Will Putin Set Europe Ablaze?

A control check for the summer training period of 2021 completed in the tank army of WMD. Credit: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation.
A control check for the summer training period of 2021 completed in the tank army of WMD. Credit: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation.

Russia is once again playing mind games with its long-suffering neighbors and the West. The only response is unapologetic resolve. 

US officials have started sounding the alarm about a significant build-up of Russian forces close to the Ukrainian border — close to 100,000 personnel and large amounts of equipment belonging to elite units have been detected by satellites. 

Ukraine initially downplayed the deployments and only recently started publicly discussing the emerging threat. A good indicator of the initial response came from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s national address when he discussed the alarming intelligence and asked Ukrainians not to spread panic or fall victim to Russia's information war. While the West raises the alarm and issues warnings, the mood in Kyiv is relatively calm — this, after all, is a country engaged in a seven-year armed struggle in Eastern Ukraine, a fight funded by the Kremlin and directly involving Russian military equipment and service personnel. Ukrainians are used to an almost unceasing drumbeat of menace from the Putin regime and rarely react even when the Kremlin escalates, seeking attention or concessions from the West. The Ukrainian military is also much better-prepared and well-equipped than in 2014 and is battle-hardened. 

This latest Russian military build-up is in some respects a repetition of events in the spring, when Russia moved huge amounts of military equipment and troops to areas close to Ukraine. In the end, Putin pulled some of his forces back, although military equipment was left behind, signaling what felt like phase one of the operation. The Russian leader also managed to score a concession, a June summit with President Joe Biden. While many were relieved, the increased threat to Ukraine was far from over.  

Over the summer, things ramped up again, firstly with a propaganda offensive. Putin released an essay in Ukrainian questioning Ukraine's sovereignty while emphasizing that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.” The essay was viewed as a veiled threat and hinted at the annexation of more Ukrainian territory, in addition to the occupied territories of Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine. Putin's essay also floated anti-Russian conspiracies and blamed the dire state of relations between Ukraine and Russia on foreign plots. Russian state media and lawmakers parroted the propaganda, with one Russian official, Pyotr Tolstoy, Deputy Speaker of Russia's Parliament and head of the country’s delegations to the Parliamentary Assemblies of both the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe, suggesting that “the leaders of the Ukrainian revolution [should be hanged] from lamp-posts."  

The US administration has responded with tough words. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed US support for Ukraine's sovereignty and warned Russia against making another "serious mistake"; NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called on Russia to be "transparent" about its military activities amid what he called a "large and unusual concentration" of Russian forces close to Ukraine. "Any further provocation or aggressive actions by Russia would be of serious concern," Stoltenberg told a joint news conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Brussels. The British and Ukrainian defense ministers jointly reasserted the country’s sovereign status as they moved closer to a warship construction deal that could be worth as much as $2.3bn. Even French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who tend to appease the Kremlin, issued statements fully supporting Ukraine and calling on Putin to back down.

Media reports suggest the situation is worsened by a lack of CIA intelligence on Putin’s inner circle and that US officials are deeply concerned by the appearance of Spetsnaz, GRU, and SVR units operating in the area, significantly increasing the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare capabilities. 

Russia's march towards Ukraine's borders began in October but was overshadowed by another engineered crisis when Russia refused to meet rising European natural gas demand. That helped to send energy prices soaring to record-high levels and caused widespread alarm across Europe, particularly in Germany and Moldova, where Gazprom menaced the newly elected pro-Western government. Meanwhile, there was also a sudden escalation on the Kosovo-Serbia border, with Russia stepping in and providing support to Serbia while deploying the advanced S-400 Pantsir air defense system for an October joint military exercise.  

And now we are being directed to the Belarus-Poland border. Over the summer, Putin's proxy Aliaksandr Lukashenka began flying in migrants from Iraq to Minsk and then transporting them to Lithuania's border. While this weaponization of migrants has been ongoing since then, the crisis has escalated over the past few weeks. Dozens of planes have been flying into Minsk, bringing migrants from several Middle Eastern countries and Africa. The growing numbers are taken to the border of Poland and Lithuania and trapped amid scenes of chaos, with women and children suffering in extremely cold conditions. An unknown number have died.  

Russia has been providing full support to the regime, including flying nuclear bombers over Belarus and dropping paratroopers into the country on combat-readiness exercises. While Putin and Lukashenka seek to provoke Europe, Russian state media have been telling their domestic audience that NATO is preparing an attack. The flames in all these hotspots are being fanned by Russia and are timed to distract from Russia's potential further invasion of Ukraine. This is what hybrid warfare looks like. 

US and European leaders are right to voice their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and to call out Russia on its aggressive tactics, but they must also be prepared to act. Putin has increasingly become emboldened and is now dangerously reckless after past Western failures to impose consequences for a grotesque litany of invasions, assassinations, attacks on Western elections, cyberattacks, and disinformation operations.  

Just this week, the Kremlin willingly endangered two of its own crewmen (along with four Americans and a German) in the International Space Station by recklessly launching an anti-satellite missile and creating a huge debris cloud threatening other spacecraft.  

It is encouraging that the US is speaking to European allies on a sanctions package if Russia launches a further invasion of Ukraine. But the US and Europe must present a solid united front and be prepared to use all measures against Putin if he escalates in Ukraine and takes further action to threaten the EU’s borders. They cannot waver, because the Kremlin will see that as a sign of weakness and be encouraged to launch yet more risky and dangerous acts. 

Olga Lautman is co-host of the Kremlin File podcast and is a researcher focusing on and writing about developments in Russia and Ukraine A fluent Russian speaker, she has developed a strong network with individuals in Russia, Ukraine, and US law enforcement.

November 17, 2021