The US has recently raised alarm that Russia is planning to escalate the seven-year long war it has maintained in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and Crimea peninsula. Ukrainian and British intelligence reports have noted that between 90,000 to 100,000 Russian troops and heavy military equipment are waiting on the other side of the border.
Ukraine’s western partners, including Germany, France, the US, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), have expressed their support for Ukraine. At the Ministerial Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken warned that there would be significant consequences should Russia attack. Russia has denied these accusations with vitriol, calling them “hysterical” and “artificially whipped up.” Sources close to Russian president Vladimir Putin have stated the country has no intention of invading, but instead, is playing for the West’s attention. Though, as always, Putin’s motivation remains known only to him.
This escalation recalls the beginning of the year. In April 2021, Russia rapidly increased, and then suddenly decreased, its military presence not only near the Line of Contact, but 100 miles from an area held in control of the Kyiv government. It is also reminiscent of the build-up to the 2008 August War between Russia and Georgia. Although only a few days long, Europe’s first ground war since World War II proved to be disastrous for Georgia, locked in Russia’s strategy for responding to “wayward” neighbors, and shaped geopolitics for the decade to come.
THE CASE OF GEORGIA
In the waning years of the 2000s, tensions between Tbilisi and its regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia grew evermore tense. Following the Rose Revolution of 2003, then-president Mikhail Saakashvil, was determined to reform the country in pursuit of membership to the EU and NATO as well as to build friendly relations with the US. These reforms included aggressive anti-corruption measures, and equally aggressive Georgification policies, particularly in the territories of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Adjara, which had traditionally been autonomous regions within the country. Although integration between Adjara and Georgia went relatively smoothly, resistance was met in South Ossetia and Abkhazia — a perfect wedge for Russian provocation.
What is brewing in the eastern Donbas is truly a crisis. There are no easy solutions, let alone good ones. Policymakers assure Ukraine that there is still time and an appetite for negotiations, despite their repeated failures
Two events had happened in the late 2000s that prompted Russia to zero-in on Georgia and to increase their tolerance for risk. The first was the recognition of Kosovo and the NATO Bucharest Summit, where alliance membership for both Ukraine and Georgia was promised eventually. Putin’s foreign policy is driven by a desire to prevent NATO expansion and to prevent the social upheavals that rocked post-Soviet states in the mid-2000s; a color revolution in Russia, from the Kremlin’s perspective, would be anathema. In the early 2000s, the Baltic states had integrated into NATO with no complaint from Russia. Kosovo’s recognition, however, signaled that they would continue to expand eastward despite assurances from the end of the Cold War. That Georgia then turned to embrace the West was seen as a threat to the Russian state that could not go unaddressed.
With the launch of the Kavkaz 2008 military exercises, Russian troops were in place and ready to strike if needed — and they were needed when Saakashvili fired rockets into South Ossetia. Though this in and of itself was a response to Russian provocation, Saakashvili was bolstered by the assumption that friends in Washington would provide material support. Washington, after all, had demonstrated great enthusiasm for the revolution and Saakashvili managed to forge quite a personal relationship with then-president George W. Bush. There remains to this day a street in central Tbilisi named after the 43rd president.
Yet, the West did not come to Georgia’s aid. After five days, the war was over and both Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained occupied by Russian forces — and Georgia remained far from western integration.
THE CASE OF UKRAINE
There is also a striking resemblance between the leaders of Georgia in 2008 with those in Ukraine in 2021. Although Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy was not ushered in on the waves of revolution as Saakashvili (that was his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko), he nevertheless ran a campaign promising to end the war and to weed out corruption. His first few months in office were tenuous, as no one on either side of the Atlantic could identify his loyalties, but a few early victories in prisoner exchange, land and banking reform demonstrated positive, albeit hesitant first steps.
Since the end of 2020, however, Zelenskyy has taken a more proactive approach to achieve his campaign promises. This year saw the procurement of a White House meeting with President Joe Biden (a meeting no other Ukrainian president could tout), leaving Washington with renewed commitments not only from the administration but also from the Department of Energy and Defense. Additionally, the Crimean Platform returned the annexed territory to international attention, and the acquisition of Turkish drones has fundamentally changed the war’s calculus.
Like Saakashvili, Zelenskyy’s reforms have come at the cost of bullish implementation and deeply controversial outcomes. He has exhausted a considerable amount of goodwill, with a 28% approval rating as of October 2021, down from his inauguration numbers around 70%. Attempts to reform the judiciary sparked a constitutional crisis that remains unresolved nearly a year later. Heated debate continues about Zelenskyy’s right to sanction three pro-Russian television channels and their owners. A largely symbolic, but still significant, anti-oligarch bill was pushed through parliament with such force that the Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada Dmytro Razumkov was dismissed for voicing concern over its content. Even the use of drones was not without its controversies, as the Russians have been loud in their denunciations, claiming the weapons violate the Minsk II Agreements, a shell-shocked document in and of itself, but nevertheless remains the sole framework for ending the war.
This is all without mentioning Zelenskyy’s truly capricious actions, such as his constant hiring and firing of cabinet members and a disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic that left the country with one of the world’s highest fatality rates. His most erratic behavior is his recent marathon press conference held on Nov. 26, 2021. Despite his long career on television, Zelenskyy has always been gaffe-prone in his political role, but this press conference revealed an unhinged president. In addition to “reminding” a journalist how to address the country’s president, he also dropped bombshell accusations of a coup plot involving Russian FSB actors, a handful of defected Ukrainian intelligence officers, and oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. Zelenskyy has billed himself not as a revolutionary, but as a populist. Yet, detractors and critics pen him as an authoritarian — and his recent actions have not dispelled these concerns.
LOOKING TO THE WEST
Returning to the presence of Russian troops on the border, there seems to be confidence among observers that Ukraine will not fall prey to provocation, and that any escalation to violence will be the fault of Russia. Kyiv’s forces are well trained and highly disciplined. Western backing is also far more institutionalized and resolute than it was for Georgia in 2008. Not only has Ukraine received billions in financial support from the EU and the US both, but also material military support, ramped up to lethal weapons support under the Trump administration. Though they couch their support with “not quite yet,” EU and NATO membership are still seen as eventualities by Kyiv, Washington, and Brussels. To allow Ukraine membership in either organization is a third rail for Russia; to deny it in the name of appeasement is one for Washington and its partners.
What is brewing in the eastern Donbas is truly a crisis. There are no easy solutions, let alone good ones. Policymakers assure Ukraine that there is still time and an appetite for negotiations, despite their repeated failures. Biden has spoken to Zelenskyy and Putin, while French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to do so in the near future. Though Zelenskyy has called for sanctions, if the many already levied were a deterrent, then the situation would not be reaching a boiling point now. Further, the removal of Russia from the international SWIFT banking system, what many consider the “nuclear option,” might not be enough either. Military support in the form of additional lethal weapons or personnel presents its own quandaries.
All of this stands against the backdrop of Washington and European capitals waffling over next steps, Zelenskyy’s continued mercurial behavior testing Ukrainian restraint, and Putin’s evermore militant behavior risking the fabric of Europe’s modern and stable era.
Perhaps the only way through this is through it. And if that is the case, the picture that comes to mind is not the shells of the August War or the “polite men” into Crimea; instead, it is the leadup to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. It is not the outright lies kickstarting that war that are reminiscent; rather, it is the tone and timbre of conversations surrounding the conflict. It is the failure of imagination to conceive the many complexities that sprout from modern complex operations. In a recent interview with The Military Times, Luke Coffey of the Heritage Foundation stated that although the Ukrainians would be unable to hold the Russians indefinitely, they could draw out the conflict in such a way to make Russian leadership “consider the value of the fight.” In other words, the same kind of protracted war of attrition has dominated headlines from the Middle East for decades — this is the same kind of war that the US just left out of Afghanistan and the same kind that continues in Iraq.
The war in Ukraine has the potential to go south quickly and stay south for a long time. Conversations from Washington ought to acknowledge and respect that.
Sarah Martin is the 2021 YPFP Eurasia Fellow. She works in Washington, DC, supporting the implementation of human rights programs in Eurasia, with a focus on Ukraine.