Russian troops have massed on the border with Ukraine. Photo: AFP / Anadolu Agency

Russian military intimidation and Western threats of retaliatory economic punishment suggest there’s no end in sight to tensions over Ukraine, with a stalemate at best and war at the worst.

Over the past month, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made bellicose moves that scare Ukraine and worry the US and its allies. He dispatched 120,000 troops and numerous armored groups to Russia’s border with Ukraine, including one large unit that moved in from Siberia.

Large numbers of transport trucks have been ferried just to the east of the Ukraine border, suggesting they could be used to quickly transport infantry across the frontier. Last weekend, Russia sent Buk anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine’s frontier. 

A Buk shot down a Malaysian passenger aircraft in 2014, killing 298 people. All that’s missing, a NATO defense official said, were sufficient supplies of ammunition, field medical facilities and fuel supply lines.

Putin and US President Joe Biden spoke via video connection last week, with the American urging Moscow not to go to war on Ukraine. Yet the talks triggered no pullbacks.

The Conflict Intelligence Team, an internet research group that tracks Russian military moves, said on the ground signs “allow us to conclude that despite the negotiations between Biden and Putin, the concentration of Russian troops in the areas bordering the territory controlled by the Ukrainian authorities continues.”

The United States and allies in the Group of Seven have taken Russian moves as a sign of impending warfare. They warned that “military aggression against Ukraine would have massive consequences and severe costs.”

The “costs” of invasion for Russia would apparently be limited to new economic sanctions to supplement ones imposed in 2014. That’s when Russia first sent troops into Ukraine and then supported and armed pro-Russian separatists.

All this gives the appearance of a 21st-century chapter of March of Folly, a 1980s book that chronicled historic miscalculations in disastrous wars, from Troy to Vietnam. The question now is whether the West is miscalculating Putin’s resolve.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is beating war drums. Photo: AFP / Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik

Last week, Putin laid out Russia’s demand to resolve the face-off: Ukrainian neutrality. Ukraine must give up aspirations to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the United States must provide Russia with “reliable and firm legal guarantees” that Ukraine will never join.

As a sweetener, Putin could tolerate Ukraine’s participation in the European Union; it’s harder to declare EU membership a casus belli, though for Putin, it was in 2014.

Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said such a deal would require “a chain of actions and obligations that should lead to a Ukraine that is friendly and neutral, but not necessarily subordinate, to Moscow.”

There is an old example of a Western country that accepted neutrality at Moscow’s insistence: Austria.

Following World War II, the US, United Kingdom, France and Russia occupied the country. Russia only agreed to pull out, along with the rest of WWII’s victorious powers, in 1955, when Austrian neutrality was guaranteed.

Austria enshrined neutrality in its own constitution and the country remains outside NATO to this day. However, it joined the European Union in 1995 without Soviet complaint.

There are big obstacles that make such an outcome more difficult, if not impossible, for Ukraine. First, the USSR did not bite off a chunk of Austria, whereas in 2014, Putin invaded and then annexed Crimea, which had been part of Ukraine.

Moreover, Putin’s pan-Slavic credentials are at stake. In many Russian minds, and certainly in Putin’s, Ukraine is an indigenous piece of the Slavic family; it should go hand in hand with Russia.

Last summer, Putin lamented that the “wall that has emerged between Russia and Ukraine in recent years, between parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual place, to my mind is our great common misfortune and tragedy.”

Objections to NATO, but not EU?

Moreover, having declared that “Crimea is forever part of Russia,” Putin seems unlikely to give that piece of Ukraine back.

The 2014 invasion was nominally meant to block Ukraine’s determination to join the EU instead of Putin’s copycat Eurasian Economic Union. Curiously, the issue then was not about prospective Ukrainian NATO membership.

Would Putin need to explain how he dropped the EU issue that appeared so important to him in 2014 and which led to seven years of turmoil and death in Ukraine?

Meanwhile, US President Biden might find it hard to surrender Ukraine’s decision-making over NATO to Russia. He is already being portrayed as a weak incompetent by critics over his botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Adverse opinion might multiply exponentially if he is viewed as giving Putin a veto over who can join NATO.

If Russia gets to keep Crimea, as Putin undoubtedly would demand, would Biden be ready for the inevitable comparison to pre-WWII British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who notoriously acquiesced to Hitler’s takeover of part of Czechoslovakia?

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has rejected enforced neutrality, if solely on the grounds that Moscow can’t be trusted.

He noted that in 1991, Ukraine gave up its store of nuclear weapons to facilitate its split from the Soviet Union. In return, Ukraine received assurances “from Russia that our borders and our security will be respected,” Zelensky said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has little faith in promises from the Kremlin. Photo: AFP

“It is strange to hear the Russian side asking for any guarantees when so many promises have already been broken,” he declared.

Ukraine has taken steps to beef up its defense with American-made anti-tank missiles and drones from Turkey, to at least bloody a Russian advance. Ukrainian troops have also received training from US military instructors.

Officials in Kiev despair of having insufficient anti-aircraft equipment and would like NATO to supply some.

If it comes to war, a likely date for a Russian invasion comes down to the weather, according to Air Force Times, an independent defense publication: Next month, probably, when swampy land in eastern Ukraine “will freeze … making it easy for Russian tanks to roll in.”

Follow Daniel Williams on Twitter at @dwilliams1949

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.