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Why Is Putin Acting Now?

Multiple factors are driving Russia’s escalation against Ukraine.

By , a postdoctoral fellow in political science at Virginia Tech.
A Ukrainian military serviceman walks near the front line.
A Ukrainian military serviceman walks near the front line.
A Ukrainian military serviceman walks in the Donetsk region village of Peski, Ukraine, close to the front line with Russia-backed separatists, on Jan. 25. Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

For the third month in a row, Russia has continued to build up more troops on its borders with Ukraine. More than 100,000 Russian troops currently surround Ukraine on three sides.

But it’s not clear why this is happening now. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to escalate does not appear to be triggered by any particular event. This is in contrast to, for example, Russia’s 2008 military buildup and its subsequent war with Georgia, which followed NATO’s Bucharest Summit, where Ukraine and Georgia were promised they could someday become members of NATO. Right now, instead of one particular event, there appears to be several recent developments driving Putin’s gambit.

In his public speeches, interviews, and articles, Putin has expressed constant concern about losing Ukraine. As he argued at the May 2021 United Nations Security Council meeting, Ukraine has been “slowly but surely turned into some kind of antipode of Russia, some kind of anti-Russia.” Indeed, Russia’s leverage over Ukraine has been in rapid decline over the last several years. First, U.S. and NATO military cooperation with Ukraine has dramatically increased. This is demonstrated by growing military aid packages, more serious arms provisions and training of the Ukrainian military, and support to combat Russian cyberthreats. Under the Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine, passed in 2016, NATO has been supporting the country through 16 different programs aimed to boost Ukraine’s defense and security. Under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, the United States has stepped up efforts to enhance Ukraine’s land and special operations forces in many areas since 2016.

For the third month in a row, Russia has continued to build up more troops on its borders with Ukraine. More than 100,000 Russian troops currently surround Ukraine on three sides.

But it’s not clear why this is happening now. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to escalate does not appear to be triggered by any particular event. This is in contrast to, for example, Russia’s 2008 military buildup and its subsequent war with Georgia, which followed NATO’s Bucharest Summit, where Ukraine and Georgia were promised they could someday become members of NATO. Right now, instead of one particular event, there appears to be several recent developments driving Putin’s gambit.

In his public speeches, interviews, and articles, Putin has expressed constant concern about losing Ukraine. As he argued at the May 2021 United Nations Security Council meeting, Ukraine has been “slowly but surely turned into some kind of antipode of Russia, some kind of anti-Russia.” Indeed, Russia’s leverage over Ukraine has been in rapid decline over the last several years. First, U.S. and NATO military cooperation with Ukraine has dramatically increased. This is demonstrated by growing military aid packages, more serious arms provisions and training of the Ukrainian military, and support to combat Russian cyberthreats. Under the Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine, passed in 2016, NATO has been supporting the country through 16 different programs aimed to boost Ukraine’s defense and security. Under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, the United States has stepped up efforts to enhance Ukraine’s land and special operations forces in many areas since 2016.

In 2018, the United States began sending lethal weapons, such as Javelin anti-tank missiles and launchers, to Ukraine. In the fall of 2021, Turkey sold Bayraktar TB2 combat drones to Ukraine. In their own statements, Kremlin officials have interpreted these developments as NATO delivering more and more arms to Ukraine, a trend viewed as dangerous to Russia’s security and threatening to the security balance in the region.

But it is not just about military collaboration. With the Ukrainian public gradually becoming more pro-Western and polls showing steady upward trends for Ukraine’s European Union and NATO membership, collaboration between Ukraine and the West has deepened in other areas as well, such as anti-corruption and institution-building initiatives.

Second, to add insult to injury, in 2021, Ukraine launched a campaign against Russia’s alleged agents in the country. In particular, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council announced sanctions against Putin’s close associate and Russia’s main ally in Ukraine, oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, as well as his wife and several other individuals and entities. Medvedchuk has often stressed his personal relationship with Putin (who is also a godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter); described him as a personal friend; voiced pro-Russian positions on the Euromaidan protests, Crimea, and Ukraine’s future; and been previously sanctioned by the United States for stoking separatism in Ukraine. Ukraine’s more recent sanctions froze Medvedchuk’s assets for three years and prevented him from doing business in Ukraine. Simultaneously, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ordered the closure of the three Medvedchuk-owned television channels accused of spreading pro-Russian propaganda.

This move came after a phone call between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, which made the Kremlin suspect U.S. leverage in the media closures. Since May 2021, Medvedchuk has been held under house arrest in Ukraine for allegations of treason. As an illustration of Putin’s anger, Ukraine’s crackdown on Medvedchuk was followed by Russia’s first military buildup at Ukraine’s border in April 2021.

Putin’s post-2014 hopes to retain leverage over Ukraine by forcing the separatist Donbass republics back into Ukraine also appear to have failed. Kyiv has proved unwilling to incorporate these regions back into Ukraine on Russia’s terms. In a July 2021 article, Putin openly acknowledges his defeat. He writes, “Apparently, and I am becoming more and more convinced of this: Kiev simply does not need Donbas.” He attributes this to a presence in Ukraine of malign, West-linked, anti-Russian forces that exploit the image of the “victim of external aggression” and “peddle Russophobia” in Ukraine.

The combination of these three factors led Putin to conclude that Ukraine has been rapidly slipping away from his grip. As a leader of a declining revisionist power, whose economic and global influence are predicted to diminish over the next two decades, he has incentives to act sooner rather than later. The current geopolitical landscape offers Putin, who moves rapidly when he sees opportunities, the ideal momentum to try to reinforce his leverage over Ukraine.

First, the European Union is divided on Russia. While new EU members in Eastern Europe tend to support stronger action against Russia, the two leading EU powers, Germany and France, are conflicted on the Russia issue. France is distracted by its upcoming presidential elections in April 2022. French President Emmanuel Macron’s continuous insistence on the need for the European Union to pursue its own talks with the Kremlin separately from the United States (as possibly part of his electoral campaign) has raised fears of a deepening split in the West’s response to the Kremlin. Germany, which is anxious to become the European gas hub for Russian gas following the completion of Nord Stream 2, is prepared to make more concessions to the Kremlin, as shown by its recent refusal to give arms permits to Estonia so supplies can reach Ukraine.

Moreover, since April 2021, the Kremlin has undertaken several (likely intentional) steps that reduced Russian gas supplies to Europe and led to the EU’s current unprecedented increase in prices and gas shortages. Europe’s continuous dependency on Russian gas, with about 40 percent of gas imports coming from Russia, further limits its ability to counter Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Second, over the last year, the relative decline in the United States’ international standing has become more apparent, as portrayed by its chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal. According to the Kremlin’s public statements, it viewed this as a demonstration of waning U.S. international influence. The Biden administration’s Russia policy record has so far appeared fairly weak: It lifted sanctions on Nord Stream 2, issued largely symbolic sanctions in response to Russia’s poisoning of dissident Alexey Navalny, and has put continuous emphasis on China and attempted to “park Russia.” Even more importantly, the Kremlin has a window for action until the U.S. midterm elections. The situation might change afterward if Republicans take control of key foreign affairs committees in Congress and increase pressure on the administration over Russia.

Similarly to the EU, the Biden administration may currently be constrained in its ability to impose strong sanctions on Russia in response to a further escalation in Ukraine. Serious sectoral sanctions could risk another spike in oil and metal (copper, nickel, steel, palladium) prices, creating a risk of skyrocketing inflation in the United States or even stagflation. This further shortens Putin’s action window.

Third, while skyrocketing oil and gas prices are constraining the EU and United States, they are giving Putin more leeway. On the international stage, Russia tends to act as a typical petrostate that gets aggressive and ambitious once it accumulates substantive oil and gas revenues. The influx of large revenues allows it to prioritize military expenses instead of addressing social and infrastructure issues.

These considerations explain the timing of Putin’s proposed ultimatum to the West. This window of opportunity is likely to close as the U.S. midterms near. Yet currently, this combination of circumstances offers an ideal moment for Putin to use the EU and United States’ weaknesses to push for more concessions on Ukraine. Understanding that the Kremlin is facing serious time constraints will allow Western policymakers to develop more effective policy responses.

Maria Snegovaya is a postdoctoral fellow in political science at Virginia Tech and a visiting scholar at the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the George Washington University.

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