NOV 17, 2021


Holly Ellyatt


President Vladimir Putin is being watched closely by experts and officials who fear Russia might be planning a military escalation with its neighbor Ukraine.


Tens of thousands of Russian troops have reportedly gathered at the border with Ukraine, and experts fear Russia could be about to stage a repeat of its 2014 invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, which prompted global outrage and sanctions on Moscow.


“We all should be very worried, to be honest, I do share this assessment,” Michal Baranowski, director and senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw Office, told CNBC when asked if Russia could be about to embark upon military action against Ukraine, describing Russia’s highly tense relationship with Ukraine as being a conflict “under the threshold of war.”


“This assessment is shared by many here in Warsaw and in Washington, D.C.,” he told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble on Wednesday, adding “we are seeing very significant buildup in threats on the border with Ukraine. So it’s really a key moment for the West to step up pressure against Putin.”


Last week, U.S. officials reportedly warned their European counterparts that Russia could be weighing a potential invasion of Ukraine. The Defense Ministry in Kyiv said in early November that about 90,000 troops were massing on the border while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said last week that there were nearly 100,000 Russian soldiers at the border, Reuters reported.


For his part, when asked whether Russia is plotting a military invasion of Ukraine, Putin dismissed such a notion as “alarmist” in an interview with Rossiya 1 last weekend.


Russia has also sought to play down the movements of its troops, with Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, saying last week that “the movement of troops on our territory shouldn’t be a cause for anyone’s concern,” the Associated Press reported. CNBC has contacted Russia’s Defense Ministry for further comment.


Concerns over Russia’s possible next move when it comes to Ukraine, which used to be part of the Soviet Union before its dissolution in 1991, come against a wider backdrop of deteriorating relations between Russia and its allies on one side — and Europe and the U.S., on the other.


Tensions have emerged on a number of fronts from energy and political meddling to cyberwarfare and migrants, with Russia accused of helping Belarus to orchestrate a growing migrant crisis on the EU’s doorstep.

Russia expert Timothy Ash, a senior emerging markets sovereign strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, noted Tuesday that it “feels like Putin is bracing for war with Ukraine. He has the motive, opportunity and weapon.”


His motive, Ash said, was that “he wants Ukraine, as he never accepted its loss in 1991 with the collapse of the USSR, and sees Ukraine as central to his vision of Greater Russia.”


The opportunity, Ash said, was that “the West is weak, divided and lacks focus. Biden is focused on China, Europe on gas, migrants and the Balkans. Ukraine is politically weak.”


And Putin’s potential weapon? “Well, an invasion force of several hundred thousand in/around Ukraine, including forces already in Donbas and Crimea. Add in gas, migrants, political intrigue, cyber space,” Ash said.


U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that Washington was concerned by reports of “unusual Russian military activity” near Russia’s border with Ukraine, warning that should Russia “commit further aggressive acts against Ukraine, we are committed, and Germany is committed, to taking appropriate action.” He did not state what that action might entail.


European leaders have continued to voice their concerns this week.