By James Hess, Ph.D.
Professor, School of Security and Global Studies
For a month now, Russia has increased its military presence along its border with Ukraine. This military buildup has been referred to as military exercises. On Thursday, April 22, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared the exercises completed and said Russian forces will return to their garrisons by May 1.
NATO and the U.S. responded to this posturing by increasing their threat levels and moving two warships further east to the Black Sea to closely monitor Russian activity. There has been speculation over the past few weeks that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered the exercises to test the resolve of President Biden during the early months of his administration.
Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have remained exceedingly high since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Since then, there have been continuous low-level conflicts between Ukrainian forces and Russia-supported insurgents.
For almost a year now, the situation has deteriorated. NATO has accepted Ukraine as an “Enhanced Opportunity Partner,” which doesn’t guarantee membership but is an acknowledgement of Ukraine’s “significant contributions to NATO operations.”
Since the end of the Cold War, NATO Has Slowly Been Expanding its Presence in Eastern Europe
Since the end of the Cold War in 1990-01, NATO has slowly been expanding its presence in Eastern Europe, which has infuriated Russia and is seen as a cause for Russia’s overt actions against the Ukraine. According to the Atlantic Council, “Russia has long bristled at the military alliance’s growing post-1991 presence in Central and Eastern Europe, with expansion into strategically and symbolically important Ukraine identified as a red line by the Kremlin. Indeed, Russian concerns over a potential future NATO role in Ukraine have frequently been cited as a key reason behind the undeclared six-year war currently underway between the two neighbors.”
Moving Military Forces near a Region of Dispute Has Long Been Recognized as a Show of Force
Despite the conventional wisdom that Russia is challenging Biden during the early months of his presidency, there are other reasons for Putin’s actions. Moving military forces near a region of dispute has long been recognized as a show of force, which often includes a military exercise as part of a larger operation. The idea is that when a nation-state demonstrates a show of force, it is communicating its importance of this region. Moreover, it is a warning.
If Russia does indeed withdraw all or a significant amount of its military presence along the Ukrainian border, the Kremlin will believe the intent of its show of force was successful. Seeing a reaction from NATO and the U.S. is often part of the objective during a Kremlin show of force operation. Also, understanding how long it takes to build up specific levels of combat power capable of conducting sustained operations is also inherent in a show of force operation.
In the end, Russia has met its objective – reminding NATO and the U.S. that Russia views continued expansion eastward as “a real threat.”