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Looming Spectre of Conflict in Eastern Europe?

Dr Rajorshi Roy is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile [+].
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  • January 03, 2022

    Alarm bells have been ringing in Eastern Europe about the motives of the large Russian troop build-up along the Russia–Ukraine border. Moscow and Kiev have blamed each other for upping the ante. This has been followed by a sharp escalation in rhetoric and mutual recriminations. Naturally, a sense of déjà vu prevails in the region1 amidst the Kremlin’s increasingly assertive stance on the troop build-up. Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014 remains fresh in European memory.

    Unsurprisingly, given the geo-political stakes involved in the heart of Europe, the ongoing standoff has brought the West led by the US into the existing security matrix. President Biden has assured Kiev of United States' “unwavering support”.2 Meanwhile, the European Union has been vocal in imposing "massive consequences and severe costs" on Russia.3

    Notably, the fears of an imminent Russian invasion appear to have subsided post recent Putin–Biden talks. It seems that emphasis has been placed on dialogue4 to establish a new modus vivendi. This has seen Russia submit proposals to the US5 and NATO6 highlighting not only its red-lines but also to jointly build a new model of European security architecture. However, President Putin’s assertion of maintaining “tensions for as long as possible”7 to accommodate Russia’s concerns, some of which appear non-negotiable for the West, highlight the minefield which needs to be navigated in this standoff.

    The pertinent questions which, therefore, arise are the timing of Russia’s sabre-rattling and its potential outcome.

    Timing and Motive of Russian Troop Build-Up

    The timing of Russia’s troop build-up can likely be attributed to Ukraine’s westward drift gaining momentum over the course of the last year. Kiev has increasingly acquired lethal Western weapons apart from conducting multiple military exercises with Russia's bête noire—the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).8 NATO has also helped build Ukraine’s military infrastructure, including ports and airfields. These developments are likely to have increased Russia’s insecurity of Ukraine becoming a de-facto NATO base right at Moscow’s doorstep.

    In this context, the Ukrainian imbroglio remains an existential issue for Russia. Kiev’s importance as a geo-strategic buffer for the Kremlin vis-à-vis the West is a pivotal element of Russia’s security. This is particularly relevant amidst the Western attempts to seemingly contain and isolate Russia in its neighbourhood.

    Meanwhile, contrary to Russia’s expectations, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appears to be putting all his eggs in the Western basket, in a volte-face of his election manifesto of normalising ties with Moscow. This is reflected in Ukraine reneging on the Minsk agreements, 9 which lay down the framework for creating an autonomous region in eastern Ukraine comprising Donbas and Luhansk. This would have given Russia the levers to maintain its influence in the region through its proxies. Notably, France and Germany, the two key interlocutors in the Minsk agreements, have increasingly sided with Ukraine, much to Russia’s chagrin.10

    Arguably, the troop build-up is Russia’s signalling to the West to respect its red-lines. Ukrainian membership of NATO likely tops this list. For three decades, Russia has seen NATO ignore its concerns by inducting not only the erstwhile Warsaw Pact members but also former Soviet Republics. Similarly, the installation of NATO missile defences in Russia’s periphery has been another key bone of contention.11 Russia remains peeved at these historic injustices.12 The Kremlin believes that the West reneged on assurances of accommodating Russia’s security concerns, at the time of Soviet Union's dissolution.13 It appears that the Kremlin’s next move on the European geo-political chessboard is coercive diplomacy in order to force a security dialogue with the West. In that sense, the troop build-up can be viewed as not just prompted by Ukraine’s potential NATO membership but also as Russia underscoring its place as a stakeholder in shaping European security architecture.

    Russia is perhaps leveraging its escalation dominance and the perceived lack of appetite in the West for a military confrontation to seek accommodation of its interests. Similarly, Moscow could be banking on President Biden’s message of building stable relationship with Russia.14 Implied in this is freeing up the US to confront head-on the challenge posed by China’s rise. Meanwhile, having weathered Western sanctions for seven years, it is unlikely that the threat of additional ones or even a freeze in an already frosty relationship with the West will deter Russia from upping the ante. It helps that foreign policy is increasingly a source of domestic legitimacy for the Russian political establishment, anchored in making Russia 'great again'. And Ukraine and NATO do strike an emotive chord among Russian citizens.


    From a Russian perspective, the Kremlin’s aggressive posture appears to have borne a few immediate dividends. This includes a flurry of interactions with Russia’s main antagonist, the US which culminated in a virtual summit between the two Presidents. One of its key takeaways was President Biden’s perceived conciliatory tone on both Ukraine and European security architecture.15 The US’ emphasis on Kiev fulfilling its obligations under the Minsk agreements16, where Russia has a distinct advantage, would likely have been music to Russia’s ears. Similarly, a dialogue on European security, long perceived to be a no-go area between Russia and the West, is now back on the agenda.17

    Future Ramifications

    As always, the devil lies in the details. Russia’s two draft treaty proposals18 to the US and NATO on legally binding security guarantees would upend the existing European security architecture. Three key propositions which are likely to be non-negotiable for the West stand out. These involve halting NATO expansion eastwards in the post-Soviet space, including Ukraine, and a large-scale US military withdrawal from the European continent. The latter involves removal of American tactical and nuclear missiles. Russia is also seeking a dilution of NATO’s military commitment to its eastern European members who had joined the alliance in May 1997. Implied in these proposals is Russia’s message of Moscow and Europe alone determining the course of European security. From a Western perspective, these proposals would entail giving Russia a veto on NATO’s future course of action.

    Arguably, a new model of security interaction in Europe can only emerge if Russia and the West start looking at each other through a new prism amidst their existing trust deficit, with Russia increasingly seen as a European outlier.

    In this context, President Biden would have to do a tough balancing act to dial down, in his words, the “political temperature along the eastern front”.19 This includes, on one hand, preserving NATO’s alliance integrity amidst shared concerns about Russia, especially among its eastern European members, and, on the other hand, persevering with the US goal of building stable relations with Russia to enable it to fully focus on the China challenge.

    Crucially, it is also in Russia’s interests to reset ties with the West. Today, the Western pressure on Moscow has pushed it towards a closer embrace of Beijing. However, Russia is paying the price of the unbalanced nature of its ties with China by being forced to cede space to Beijing in its core strategic space. For Russia’s strategic autonomy, it is essential to have a modicum of equilibrium in ties with both its western and eastern neighbours. Indeed, there exist multiple areas globally where Russia–West interests converge. Perhaps, raising the stakes of the draft treaty proposals is more of a negotiating tactic20 in discussions that are likely to be long-drawn.


    Nevertheless, all bets on a reset of ties would likely be off if Russia feels rebuffed. Having put the onus of a détente on the West, Russia’s credibility of coercive diplomacy would be at stake if its concerns are not accommodated. The starting point for Russia is likely to be a neutral Ukraine.

    An alternate viewpoint could be that by making it almost impossible for the West to accept Russia’s proposals, the Kremlin’s gameplan has all along been a military intervention. In the same vein, a provocation by Ukraine in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, similar to the modus operandi adopted by Georgia’s Saakashvili in 2008, could lead to a Russian military intervention. Kiev has increasingly found itself on the backfoot amidst the US calls for it to implement the Minsk agreements.

    Needless to say, a Russian invasion of Ukraine would scupper chances of a détente between Russia and the West. Russia would face crippling sanctions including abrogation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Ukraine’s membership of NATO could also be fast-tracked. The Russia–China relationship could gain further traction.

    For India, attempts by Russia and the West to explore a new modus vivendi is likely a positive development. For the last seven years, the push and pull of the Russia–West confrontation has complicated India’s foreign policy options, with India expected to choose sides. Their détente would make it easier to navigate ties with both sides. There is no gainsaying that India’s ties with Moscow and West remain mutually beneficial and bolster India’s strategic autonomy.

    Crucially, normalisation of their ties could also give Moscow some breathing space in its growing strategic dependence on China, which has compelled Russia to increasingly bat for Beijing’s interests. The Russia–China tandem has muddied India’s geo-strategic environment. A Russia–US thaw could provide an opportunity to add more pillars to the Indo-Russian strategic partnership with ramifications stretching beyond their bilateral realm.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.