What’s Going On in Ukraine? (Again): An Explainer

Anyone else having a case of déjà vu?

In the early fall of 2021, reports emerged of a buildup of Russian military forces along the shared border between Russia and Ukraine – who have locked in a low-level conflict since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 after a popular revolution overthrew its pro-Russian government. Now, once again, we see a large scale Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders with warnings of war on the horizon that are much louder and frantic than they were early last year.

During the last war scare, I put together a little explainer on what was going on with the situation in Ukraine. I felt it only fitting to do the same in this case, seeing as there are a number of factors this time around that make this crisis different and more concerning than the last and even more worth of your attention than the previous was. While its not necessarily mandatory, I’d highly recommend reading that previous piece before diving into this one as it not only provides some useful context and contrast going into this current situation.

With that out of the way, I’m not going to waste anymore time and get right into the meat of the situation because I have a LOT to say about everything going on. Strap yourselves in guys, gals, and non-binary pals.

Didn’t this happen already?

So again, for those of you with long memories (and also memories that haven’t been completely fucked by the last two years or so of insanity), you may remember that we were in a similar position a year ago in the spring of 2021 when it came to Russia and Ukraine. Russia was conducting an unusual and large-scale troop buildup along the Ukrainian border that was causing a great amount of concern from March through April 2021. On the whole, while those in the know were worried, there was generally a sentiment by experts that that buildup in itself likely wouldn’t amount to much and was more for show than anything and that it was most likely an attempt at intimidation. Key indications were missing that might imply actual, serious action on the part of Russia. I was worried myself – more worried than I’d been with previous Russia-Ukraine crises – but even when I was at my most concerned, I still felt it was more likely that not that the Russians wouldn’t undertake a serious offensive.

These assumptions proved to be correct. In the end, Russia never launched any offensive and the military situation along the Russo-Ukrainian border calmed down to a degree. However, at the same time, there were already indications that this story wasn’t over. It showed Russia could move large numbers of troops cross-country fairly quickly and bring significant force to bear. There were also signs that, while Russian personnel returned to barracks, a great deal of their equipment was left close to Ukraine where it could be reunited with units fairly quickly in the event of a new buildup (a reality that we’re seeing now with the current buildup).

What makes this time different?

While in many ways the current buildup is similar to that which occurred in spring of 2021, there have been a number of significant differences that have made both governments and third-party analysts far more concerned about this crisis than the one from almost a year ago.

One important factor is the timing. This current buildup has occurred outside of the usual Russian military training cycles. The Russian military has two semi-annual training cycles: the winter period (December to May) and the summer period (June to October). While the spring 2021 buildup was unusual in its timing and was unexpected, it still was well within the time period for snap drills, something that Russia has done before – ostensibly to test combat readiness as the military modernizes and professionalizes, but with the obvious added effect of putting pressure on Ukraine as its conflict with Russia drags on.

But unlike the last buildup, the current buildup started outside the established training cycle, beginning well after the conclusion of Russia’s capstone military drill of 2021: Zapad-2021 (which occurred in September in Russia’s Western Military District in collaboration with Belarus). It’s also gone on for longer and taken longer. The spring 2021 buildup was much faster and more visible (more on that in a bit), starting in late March, peaking in late April and then winding down from that point on as (some) Russian troops began to return to their bases. This current buildup, first reported in early November, has been ongoing for over two months now. And while there have been occasional pauses or even (ultimately inaccurate) reports of Russia pulling back troops the troop presence has been maintained and there are signs more may be on the way. U.S. intelligence asserts that the buildup could potentially reach as many as 175,000 troops, far more than the number assembled in the spring 2021 buildup.

Another important factor is the manner in which the buildup has been conducted and the secrecy surrounding it. Obviously, in the age of cell phones, the internet, and other innovations, it’s almost impossible to conduct a large-scale military buildup without anyone – civilian or government – noticing it. That being said, for the current buildup the Russian military and government has taken actions to obscure intent and mask the true size, scope, and intent of the current buildup – possibly learning from its “trial run” earlier in 2021 and the manner in which open-source intelligence (OSINT) collectors on social media were able to identify and track units. One example of this is how Russia has been observed moving more and more hardware at night where possible to garner less attention. Another, highly suspicious, highly coincidental events have occurred during the buildup, an example being how the main account and backup account of an OSINT collector on a Russian railway tracking website were mysteriously blocked. While it can’t hide everything, Russia at least appears to be doing a great deal to obscure its activity and keep people guess as to what’s really going on.

Connected to the above point about concealment and obfuscation, I think one of the most important factors in how this buildup is different and more concerning is how the Russian government has addressed it – or in some cases, hasn’t. During spring 2021 buildup, Russia offered up explanations as to why it was conducting the buildup. The explanations may have been disingenuous or even outright lies, but they were offered up at any rate. Whatever the ultimate purpose of that buildup was, actual training occurred – which combined with the buildup of forces itself was meant to send a signal to both Ukraine and the United States and its allies about not challenging the current status quo regarding the conflict in Ukraine or attempt to move Ukraine more into the Western orbit. And since actual training was occurring the Russians could simply point to that as the justification for their troops’ movements.

The situation with the current buildup has been much different. After the buildup was initially reported, Russia flatly denied it was even occurring (as did Ukraine, oddly enough – though their tune changed not long after) and stated that any military movement within their borders was their own business and a threat to no one. As the buildup has continued, the Russian government, government-controlled media, and other proxies have continued to intensify their rhetoric on the entire Ukraine situation. Any effort by the United States or NATO to improve Ukraine’s military capabilities or to move Ukraine closer to NATO membership have been referred to as “red lines” by Russia. Putin has even declared that the situation in Eastern Ukraine resembles a “genocide” (causing every genocide studies person I know to come close to an aneurysm) – mirroring similar claims that were used (among other reasons) to justify Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008, asserting mistreatment of the population of breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia by the Georgian government was genocide.

It is amid intensifying hostile Russian rhetoric that Russia has made demands to Ukraine and the West for concessions on various security issues – another stark difference to the previous buildup. What’s more concerning is the nature of the demands. Russia has been repeatedly making demands that both Ukraine and the United States are highly unlikely to concede to. Furthermore, this doesn’t appear to be part of some larger diplomatic strategy to then talk down to more achievable concessions, as Russia has been largely intractable in its stances – as talks in Geneva showed on January 10th, ending with no progress (and now threatening to potentially walk out on remaining talks all together). This raises the specter that these demands may be less for actual negotiation, but more a camouflage to help justify any military action to Russian citizens and Russia’s supporters by framing it as Russia having no choice but to use force after diplomacy with Ukraine and the West repeatedly failed. This option has been alluded to by Putin himself, who in late December suggested Russia may have to take “adequate military-technical measures” if the West continued its “aggression.”

What has been done in response?

If someone asked me to explain the U.S. and Western response to the current Ukraine crisis in one sentence, I’d say “a whole lot of nothing.” And when I say, “a lot” I mean “a lot.”

The United States is obviously not wild about the idea of a deeper Russian incursion into Ukraine. Indeed, early on in the buildup, it was working to raise the alarm among its European allies who were far more skeptical that a Russian attack was actually likely.

But despite the amounts of “concern” expressed by the United States and now increasingly by its allies as they’ve seemed to understand the gravity of the situation, it’s proceeded to do very little in terms of concrete responses. If anything, the only thing the United States has done with gusto throughout the crisis is make it crystal clear to Moscow what it will not do – chiefly, that it will not become involved in any wider Ukraine war militarily.

A brief aside: I am by no means eager for any war between nuclear-armed states. I am not eager for war in general, regardless of how I may come off about it. I simply believe that sometimes war is necessary. I personally have very conflicting feelings on a day-to-day basis on whether the United States should become involved in a wider war between Russia and Ukraine. However, I also feel that openly and definitively ruling the possibility of U.S. military involvement out is a gigantic misstep and a blunder that does nothing but embolden an adversary.

To be fair to Biden, what he specifically stated was that the United States would not militarily intervene unilaterally in Ukraine. However, that doesn’t mean a whole lot either, as NATO as a whole has shown to have as little an appetite for getting involved in a Russo-Ukrainian War as America has. Any discussions of military responses by the alliance have been limited to the prospect of sending additional troops to fortify NATO’s eastern frontier – not intervention or support to Ukraine of any kind. Discussions of support to Ukraine have studiously avoided even the suggestion that NATO military forces being involved in any expanded conflict. Instead, the focus of NATO’s actions seems to be more about reassuring the eastern members of the alliance that they aren’t going to be abandoned in the same way that the West seems to be abandoning Ukraine in real time as the threat of military action looms.

The focus for support to Ukraine as the crisis has unfurled has instead been on economic actions and other forms of “soft power” short of war. This has included possible further sanctions – on top of those that have already been in place against Russia for years – targeting the banking and energy sectors and other key areas, or Russian backed projects like the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that it has pursued with Germany. There have been reports that the administration is considering cutting Russia off from SWIFT – the global electronic payment system – if it invades Ukraine, which would be a serious economic penalty. However, in regard to both options, Russia has built up countermeasures since 2014 to better defend itself against economic warfare from the West, building up currency reserves, developing alternative payment systems, and other actions. Likewise, these actions – while not having much of an effect on the United States directly – could have a more drastic economic effect on NATO allies in Europe that are more closely economically linked to Russia and may oppose U.S. efforts at further sanctions.

What’s the outlook?

In my opinion (and that of others who keep track of shit like this)? Not great.

As I said from the onset, when the spring 2021 buildup occurred, I was very concerned but still felt that it was more likely than not Russia wouldn’t commit to a large-scale attack against Ukraine and that it was mostly just signaling and bluffing and attempts to intimidate Ukraine and the West. For that particular instance, this assumption was largely correct.

This time however, my mood is much different. The way in which the buildup has occurred and the context around it, combined with the rhetoric of the Kremlin and its intractability on its positions, have made me far more concerned about where all this leads. I am now 180 degrees opposite to where I was in the spring. I think that while it is still possible a wider war may not occur, I think it is now more likely than not that Russia will commit to some significant military action against Ukraine in the very near future.

The response by the United States and the West hasn’t left me feeling optimistic either. Aside from making it bluntly, literally obvious to the Kremlin that they have no desire to get involved militarily if Russia does attack Ukraine, they also have collectively decided to only do the bare minimum necessary to assist Ukraine short of military action. The actions the United States and its allies have either done or proposed are the political-military equivalent of slapping a band aid on a sucking chest wound. The more serious proposals made, also appear to be ones that Russia may be willing to weather the storm in exchange for securing Ukraine, or potentially may be able to turn the tables on NATO states in such a way to make them reconsider even supporting things like sanctions or expulsion from SWIFT.

That really gets at the heart of the matter is I feel many individuals following this crisis both inside and outside of government drastically underestimate what exactly Ukraine means to Russia, in multiple ways. Ukraine has immense value to Russia not only economically and security wise, but also culturally or even spiritually. Ukraine, in many ways, is integral not only to the concept of Russia as a nation (and as a continental empire), but to what it means to actually be Russian. Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, is seen as the ancestral birthplace of the Russian people, descendants of the great Kyivan Rus. Putin – and many other Russians – see Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians as historically being “one people”. He has purportedly gone even further in the past, with an account of him asserting to then-U.S. President George W. Bush that “Ukraine is not even a country.” The entire Russian attitude to Ukraine can be aptly summed up by its original name under the Russian Empire, where for many years it was referred to as Malorossiya or “Little Russia”. Even if the West follows through on its harshest possible economic threats, Russia may be willing to take that hit to prevent something seen as so essential to it from slipping out of its grasp forever.

While my outlook is generally gloomy and assumes renewed conflict is more likely than not, there are still many unknowns in the equation. For all the troops Russia currently has in the field, it likely still needs more if it wants to launch a full-scale invasion into Ukraine. Additionally, certain key enablers that would be necessary for invasion – such as logistics infrastructure, field hospitals, and significant reserve callups – have not yet been seen or are not present in large enough numbers to support a full-scale invasion. While those additional troops and enablers could likely be deployed rapidly if the decision is made for sure to go, it’s also entirely possible that Putin could suddenly get cold feet for some reason – foreign or domestic – and call off any attack, with Western intelligence asserting that Putin has not yet made the decision to attack.

The recent attempt at revolution in Kazakhstan – where Russia and its CSTO allies are now sending troops to shore up the regime there – is one event that has the potential to change the calculus on Ukraine. But a lot of that depends on how effective CSTO forces are there, how long they stay, what resistance they run into, and more. News has been hard to get out of Kazakhstan with how the government has been throttling the internet, so a lot of this remains to be seen. While its possible this could delay or cancel Russia’s Ukraine plans, by default I am pessimistic it will amount to much given how much value Russia puts on Ukraine. But again, there is no way to be sure (one of the most infuriating parts of this entire business). As I finish this piece on the night of January 11th, Kazakhstan’s President is claiming that CSTO forces have accomplished their mission and will be leaving Kazakhstan in two days. Meanwhile, additional military units from the Eastern Military District in Russia have been spotted moving West. Whether they head to Kazakhstan, or Ukraine, could be a big indicator of Russian intent – not only of whether they really intend to attack but also how big they plan on going with it if troops from that far away are necessary for the planned operations.

With this buildup now entering month three, and the rhetoric still highly charged, I think the circumstances have been created where every day that this goes on the pressure mounts further on Russia to commit to an attack. With the demands being made by Russia that have slim to none chance of being agreed to by Ukraine or the rest of the West, and the tone that Putin has struck with his rhetoric, if he pulls back now after having achieved nothing and making the entire ordeal pointless it could do immeasurable political damage to his reputation at home. Aside from that, it could be seen as closing the book on any possibility of keeping Ukraine in the Russian orbit and losing Ukraine to the West forever. As this crisis drags on and Russia maintains its current political and diplomatic position, the possibility of a wider war becomes harder and harder to avoid.

A final important thing to remember when considering the likelihood of a Russian attack on Ukraine is that Russia has effectively been at war with Ukraine already for almost eight years. It annexed Crimea in 2014 and then throughout 2014 and 2015 intervened in the conflict in the East that it helped to spark with Russian military forces. We’re not talking about the risk of a new war starting. War has already been going on, even if it’s been at a low simmer since the worst fighting came to a standstill in 2015. We’re talking about an escalation of an existing conflict to far greater levels with far greater risks for all involved. For those who flatly deny Russia would ever go to war with Ukraine or is not capable of going to war with Ukraine, they are ignoring the fact that both have already been proven true.

Why should I care?

So, I’ve spent a little over three thousand words in change ranting to you about the situation. Now comes the same final question that I asked in my previous essay on the previous Ukraine crisis: “why should I care?”

Honestly, a lot of the same reasons to care that I stated at the conclusion of my essay on the last Ukraine crisis still very much hold true with this renewed crisis. You should care out of a general sense of empathy and internationalism due to the impact it may have on the lives of over forty million people in Ukraine who have already had to deal with various hardships since this conflict started in 2014. You should care because of the risks of destabilization throughout the region or even the possibility of further conflicts down the line as a result of escalation or Russia becoming emboldened that could affect even more lives. You should care because you can begin to say your anti-imperialist without being opposed to the naked imperialism that Russia practices against its former-Soviet territories. You should care because saying you support the right of self-determination and anti-colonialism and more without supporting the right of Ukraine to be able to choose its own destiny and who it associates with. All these reasons remain true (again, go back and read the last essay if you want a little bit more depth on these; trying not to retread too much ground here).

While I don’t believe a war in Ukraine would be apocalyptic – especially given the U.S. and European desperation to not become involved militarily – it could still have dramatic and far-reaching implications. It could potentially be the largest war in Europe since World War II and one of the largest military operations in general since perhaps the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Whatever the result, it could have a massive impact on both international relations and the domestic politics of many nations – including our own. Though it’s been repeated to the point of being a cliché, it can’t be ignored that with the age of interconnectedness we now live in, that we can’t simply ignore conflicts and crises overseas as having nothing to do with us. This should be especially true if you call yourself a leftist or a socialist and should be having an outlook that doesn’t end with your own borders.

Additionally, the Ukraine situation is worth caring about because it again demonstrates the need for those who are on the left who are not well versed in foreign policy and international relations (or have really shitty, uniformed takes on them) to step up their game. I see people on the left either not even knowing anything is going on with Russia and Ukraine or spouting highly misinformed and disingenuous opinions on them for others to consume. Whatever you feel about the United States government and its policies, however much your focus may be on domestic issues (and not without good reason), we simply cannot afford to ignore the world around us if we ever hope of changing anything – let alone exercising power. We also can’t ignore the world around us because, quite frankly, caring about what happens to others and trying to help is the right thing to do – not just as a socialist principle but as a human one.

Finally, you should care about Ukraine and what’s happening that because – connected to what I just said – it’s a lesson in how often there are no easy answers to major foreign policy questions. I have been torn repeatedly between two poles throughout this crisis, day to day or sometimes hour to hour, about what I think should be done. At some times – however much I support Ukraine – I feel the right thing to do is to not be involved at all (essentially the current course of action), and effectively dooming Ukraine to a long and bloody struggle one way or another. Alternatively, at times I’ve wanted to send in the entire U.S. III Corps and then dare the Russians to “come at me bro” – effectively goading a major war with a nuclear-armed state that sees Ukraine as an integral part of its very being. There is no “right” answer here and that’s one of the most infuriating things about all of this. Its more about trying to find the least bad solution rather than the “best” because there is no “best” (by the way, @ me if you find the least worst solution because I sure as shit haven’t). This reinforces all the more why we need to start getting smarter about international relations on the left because this shit is only going to get harder going forward with how chaotic the world is continuing to be.

While I am not optimistic about the days ahead, those who know me know that I reject doomerism in all its forms and that I remain aggressively hopeful about the overall trajectory of humanity. I think one way or another, darker times are ahead for Ukraine. But knowing Ukraine as a country, and the individual Ukrainians I have come into contact with, I know no matter what happens they’ll make sure their people and country won’t cease existing (after all, the unofficial title of Ukraine’s national anthem is “Ukraine has not yet perished”). I know eventually, one way, things will be better. But that means in the near term we’ll need to weather the storm.

In mainstream media, on social media, just about everywhere, there are still many who think a large-scale war like the kind I think is increasingly likely, either isn’t likely or is outright impossible for various reasons. Some of them have very good rationales for believing so. I respect many of the people arguing these points, even if I disagree with them. They may very well be right – as I have said, there’s still room to maneuver here, even if that space is shrinking. This is an area in which I hope I will be wrong, in which I would welcome getting pointed at and laughed at for blowing a call.

But increasingly, I think my gut may be right when it comes to Ukraine. And as long as I have that feeling, until I am proven otherwise, I am going to do my best to try and prepare people for what is coming because we quite simply can’t afford to be ill prepared if it does.

Stay frosty, folks.

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