ships into the Black Sea an attempt to play on Russian nerves’ [Ryabkov nazval zakhod korabley SShA v chernoe more popiytkoy igrat’ na nervakh u Rossii], Tass 13 April 2021, tass.ru/politika/11130973
19 For some steps to this end, see Stephen Blank, ‘Military aid for Ukraine: Offsetting Moscow’s Asymmetric Edge’ Real Clear Defense, 21 April 2021. www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2021/04/21/milit…