In recent weeks, Russia has pushed more than 100,000 troops to its border with Ukraine. The Ukrainian government, fearing an attack, called on Europe and the United States for help. A Kremlin spokesperson said Russia poses no threat to anyone, but its 2014 invasion of Crimea and its continued material support for separatist rebels in Ukraine’s Donbas region (along with related denials) have put European and US officials on alert.
EU President Ursula von der Leyen insists that the EU and the US “fully support Ukraine’s territorial integrity”, and together openly discuss retaliatory steps, especially sanctions, if Russia crosses the border. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the Russian incursion would be a “fatal mistake”, and the US is said to have shipped about 80 tons of munitions to Ukraine to support Kiev.
What does Vladimir Putin intend? In recent years, the Russian president has fully embraced anti-Western Cold War-like words and actions, at least in part as a way to bolster his low acceptance rates. An opinion poll published in October by the Levada Center in Moscow showed that Russia’s trust in Putin had fallen to 53%, its lowest level since 2012. And history shows that fighting battles with Ukraine can help.
Putin claims that Russian forces are responding to Western provocations in the Black Sea, where NATO recently conducted unannounced military exercises. He asks why Russia ignores the hostile presence of American and European warships and combat aircraft near the Russian coast? It is also possible that Putin is signaling to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky not to try to bolster his declining assessments by becoming more militarily aggressive with the Donbass rebels in the coming months.
Despite all this, a Russian invasion of Ukraine remains unlikely. Seven years ago, when Putin wrested Crimea in response to political turmoil in Kiev that forced the pro-Russian Ukrainian president to flee the country, his forces were entering the only part of Ukraine where the majority of citizens are of Russian origin. This ensures a mostly friendly reception. At the time, the Kremlin also had an element of surprise. Subsequent Russian support for Ukrainian separatists in the Donbass also occurred on mostly friendly territory. Today, Putin’s assaults have poisoned the attitudes of tens of millions of Ukrainians toward Moscow.
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That is why any Russian advance into the new Ukrainian lands would be very costly for Russia. Ukraine cannot defeat Russia on the ground, and NATO will not join the fight, but the heavy Russian losses and financial costs of holding hostile territory are politically prohibitive for a Russian president who was not as popular as before. . In fact, another Levada poll found that although Russians tend to blame the West for problems in Ukraine, they do not believe that an “all-out war” with Ukraine would mesh well with Putin’s domestic standing. All that said, Ukraine is in no position to ignore the sudden expanded presence of Russian forces along its borders, and US and European officials know that any less forceful statement of their support could make hostile Russian action more likely. The stakes of war are still low, but no one will calm down until these Russian soldiers retreat.