Tensions are increasing at the eastern border of Ukraine with Russia according to a Tuesday report in The New York Times. Russian troops had massed at the border ostensibly for training exercises. The military exercises ended on March 23 and not only did the existing troops remain, but they were joined by as many as 4,000 more.
Last week, the sides traded fire for nearly a day, leaving four Ukrainian troops dead and one wounded. The battle occurred in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine and ended a ceasefire which had been in place since last July. The Times notes that over the last week, “the U.S. military’s European Command raised its watch level from possible crisis to potential imminent crisis — the highest level — in response to the deployment of the additional Russian troops.”
The article said the fighting had occurred across the “so-called Line of Contact, a roughly 250-mile-long barricade of trenches and fortifications.”
According to the report:
Ukrainian and the Russian-backed separatist forces have settled into trenches that have barely moved over the seven years since fighting erupted in 2014.
European monitors have spotted new weaponry on the Russian-backed side in recent weeks. Artillery fire has become more frequent. And Russian negotiators have warned of a breakdown in peace talks that have been dragging on for years.
So, what’s happening here? Is Putin testing the new American president or does he have something more serious in mind?
We remember Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 all too well. When the Ukrainian president asked then-President Obama for military assistance, he was refused. Instead, the Ukrainian troops received supplies.
In a Washington Post op-ed at the time, the late conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer wrote: “Why did we deny Ukraine weapons? Because in the Barack Obama-John Kerry worldview, arming the victim might be taken as a provocation. This kind of mind-bending illogic has marked the administration’s response to the whole Crimea affair.”
Military officials told the Times that “Putin has not been afraid to use military exercises near Ukraine’s borders or deployments of troops to send messages to both Kyiv and the West.”
Frederick B. Hodges, a former top U.S. Army commander in Europe said, “This could be posturing, but the Kremlin is testing the new administration.” Hodges said Putin “wants to keep the country as destabilized as possible.”
Shortly after taking office, President Biden spoke to Putin and said he was committed to “Ukrainian sovereignty.” However, Biden has not spoken to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky yet. Perhaps Putin is trying to determine how committed Biden really is to Ukraine.
The Times does report that National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke to one of Zelensky’s top advisers, Andriy Yermak, this week. Biden called in the heavy hitters.
Putin knows that Biden is weak. The whole world knows it. During a recent interview, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Biden if he thought Putin was a killer. He replied, “Uh-huh. I do.”
Putin took swift action. He immediately recalled Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov. He then humiliated Biden during an interview on Russian TV by challenging him to a live streamed debate, which Biden refused saying he was “too busy.”
Putin wasn’t afraid of Biden when he humiliated him during a state visit to Russia in 2011 (See “Report: White House Stenographer on Biden’s 2011 Trip to Russia, Reveals How Putin Humiliated the Then-VP ‘for Sport’.)
And he’s certainly not afraid of him now. The fallout from Biden’s “tough guy moment” has only just begun.