Russia’s growing escalations against Ukraine have the international community on high alert. While there is no clear reason for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent aggression, experts say it will almost certainly be a test of United States President Joe Biden’s leadership.
“Putin is flexing his muscles,” said Marta Dyczok, an associate professor within Western University’s department of political science. “Trump was very much an apologist for him and now there’s a new regime in place.”
Russia does not have the best relationship with Western nations. Biden called the Russian leader a “killer” in mid-March. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stopped short of that some days later, saying that Putin was responsible for “terrible things.”
On Wednesday, Putin told a hall of governors and members of Parliament that Russia wants to have “good relations” with the West, “but if someone mistakes our good intentions for indifference or weakness and intends to burn down or even blow up these bridges, they should know that Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, swift and harsh.”
“The organizers of any provocations threatening the fundamental interests of our security will regret their deeds more than they have regretted anything in a long time,” he added.
“I hope no one gets the idea to cross the so-called red line with Russia — and we will be the ones to decide where it runs in every concrete case.”
Putin’s comments come just one week after Russia amassed 150,000 Russian soldiers near Ukraine’s borders and re-asserted its right to close parts of the Black Sea near Crimea off from foreign navy ships and state vessels until at least November.
On Monday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called it “the highest military deployment of the Russian army on the Ukrainian borders ever.”
In response to the rising tensions, Biden proposed a summit meeting with Putin during a telephone call in which he stressed the U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity” and expressed concerns over the military build-up.
Critics have called that a “misstep.”
“Americans usually have these sort of meetings as a reward for good behaviour among their allies,” said Andres Kasekamp, a history professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
“Putin would read that as a sign of weakness. If you’re trying to be tough to him, you’re not offering him a face-to-face meeting.”
Aurel Braun, a professor of International Relations and Political Science also at the Munk School, agreed.
“Obama used very tough rhetoric, but did not follow it with commensurate policy,” he said.
“Urgent indications are at the moment that Biden may be doing the same thing, because even though Biden agreed that Putin was a ‘killer’ and he condemned the actions that threaten Ukraine and said that he is willing to provide all-out support, there is not that much on the ground.”
Whether Biden undermines his own authority, a million-dollar question remains: why is Putin making such a large display?
Show of force could mean political gain for Putin
“First of all, this is an election year in Russia, and Putin’s popularity has been dropping drastically,” Dyczok told Global News.
The economy is down and prices for food in Russia have risen faster than the country’s overall inflation rate, Rosstat, Russia’s federal statistics service, reported last month. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has battered the country, and public trust in its vaccine against the virus, Sputnik-V, has all but eroded.
At the same time, Putin is facing fierce criticism over imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose health has been deteriorating rapidly in jail while he undergoes a hunger strike.
“What’s the best way to divert attention from domestic problems? Go on a foreign policy extravaganza,” said Dyczok, noting that Putin’s popularity “soared through the roof” after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The height of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine started in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea. Global Affairs Canada said Russian-backed separatists took control of parts of eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions (referred to as the Donbas), declaring the creation of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and the “Luhansk People’s Republic.” This violated a ceasefire known as the Minsk Protocol.
Another package of peace measures known as Minsk II was agreed upon in 2015, but Kasekamp claims “the ceasefire is violated every day.”
Russia had sought to expand its territory to include the Donbas area of Donetsk and Luhansk and pressure the Ukrainian government to agree to a federalist solution with breakaway regions — which would give Russia veto-power should Ukraine ever want to join NATO or the European Union. But that didn’t happen.
If separatists gain control of the Donbas, Kasekamp said Russia would be able to influence Ukrainian politics.
“Ukraine and Russia have been saying that the other side should take the necessary steps to implement the ceasefire fully, but neither side is anywhere close to doing so,” he said. “Tension has been constant ever since.”
Canada not obligated to defend Ukraine
Ukraine is not a member of NATO, so Canada doesn’t have any direct obligation to defend it. According to NATO, Ukraine does actively participate in NATO-led operations and missions, but is still awaiting a Membership Action Plan.
Canadian troops are helping train Ukrainian soldiers, but Kasekamp noted “they’re in the west, far away from where the conflict is.”
Canada has been a supporter of Ukraine since it declared its independence in 1991. In fact, Canada was one of the first countries to support Ukraine’s independence before the U.S. — “pretty bold for Canadian foreign policy at the time,” Kasekamp said.
Canada has imposed several sanctions against Russia in response to what it describes as Russia’s “violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” and several human rights violations including Russia’s treatment of Navalny.
According to Dyczok, these could be strengthened and Canada could take a more “active” multi-lateral role.
“Canada is not a major international military power, but it is part of the biggest military alliance in the world,” she said.
“This is a really important moment for Canada and all the other democracies to really take a proper response, because Russia’s aggressive behaviour towards Ukraine and Syria and various other places in the world, it’s ongoing. And if a bully is not stopped, he will simply continue.”
Should the world be worried?
Dyczok said that an international escalation could yield “globally disastrous results.” While a full-scale invasion is highly unlikely, she cautioned against ruling it out completely.