Russia’s recent build-up of troops on its eastern border with Ukraine and in Crimea has put the international community on high alert.
In this blog post for Edge Hill’s Institute for Social Responsibility, the Institute’s Director Professor Jo Crotty discusses why this latest move by Vladimir Putin is unlikely to result in war between Russia and the West.
What with COVID, the death of the Duke of Edinburg and a football furore, you could be forgiven for not noticing the recent build-up of 80,000 Russian troops on the Russian-Ukraine border. Unsurprisingly, this has raised alarm within the international community, as an armed conflict between these two nations would have serious and inevitable implications.
Technically, Ukraine and Russia have been engaged in a conflict since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatist forces in Ukraine’s coal and gas rich eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, known collectively the Donbas. This reflects the ethnic and cultural split that emerged from attempts to Russify the Soviet Union through the settlement of ethnic Russians within its 15 republics. In Ukraine, such Russification was enacted in the East where labour was needed to extract natural resources. Consequently, today Ukraine is split between the Russian-speaking so-called ‘red’ areas to the east and the ethnically Ukrainian ‘orange’ areas to the West.
At face-value such a troop build-up looks like Russia is preparing to formalise its incursion into the Donbas by forcibly annexing it. Yet this is unlikely to happen for the following reasons:
- In recent months a number of factors have led President Putin to reassert his ‘strong man’ image. He no longer has a friendly ally in the White House. In recent days we have seen the imposition of US sanctions against Russia in response to confirmed Russian interference in the 2020 US Presidential election. At the same time Ukrainian President Zelensky and Turkish President Erdogan held their own summit that condemned Russian aggression, creating (the appearance at least) of a Black Sea axis against the Russian Federation. Amassing troops is a way to counter both this axis, and a more hostile United States.
- Russia will hold elections for the State Duma (parliament) in September. While Putin needs a show of force to maintain his image, he does not need another war. The cost of such an incursion would be very damaging to the Russian economy still in the throes of COVID. Moreover, despite being the first country in the world to bring a COVID vaccine to market, domestic take up has been very low. He also faces public unrest in response to the imprisonment of dissident Alexei Navalny. Putin does not need to be fighting a war on multiple fronts as voters go to the polls.
- Ukrainian President Zelensky also does not need a war. He was elected president in 2019 on a promise to end the conflict in the Donbas which has created more than 1.4 million internally displaced persons, most of whom are women and children. Escalating this would not be in his interest.
Thus it is unlikely that we are on the cusp of an armed conflict in the Caucuses. Recent troop build-up is much more about domestic agendas than it is about foreign ambition. So we don’t need to hold our collective breath – at least not yet.
Jo Crotty is Professor of Management and Director of the Institute for Social Responsibility at Edge Hill University.