Responding to the New Crisis on Ukraine’s Borders
Responding to the New Crisis on Ukraine’s Borders
A Ukrainian serviceman walks in a trench as he stands at his post on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near the town of Zolote, in the Lugansk region, on April 9, 2021. STR / AFP
Statement / Europe & Central Asia 12 minutes

Responding to the New Crisis on Ukraine’s Borders

Tension fuelled by Russia’s massing of forces near Ukraine’s borders in recent weeks have been compounded by sanctions, expulsions of diplomats and hostile words between Moscow and Western capitals. Calibrated deterrence paired with dialogue could reopen negotiations regarding Ukraine and help reverse a dangerous escalation.

In late March and early April, Russia deployed tens of thousands of additional troops near the Ukrainian border, unnerving Kyiv and its Western partners. Those tensions have now been compounded by a new round of reciprocal sanctions, diplomatic expulsions and angry rhetoric between Moscow and Western capitals that is rooted in events preceding the recent troop build-up. With Ukraine still on edge, the U.S. and its European allies, who are considering next steps, should send clear signals about the costs they will impose if Russian forces do attack, while doing what they can to avoid the risk of escalation. All involved should take this moment as a wake-up call. In an atmosphere of continuing rancour between Russia and the West more broadly, the long-running conflict between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region is fundamental. Progress there would improve prospects for progress elsewhere, even as the absence of a settlement in Donbas all but guarantees a continued and risky standoff.

Russia began moving forces and materiel ever closer to Ukraine in late March. A ceasefire Kyiv and Moscow agreed to in July 2020 had frayed since year’s end, owing to their failure to agree on a joint mechanism for addressing violations and, according to Kyiv, increased sniper activity from Russia-backed forces that control part of Donbas. The press published photographs of trains laden with Russian tanks and other armaments headed for the border. Ukrainian officials say the deployments menace their country. Russia, for its part, insists the troop movements are routine training exercises that threaten no one. But its deployment of paratroopers to Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, and its establishment of a base camp at Voronezh, five hours’ drive from Ukraine’s eastern frontier, are not simple reshuffles.

On 15 April, the United States imposed new sanctions on Russia, albeit not in response to its deployments. Since 2014, the U.S. and other Western governments have rolled out several waves of punitive measures tied both to Ukraine and other issues, including election interference, intelligence operations, cyberattacks and Moscow’s treatment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, now reportedly in dire need of medical attention in Russian prison. The new sanctions package had been long in development: it aims to punish Moscow for the 2020 Solar Winds attack on U.S. government cyber-infrastructure, Russia’s alleged election interference and the continuing occupation of Crimea. The White House fact sheet explaining the sanctions also referenced reports of Russia paying bounties for Taliban attacks on U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, although the Treasury Department sanctions announcement made no reference to these assertions and news reporting indicates that U.S. intelligence agencies have only low to moderate confidence in their veracity.

Thus began a new, and fairly rapid, cycle of political escalation. The U.S. sanctions restricted some three dozen firms and individuals, banned direct purchases of Russian debt by U.S. financial institutions starting on 14 June, and expelled ten diplomatic staff assigned to the Russian mission. Moscow responded with its own list of U.S. officials and former officials banned from Russia, limits on the movement and activities of U.S. diplomats in Russia (including prohibiting the hiring of Russian and third-country staff), limits on U.S.-funded NGOs and the expulsion of ten American diplomats. Within days, Poland and the Czech Republic said they, too, were expelling Russian diplomats (with Prague indicating its action was tied to its assessment of Russian military intelligence involvement in an explosion at a Czech ammunition depot in 2014). Russia has announced the expulsion of Polish and Czech diplomats in return.

Meanwhile, the situation in Ukraine remains unresolved. Despite the Russian tanks being ferried toward the border, there appears to be little likelihood of an imminent resurgence of the bloody fighting that shook Donbas, a swathe of eastern Ukraine, in 2014 and 2015. Troop numbers and postures, although worrying, do not fit the template for an invasion. That said, the troop build-up could set the stage for a standoff in which Ukraine has to choose between doing nothing in the face of repeated provocations and acting in response, which Moscow could take as an excuse to escalate further.

Moscow has sent mixed signals about the purpose of its military deployments. On one hand, the Kremlin insists that they are only for training. Yet Russian official statements express concern about the fraying of the July 2020 ceasefire, which they portray as a sign that Kyiv may be readying to retake by force the territories held by Russia-backed fighters. Likening the intensified combat in Donbas to “children playing with matches”, the Kremlin’s point man for Ukraine, Dmitry Kozak, told reporters that Moscow would be obliged to intervene should a major fire occur. The Kremlin claims it feels this obligation because, among other things, there are Russian citizens in Donbas whom it needs to protect. In reality, Ukraine has done nothing to suggest that it plans an offensive in Donbas. Moreover, the citizens about whose safety Russia expresses concern are also Ukrainian citizens; Moscow has been offering and providing Russian passports to residents of the territories outside Kyiv’s control since 2019.

Conventional wisdom has long been that Moscow is content with the status quo in Ukraine. The Minsk Agreements, which ended the bloodiest fighting in early 2015 and were negotiated as Kyiv faced intense Russian military pressure, favour Moscow’s proxies. They require Ukraine to provide local self-rule – “special status” – to territories now held by Russia-backed forces and to hold elections there in exchange for Kyiv regaining control of its border. Ukraine has delayed, blaming Russia for not doing its part, namely ending military support to separatists. Moscow, in turn, points out that Minsk is explicit: special status and elections in the self-proclaimed republics first, Ukrainian control second. It insists that it gives no support, military or otherwise, to those regions. If Kyiv is unhappy with the deal, the Kremlin argues, it must talk directly to the separatists. Kyiv refuses to do so, on the grounds that they are Kremlin proxies. While Russia would prefer to see broad autonomy granted to areas controlled by its allies, the stalemate has allowed Moscow to blame Ukraine for not fulfilling its Minsk obligations.

Russia’s recent troop movements and rhetoric suggest it may be growing frustrated, and perhaps is trying to squeeze Ukraine into making concessions.

Yet Russia’s recent troop movements and rhetoric suggest it may be growing frustrated, and perhaps is trying to squeeze Ukraine into making concessions. Moscow may hope that a combination of force build-up and Russian rhetoric about “protecting citizens” will make Kyiv think twice about responding if Russian-backed forces, unbound by the ceasefire as it dissolves, seek tactical advantages. Though the new outpost in Voronezh appears temporary, with the weather warming up, troops could stay there at least until Russian-Belarusian exercises scheduled for September. The Kremlin may hope that Western responses to the deployments demonstrate again that for all the rhetoric, no Western state will come to Ukraine’s aid if it faces an escalating military threat. Moscow may also be looking to increase its leverage with Western counterparts on the wide range of issues that divide them around the world.

Ukraine has sought backup with little to show for it. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy placed a call to NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, and made a case for a speedy action plan laying out a path for Ukraine to join the alliance and thus enjoy its mutual defence obligations. Zelenskyy also travelled to Ankara and Paris to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and French President Emmanuel Macron. German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined the latter meeting via videoconference. Stoltenberg publicly expressed concern about Russian actions and support for Ukraine. A number of NATO member state officials, including U.S. diplomats, also voiced support. The U.S. announced it would dispatch two warships to the Black Sea, then cancelled the order, even as it announced the new sanctions on Russia unrelated to the military build-up. The UK has now pledged to dispatch two of its own warships in May. Yet NATO members will only go so far. They have no intention of admitting Ukraine to the alliance any time soon. None of what they have done is in itself likely to compel Russia to change course.

No Western country wants to risk war with Moscow.

If the troop build-up is new, the dilemmas facing Kyiv and its partners are familiar, and their concurrence with a new diplomatic escalation illustrates the multiple, interdependent levels on which the standoff plays out. Western governments want to deter Russia from threatening Ukraine and from a range of other behaviour, from cyberattacks to election interference. Yet no Western country wants to risk war with Moscow. All are aware that no magic cocktail of policies will perfectly achieve the goals of deterring further aggression, minimising risks of an escalation and encouraging the sides to get back to talks over Donbas, all the while preserving the unity that European leaders value and that is critical to their collective action.

But this does not mean nothing can be done. Indeed, although Russia’s actions are unnerving and unwelcome, they may create an opening. Even as Moscow and Western leaders face off on other matters, it is Ukraine that poses the greatest immediate risks for escalation. The way forward should entail a mix of deterrence and dialogue aimed at getting Russian forces back to their home bases, Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists to return to the July 2020 ceasefire deal, and Moscow and Kyiv to return to peace talks.

When it comes to deterrence, the West should be careful not to rely on bluffs that Moscow is likely to call. Instead, the first step should be for Washington and its allies to try to forge consensus on how NATO and European countries would realistically respond, collectively and individually, to evidence of a Russian, or Russian-backed, attack. They must also decide what, if anything, they will do if Russia does not attack, but maintains its current, more threatening force posture toward Ukraine for months to come.

Non-military options on the table are familiar: they amount to additional sanctions. These might include, for example, banning borrowing by and cooperation with export-oriented Russian energy and metallurgical companies and state-controlled banks, cutting Russia off from the SWIFT banking network and further limiting Russian access to Western financing through prohibitions on buying Russian sovereign debt on the secondary market. The Kremlin appears most fearful of the effects of so-called secondary sanctions, through which the sanctioning country punishes violations by third parties, and which have been a component of U.S. “maximum pressure” campaigns against Iran and North Korea. In theory, these have been enabled by the Combating America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), although this law has not been much enforced. A tougher U.S. line with secondary sanctions might run into resistance from European allies, who would be affected. Ideally, therefore, and notwithstanding the difficulties of such coordination, Western powers should reach as much agreement as possible as to the precise packages of punitive measures that they would threaten.

Using military pressure as a deterrent is even more difficult, because meaningful steps create greater jeopardy of escalation. One option might be increased military aid to Ukraine, but little suggests that the Javelin missiles sold to Kyiv by the Trump administration in 2018 offer Ukrainian forces a meaningful battlefield advantage, or that other augmented armaments would much help Kyiv should Russian tanks roll in. Placing Western advisers on the front lines or affording Ukraine air support would be ill-advised given the possibility that they could end up greatly expanding the conflict.

Conveying to Moscow quietly the implications of any attack in Ukraine would likely be more effective than public warnings.

Effective advance communication arguably matters almost as much as the specific sanctions Western governments threaten. Conveying to Moscow quietly the implications of any attack in Ukraine would likely be more effective than public warnings. Moreover, sanctions work best when they are threatened but not imposed or, if imposed, have clear benchmarks for their reversal. In this light, the restrictive measures Western countries threaten in this context should not include those they might wish to adopt irrespective of what happens in Donbas.

Ideally, too, Western governments would use the sanctions they have already imposed to create incentives for Moscow to take positive steps in Ukraine. They could agree on these incentives among themselves, and then communicate to Moscow what it might do in return for relief from Western sanctions. This course of action is not without risk, including that Moscow backslides after pocketing concessions and the West then finds it hard to reconstruct a unified front that was difficult to build. But, as Crisis Group has argued before, if the U.S. and its European partners are not ready to use sanctions relief to motivate incremental progress by Moscow, the combination of high demands and inflexible tools offers little hope of breaking the deadlock.

Dialogue with Moscow should accompany deterrence.

Dialogue with Moscow should accompany deterrence. In time, this might mean reinstating a senior-level channel between Moscow and Washington, along the lines of ones in place in the Obama and Trump administrations. A U.S.-Russia dialogue would, inevitably, cover issues beyond Ukraine and appears at least somewhat implicit in the new U.S. administration’s approach to Moscow, particularly the agreement President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin tentatively struck during a 13 April call to meet in a third country in the coming months. Although Moscow indicated that the meeting was off in the wake of the 15 April sanctions announcement, it now appears once again to be in the works.

Preparations for such a meeting, and other back-channel conversations among Western, Ukrainian and Russian officials, could explore just which sanctions might be lifted in exchange for which Russian actions. The latter might, for example, include Russian steps to assure full Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) access to non-government-controlled areas, including the Ukrainian-Russian border; its facilitation of forces’ disengagement from front lines; Russian military personnel’s participation in bilateral ceasefire monitoring; and the disarmament of Russian proxies. Sanctions lifted in return might include those on borrowing conditions for Russian banks and companies, or those imposed on Russian border service personnel in response to the November 2018 Kerch Strait incident, in which Russia’s coast guard seized three Ukrainian naval vessels. Meanwhile, Ukraine and Russia should also discuss acceptable terms to ensure water supplies for the residents of Crimea, cut off by Ukraine soon after annexation and never effectively replaced by Russia. Kyiv has said it would provide humanitarian supplies only after an international needs assessment.

Returning to the table – mostly likely through the “Normandy Format” that includes France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, perhaps with an additional informal role for the United States – would only be a starting point when it comes to Ukraine, given how far apart the parties are. Their fundamental disagreement remains whether Ukraine will fulfil the terms of Minsk as written, requiring it to grant special status to Donbas and hold elections while Russia-backed separatists control parts of the region. But the parties could explore creative options, such as OSCE or UN monitoring of the border and the region as a whole while elections are held. Even absent resolution of core issues, they can take steps to reduce violence and ease humanitarian concerns. At the same time, Kyiv needs to demonstrate its seriousness about reintegrating territories now held by Russia-backed forces. It needs to update proposals for Donbas’s local self-governing rights to address issues such as the legal status of those who have received Russian passports in recent years. It also needs to push through transitional justice legislation that provides incentives for combatants to lay down arms and promises fair trials for those accused of war crimes on both sides. Ukraine’s Western partners should do all they can to encourage Kyiv to take such steps.

The Ukraine conflict is not only a humanitarian disaster for people in affected areas but an open sore in Russia-West relations.

The Ukraine conflict is not only a humanitarian disaster for people in affected areas but an open sore in Russia-West relations. True, sources of friction between Moscow and Western capitals are many, and the new administration in Washington will want to tackle an array of disagreements with Russia. The Ukraine conflict fuels – and its resolution is complicated by – the wider standoff. Still, the dangerous tensions in and around Donbas over the past weeks could create an opportunity for Western governments to refresh policy, adopt an approach that combines deterrence and dialogue, and create new incentives that improve prospects of moving toward a settlement in Donbas. Absent that, the threat of another escalation looms large.   

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.