Russia is massing an unusual number of troops on the border with Ukraine, posing an early test for the Biden administration as it looks to repair relations with NATO allies and distinguish itself from former U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial approach to relations with Moscow.
The buildup of forces on the Ukrainian border, along with hundreds of cease-fire violations in Ukraine’s eastern territories controlled by Russia-backed separatists, has alarmed NATO and sparked a flurry of phone calls between senior members of the Biden administration and their Ukrainian and Russian counterparts.
“They’re probing, they’re trying to see what we’re going to do, what NATO would do, what the Ukrainians would do,” said Jim Townsend, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO until 2017. “Is this a jumpy administration, or is this an administration that’s going to act with resolve? They’re doing all of these things to assess where the new administration is.”
President Joe Biden spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday, according to a Ukrainian readout, the first conversation between the two countries’ leaders since Trump’s ill-fated call in July 2019 with Zelensky that sparked his first impeachment investigation. “We stand shoulder to shoulder when it comes to preservation of our democracies,” the Ukrainian leader tweeted after the 50-minute conversation.
Glad to talk to @POTUS. ???????? appreciates ???????? support on different levels. We stand shoulder to shoulder when it comes to preservation of our democracies. My commitment to transform ????????, improve transparency & achieve peace is strong. The American partnership is crucial for Ukrainians— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) April 2, 2021
Envoys from the 30-member NATO alliance met on Thursday to discuss the matter and expressed concern about Russia’s large-scale military exercises and the uptick in cease-fire violations, a NATO official told Foreign Policy. “Russia’s destabilizing actions undermine efforts to de-escalate tensions,” the official said. “NATO continues to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We remain vigilant and continue to monitor the situation closely.”
On Friday, the Kremlin warned that any deployment of NATO troops to Ukraine would escalate tensions further and prompt Russia to take additional measures to protect itself.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine between the country’s armed forces and Russia-backed separatists has periodically flared since a 2015 peace deal brought the worst of the fighting to an end. Observers of the conflict say the current escalation is of a different magnitude than previous scares.
Videos shared by Russian social media users, which are difficult to independently verify, appear to show trains and convoys of military vehicles streaming to the border with Ukraine and Crimea, the strategic Ukrainian peninsula on the Black Sea that Russia illegally annexed in 2014. Observers and experts are still trying to sort out Russian intentions behind the buildup, which appeared to outpace Moscow’s normal tempo for military exercises.
“[Russian President Vladimir Putin is] not so obvious when he pulls the big move. Why is he letting us see this?” said Townsend, the former Pentagon official.
Former U.S. officials saw this as a clear effort by Moscow to test the new Biden administration, which is still parsing policy reviews on how to craft a new strategy toward Russia after other escalations, including a massive hack on U.S. government agencies that Washington has blamed on the Kremlin.
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