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What’s Behind Russia’s Military Buildup Near Ukraine?

Only the Kremlin knows for sure, but any hostile action risks upsetting a recent thaw in U.S.-Russian relations.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba hold a news conference.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba hold a news conference.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba hold a news conference following U.S.-Ukraine strategic dialogue talks at the State Department in Washington on Nov. 10. LEAH MILLIS/POOL/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The United States expresses concern over Russia’s latest military buildup, China and the United States issue a joint statement at the U.N. climate change conference, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro joins a centrist party ahead of Brazil’s 2022 elections.

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Russian Moves Unsettle Ukraine and the West 

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The United States expresses concern over Russia’s latest military buildup, China and the United States issue a joint statement at the U.N. climate change conference, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro joins a centrist party ahead of Brazil’s 2022 elections.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Russian Moves Unsettle Ukraine and the West 

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concern over unusual Russian military activity” near the Russian border with Ukraine amid an unexplained military buildup.

Last week, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence confirmed that 90,000 Russian troops were stationed across its border, although it’s not clear how many were only recently positioned there. U.S. concern comes amid reports garnered from commercial satellite imagery that Russian tank and artillery units have moved close to Ukraine’s northern border in the past month.

Worries over a military buildup echo similar ones in April, when an increase in Russian troops near Ukraine set Kyiv and Western powers on edge. Back then, Russia waved off concerns and eventually pulled some forces back. So what’s changed this time?

Unlike in April, the military’s movements can’t be explained away by training exercises and have caused enough concern in the Biden administration that CIA director William Burns was dispatched to Moscow last week to warn Russian officials against any further escalation.

Russia’s activities have also unsettled U.S. allies. Tim Barrow, political director of the U.K.s Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office, was in Washington this week on a scheduled visit. Russian military movements were among the items discussed.

A British official, speaking to Foreign Policy on background, said the Russian military movements were concerning” and unhelpful,” and Britain and United States shared similar views on the situation. The official noted that Britain wasnt quite there” in terms of being on the most alarmist end of the spectrum regarding the unexplained movements.

Rob Lee, a Russia military analyst and doctoral student at King’s College London, cautioned that the buildup, while unlikely a sign of impending invasion, could signal to other powerful countries in the neighborhood, Turkey in particular, that Russia is still a force to be reckoned with.

Over the past year, Turkish drones have been a game-changer in both Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya. Ukraine’s use of Turkish drones against Russian-backed separatists in its eastern Donbass region drew condemnation from the Kremlin, which characterized their entry into the conflict as destabilizing.

The buildup also risks upsetting a relatively amicable period in U.S.-Russian relations, as officials from both countries strive for cooperation on the Iran nuclear deal and their own nuclear stockpiles. For Lee, any Russian action in Ukraine that could upset that balance and trigger a forceful U.S. response isn’t worth the risk: “It becomes a question of whats the cost-benefit analysis. I dont think theres any piece of terrain in Ukraine that is important enough to justify the cost and consequences that would go along with it.”


What We’re Following Today

A late push at COP26. As the United Nations climate change conference, known as COP26, enters its final days, the summit gained a final burst of momentum as the United States and China issued a surprise joint statement agreeing to “accelerate the transition to a global net zero economy.” Although the statement did not offer many new promises, the joint nature of it signals a warming of relations ahead of a likely virtual meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping next week. China also committed to developing a “national plan” to cut methane emissions, although it did not sign up to an international pledge to cut emissions 30 percent by 2030.

China’s muted shopping bonanza. China’s Singles Day, considered the world’s largest online shopping day, ends in the next few hours. Usually celebrated as a day of excess akin to Black Friday or Cyber Monday in the United States, this year’s event, happening in the shadow of a broad government crackdown on the Chinese tech sector, is expected to be less exuberant as companies strive to highlight their green credentials.


Keep an Eye On

Brazil’s election. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro secured a boost to his reelection chances on Wednesday when he joined the Social Liberal Party, part of the powerful centrist bloc known as Centrão. Bolsonaro had spent the last two years without the backing of a political party.

His absorption into a traditional Brazilian party undermines his outsider image but provides him with political allies ahead of the 2022 election. A recent poll showed former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is the preferred choice of voters—leading Bolsonaro by 27 percentage points.

Nicaragua pressure. On Wednesday, Biden signed a bill calling for further sanctions on Nicaragua following an election he described as a “pantomime” that was “neither free nor fair.” The law also calls for reporting on alleged corruption by the family of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega as well as Russian activities in the country.


Odds and Ends

A Japanese train driver is seeking nearly $20,000 in damages from his employer after receiving a 49-cent company fine for causing a one-minute delay to the trains departure. The driver caused the delay by meeting his train at the wrong platform. He quickly rectified his mistake—but not before precious time on Japan’s hyper-punctual train system had elapsed. The employee has maintained the fine is unjust and no disruption arose as the train he was piloting was empty of passengers and being returned to a depot.

FP’s Amy Mackinnon contributed to today’s brief.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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