Russian President Vladimir Putin’s months-long troop buildup near the Ukrainian border may be coming to a head, with new reports almost daily of additional military assets mobilized, including most recently to the north in Belarus and to the south in the Black Sea. While Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, deny plans for a new invasion of Ukraine, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after meeting with him in Geneva last week that the two had agreed to keep talking, the situation has the appearance of an imminent invasion force ready to act, regardless of what the United States and its European allies do.
But Putin may choose to hold off for a while longer, in part because of another factor that isn’t getting as much attention right now as it has at other times in the past year: China.
Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, despite some clear differences on major points, are often in sync, and Putin would need Xi’s support – political and economic – should the Russian leader decide to risk the inevitable casualties and sanctions for an invasion or other type of significant attack on Ukraine. Would Putin want to steal the global limelight with such an action just as his ally Xi is trying to project China’s strength with the Feb. 4 start of the Winter Olympics in Beijing? Additionally, Putin is planning to attend the opening of the games (unlike U.S. officials, who are staging a diplomatic boycott), and said in a December virtual meeting of the two leaders that he hopes to meet Xi in person there.
That tête-à-tête even raises the question of whether Putin might try to persuade Xi to pursue a strategy that has been the subject of speculation for the past year: a double-prong attack, Russia invading Ukraine while China goes after Taiwan. However remote that prospect may seem at the moment – U.S. officials haven’t recently given any signals of immediate concern about such an eventuality – the United States and its allies need to be prepared, and must understand that national security and strategic imperatives in both cases might require some sort of response beyond sanctions. Just yesterday, China reportedly flew 39 military aircraft into Taiwan’s airspace, the largest such foray yet this year.
The Russian Build-Up
U.S. intelligence determined late last year that Russia was making logistical preparations to quickly increase the force on the Ukrainian border to around 175,000. As of this month, the United States estimates Russia has 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s eastern border; Ukrainian officials put the figure in the range of 127,000. Russia also has approximately 3,000 of its own military personnel and 35,000 “rebel” forces that it supports, both of which have been fighting Ukrainian troops in the two Kremlin-backed “republics” inside Ukraine since the previous Russian incursion in 2014. Blinken said on Jan. 19 that Russia has the capability of doubling its force on its side of the border in “relatively short order.” (For perspective, however, it’s important to recall that Russia also amassed 100,000-150,000 troops near the border with Ukraine in March and April last year, too, but ultimately stood down, as President Joe Biden agreed to meet Putin in Geneva last June.)
Putin has frequently made clear his view of Ukraine as part of Russia’s patrimony, including in a lengthy article he published on the Kremlin website last summer in which he asserted that Russians and Ukrainians are “One people—a single whole.” In other words, he is saying to his troops something along the lines of, “See that area over the border? That’s part of the motherland in foreign hands — go get `em!”
At the very least, Russia is demanding security assurances from the West that include proposals they know will be totally unacceptable — written guarantees that Ukraine will never become a member of NATO and that the Transatlantic Alliance will not expand further to the east. Lavrov at one point two weeks ago demanded the West produce a response in writing within one week, an edict worthy of a Russian czar. That deadline seems to have been eased in the Blinken-Lavrov meeting last week.
But the Washington Post was right to note in a Jan. 15 editorial, “This entire crisis has been manufactured by Mr. Putin as part of his long-range effort to thwart the democratic development and growing Western orientation of Ukraine and restore Russian hegemony over the former Soviet Empire. It has nothing to do with the expansion of NATO.” The states that emerged from the former Soviet grip of Moscow, as Ukraine did, have been independent states and members of the United Nations for more than 30 years. To threaten or use force against their “territorial integrity or political independence,” the term used in Article 2 of the United Nations Charter, is a direct violation of that provision and should therefore be subject to Chapter 7 sanctions. The Russian threat and accompanying presumptuous demands should be denounced by the entire U.N. membership, although of course at the Security Council, Russia would veto any such action.
Additionally, the idea that NATO threatens Russia is a strawman that Putin has trotted out at regular intervals. The 1949 NATO founding treaty authorizes only defensive military action (though, granted, the definition of “defense” is left up to the alliance members). Ukraine is not a member of NATO, in any case, and the alliance has made it clear that membership is unlikely anytime soon. And it is a stretch to imagine that NATO would want to take advantage of its non-member partnership with Ukraine to carry out offensive military actions on its territory that essentially would be contrary to the North Atlantic Treaty.
Another important East-West agreement that could have relevance in any diplomatic resolution of this standoff is the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. Signed in 1990 and entering into force in 1992, it effectively ended the military confrontation of the Cold War, with comprehensive limits on the weaponry of European states and their allies from the Atlantic Ocean to Russia’s Ural Mountains. In 1996, recognizing the changes wrought by the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, the parties negotiated an “Agreement on Adaption” of the CFE Treaty that was signed in Istanbul in 1999 on the margins of a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The principal change was to move the provisions away from being based on alliances that lingered from the Cold War and to establish strictly national and territorial limits on conventional arms.
The Adaptation Agreement never came into force because NATO members refused to ratify it as long as Russia maintained troop deployments in Moldova and Georgia that compromised the independence of those former Soviet republics. Russia promised at the time of signing to remove those troops, but has only made partial withdrawals. And in addition to its 2008 invasion of Georgia, Russia has claimed sovereignty over the areas in Georgia where its troops were deployed.
The adapted CFE Treaty structure still exists on paper. It could be revived in some form, if mutually acceptable to both East and West. Ukraine is one of only four states that have ratified the Adaptation Agreement; the others are, interestingly, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia.
Putin Weighing His Odds
But such a possible opening would only occur if Putin sees more disadvantages than advantages to the course he is currently pursuing. The signs aren’t encouraging, and his relationship with Xi will be a critical factor.
In Putin and Xi’s virtual meeting on Dec. 15 – not coincidentally, the same day U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried was in Moscow for talks on Ukraine – the Russian leader expressed hope of meeting his Chinese counterpart in person in Beijing before the Feb. 4 start of the Winter Olympics, according to the New York Times. The two leaders alluded to support for each other in their ongoing confrontation with the United States and the West over issues such as Taiwan and Ukraine. The Times cited Chinese state news media reporting, for example, that Xi told Putin, “China and Russia should carry out more joint actions to more effectively safeguard the security interests of both parties.” A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman talked the same week of the need for “close strategic coordination,” the Times reported, adding that the two militaries have “stepped up joint exercises and even operations, including in the air and, for the first time in October, naval patrols in the Pacific.” But the Times report also notes that the two countries have no formal treaty alliance, and the leaders differ on major issues such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which China doesn’t recognize, and on China’s territorial threats across the South China Sea.
So what does this amount to? The conversation may suggest that Putin and Xi see this as a time of Western weakness, considering the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from – and effective defeat in – Afghanistan and the clear aversion by the Biden administration to getting into another war, and considering also the political and pandemic upheaval that consumes the vast majority of leadership attention in both the United States and the major European powers.
So Putin and Xi may believe that they will not have a better opportunity in the foreseeable future to get what they want — in the case of Putin, Ukraine to the Dnieper River and the capital Kyiv, and for Xi, Taiwan. If they both could strike at approximately the same time, their chances would be significantly enhanced. As Russia has created the appearance of an imminent strike from several directions against Ukraine, China has been pressuring Taiwan for months with bomber overflights, among other threats. Former U.S. Army officer David T. Pyne wrote in The National Interest in October that the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard, appearing in a congressional hearing in April 2021, “testified that the United States currently has no contingency plans for how to confront two allied nuclear superpowers in a future war.” In his written testimony, Richard addressed the potential threat from China and Russia, saying, “For the first time in our history, the nation is on a trajectory to face two nuclear-capable, strategic peer adversaries at the same time, who must be deterred differently.”
Though China hasn’t recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Xi did support Putin in the aftermath by increasing trade to support Russia against Western sanctions. A repeat of such assistances would mean the sanctions the United States is threatening against Russia now in the event of a new invasion might not be as effective as the Biden administration hopes, either as a deterrent or as a penalty in the aftermath. Chinese assistance to Russia in such an instance might risk its trade relationship with the West, but Xi may believe that would hurt the United States more than his own country. In addition, the threatened “massive” Western sanctions on Russia will hurt some allies. Putin may cut off Russian gas supplies to Germany, for example.
Heightened Risk in February
It does seem, though, that the month of February could be a period of escalated risk. The Olympics run from Feb. 4 to Feb. 20, and Russian troop exercises in Belarus are scheduled between Feb. 10 and Feb. 20. So, right after the end of the Olympics and before the frozen ground begins to thaw, while tanks can still roll over territory with ease, might be the most dangerous time.
And the United States and its allies would be wise to prepare to use some form of military force against both Russia and China, in response to any invasion. While a covert response or overt military assistance might be effective enough in the case of Ukraine, such measures would be more difficult in the case of Taiwan because of the lack of a land border with other friendly nations. Possibly with a sufficient threat of force and high costs, Russia and/or China might continue to be deterred. The important thing is to be ready for the worst case, and if neither scenario materializes, all the better.
Blinken and Biden have rightfully sought to prepare the American public for the prospect that the United States might need to take strong action such as severe sanctions against Russia and increased military assistance to Ukraine, though they still are signaling that they have no intention of getting the United States directly involved militarily. While in Kyiv last week, Blinken reportedly told U.S. Embassy personnel in remarks made public that this issue is “bigger than Ukraine” in the challenge it poses to the post-World War II principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. “If we allow those principles to be violated with impunity, then we will open a very large Pandora’s box,” Blinken said, according to the Washington Post. “The entire world is watching what is happening here.” He conveyed a similar message in a Jan. 20 speech in Berlin and in an interview last week with the podcast Pod Save the World. The message was meant to apply to Ukraine, but it is advisable to think this way about Taiwan as well.
Biden has had to face many serious issues in his first year in office. Many presidents have had to deal with only one or two such issues in the whole course of their terms, compared to the multiple crises facing Biden at once: the pandemic’s Omicron surge; the continuing ups and downs of the economy; the Afghan collapse that continues to haunt via potential terrorism risks and humanitarian collapse; serious threats to democracy and voting rights; right-wing extremism; tensions over race, policing, and criminal justice reform; immigration; and climate change. And now the United States is facing another – acute threats from aggressive dictators to freedom, liberty, and the international standards that are the world’s best bet for maintaining those values. Such democratic principles are worth defending at all costs.