A Ukrainian general reported last week that Russia had moved as many as 25,000 troops onto the border, near where the ongoing War in Donbass has raged since 2014. Russia’s amassing of a huge number of troops and materiel near the conflict was originally thought to be an extension of its usual coercive diplomacy, but now experts are split on whether it may in fact be preparation for an invasion.
The diplomatic crisis that the buildup has caused is now proving to be one of the first major tests of the Biden presidency.
In response to the influx of Russian forces, Ukraine announced its own joint military exercises with NATO member countries. To this, Russia upped the ante by stating that it would respond in kind should the US or NATO send troops to the region, and further stated that any escalation in the conflict there would “destroy” Ukraine.
This has placed the US in a precarious situation as it attempts to navigate how to best support the embattled Ukraine without stoking further hostilities. A situation made more complex by Ukraine’s request yesterday for a pathway toward membership into the NATO military alliance.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky argued that securing Ukrainian membership in NATO was the only means of ending the War in Donbass that has been fought between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.
In response to the request, the US affirmed strong support for Ukraine in general, but refused to comment on the question of membership into NATO.
Russia responded that it will maintain its troop presence in the region as long as it sees fit, and Russian state-owned media reported that Ukraine’s statements about joining NATO were an alarming escalation of tensions.
Ukraine is not a direct ally of the US but is vital to securing the peace and stability of western Europe and America’s allies therein. Thus, while the weight of defending Ukraine from Russian aggression falls primarily on the shoulders of European partners, the US has some responsibility to mitigate the spread of Russian influence in the region.
A key question of the Biden administration will be whether it opts to cement the legacy of Obama or Trump with regard to its support for Ukraine and how it attempts to counter Russia.
Alternatively, Trump provided lethal aid to Ukraine but did little to solidify diplomatic ties.
Thus far, Biden has walked a middle path. The US president previously vowed to make Putin “pay the price” for its interference in US elections, and also continued the Trump administration’s lethal aid packages in March.
It is doubtful, however, that Biden would be willing to actually involve the US actively in the region as his administration is attempting to keep the defense budget level through 2022 while repositioning the military against domestic terrorism and potential actions in the Arctic and Pacific.
As the simmer comes to a boil, the US will be faced with the choice of risking conflict in order to preserve the stability of the West, or of losing its global standing with yet another ignored red line.
Biden has demonstrated that he is willing to use the rhetoric of Obama and the lethal aid of Trump. Whether he will prove more capable of standing his ground remains an open question.