Open source information can’t quite verify whether rumours about Russian armour amassing near its western borders are true. But what can be verified is that NATO is bolstering its military presence to create what is becoming a line of containment from the Baltics to the Black Sea.
Most indicators suggest the fighting in Ukraine may be about to escalate as summer officially begins in the northern hemisphere. Each day already in June, dozens of ceasefire breaches have been recorded – some reaching near 60 in a day. Ukraine’s defence minister also stated that 623 Ukrainian servicemen have been killed in combat since the start of 2016.
Russia’s military movements on its side of the border are part of its constant, back-to-back series of wargames organised since the beginning of the hostilities in Ukraine. The idea, presumably, was to hold Russia’s military at a high level of readiness, although what it would take to mobilise those troops is unknown.
Across the Ukraine border, separatist tanks have also been spotted – up to 30, which is nearly a complete armoured battalion – amassing near the strategic town of Avdiivka. Perhaps the world’s worst-kept secret is that Moscow directly supports Ukraine’s separatists, so a positioning of units could herald imminent offensive operations. Although once again, details are hard to verify, and Kiev has an interest in overplaying reports and drawing attention to its strife.
Russia, for its part, announced recently it will form three new military divisions (consisting of about 10,000 troops each), two of which will be positioned in its western provinces. This sends a message to NATO that while Russia slips further into recession and the Ukraine problem is likely insoluble in reality (but also purposefully insoluble for Moscow’s short term strategy), it shows it still has some teeth “just in case.”
But why now? Why would Russia coyly play with troop movements and organise its proxies? The first answer is that NATO and the US are boosting their own ground forces in Romania, Hungary, Poland and the Baltics. Tens of thousands of US troops “rotate” through these countries now, which will certainly factor in to Moscow’s calculations.
The second answer is more illuminating. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his advisors have surely noticed the US president’s aim during his eight years to conclude controversial deals in a hurried, gerrymandered way. Cuba and Iran, for instance. Both deals seriously worry many seasoned Beltway elites, not because they were done, but because of the rushed timing.
Mr Obama now has seven months remaining in the White House and would prefer not to leave Ukraine for his successor. Not only is it a legacy and ego dynamic – which Mr Putin no doubt appreciates – but US partners in the EU (Germany, France and Poland) are diverging on the sanctions strategy. For the negotiations to succeed, the US and its European allies must be aligned.
This sense of haste on the American side colours the talks about Ukraine. Both Russia and the US are signalling with troops they are willing to defend their interests. Yet it is clear one side is comfortable sitting on their hands until the best deal is formed. Ukraine, understandably, is concerned it may be carved up to appease a time-conscious Washington.
The Ukraine issue is Russia’s central strategic element, but the US’ ambition and promise to maintain the rule of law looks uncertain at best these days. Whether this is true does not matter, it’s how it looks to Moscow. Perceptions count in geopolitics, and unless the US displays commitment for a desirable negotiation outcome in Ukraine, it will be perceived as uninterested and therefore weak.
That would definitely not be a good inheritance for the next US president.