Russian President Vladimir Putin has been ramping up “hybrid warfare” operations in Ukraine and the Arctic in recent weeks in an early test of President Biden’s resolve, a build-up that many see as a way for the Russian leader to score points abroad while shoring up sagging polls at home.
The build-up has proven especially alarming for Ukraine, which has seen an outbreak of deadly fighting this year with Russian-backed separatists in its eastern half, leading President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to make a personal plea Tuesday for expedited membership in NATO to fend off the Kremlin’s pressure campaign.
“NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbass,” Mr. Zelenskiy tweeted after speaking Tuesday with alliance Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Analysts say full membership is highly unlikely for Ukraine in the near term, although there are signs NATO may increase its presence in the region to counter the new Russian aggressiveness. In the interim, the Biden administration is faced with deciding how aggressively to respond to Mr. Putin’s probing.
“The Kremlin is testing Biden in a couple of places right now. That’s what the Kremlin does. It tests new presidents,” said Donald Jensen, a member of the Russia and Strategic Stability project at the United States Institute of Peace.
“It’s not because Biden has been weak,” Mr. Jensen, a former U.S. diplomat and longtime specialist on Russian domestic politics, said in an interview. The Russian moves are, at least in part, a response to Mr. Biden’s own aggressive signaling toward the Kremlin and Mr. Putin, personally, in his first weeks in office.
In addition to leveling human rights abuse sanctions against Russia in March over the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the Biden administration has vowed to bolster U.S. support for Kyiv and ramped up diplomatic efforts to halt construction of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Western Europe. And while Mr. Biden moved quickly to extend the expiring New START nuclear deal with Moscow, he followed that up by endorsing in an interview the view that Mr. Putin himself was a “killer.”
Mr. Jensen said Mr. Putin is now bobbing and weaving see what the new U.S. administration does if the Kremlin proceeds on a range of sensitive fronts, from using the Russian Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine as a diplomatic wedge to turning up the temperature on Ukraine and escalating its moves in the Arctic.
“This is typical so-called Russian ‘hybrid warfare,’ replete with feinting and deception, mixing the developments in Ukraine with the Arctic stuff,” Mr. Jensen said.
Four Ukrainian soldiers were killed in a missile attack Kyiv blamed on separatist forces last month. Ukraine’s army commander said last week Russia has deployed some 28 battalion tactical groups near Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Mr. Putin over Western protests in 2014. All told, that could mean as many as 25,000 new Russian troops are deployed in the combustible region, along with thousands of Russian officers and military trainers working with the rebels inside Ukraine.
Russian has denied the Ukrainian charges that it is responsible for the escalating tensions in the region, and says the troops in the region are participating in a training exercise.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday that the ongoing Ukrainian civil war was proof that NATO membership was not a realistic option for Kyiv.
“We deeply doubt that it will somehow help Ukraine to deal with its internal problem,” he told the TASS news agency. “From our point of view, it will only exacerbate the situation further because people’s opinions cannot be overlooked in any way when you talk about joining NATO.”
Mr. Putin on Monday sign a law formalizing a constitutional change that will allow him to potentially hold onto power until 2036. But with the Russian economy battered and polls showing Mr. Putin’s approval rating at historic lows, the Russian president is also facing a potential embarrassment at the polls in legislative elections slated for September.
Mr. Putin got a domestic boost from the 2014 Crimean operation and Mr. Jensen believes the Russian president is employing a similar playbook today.
“Putin is trying to boost his popularity by playing the patriotic card, while also trying to show that after the Navalny affair and the recent protests, he remains as strong as ever, even amid Russia’s ongoing economic problems,” Mr. Jensen said.
Pavel K. Baev at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo noted that “Russia’s sluggish economic recovery somewhat mars Putin’s reappearance in the political limelight” after a period when the Russian leader stayed largely out of the public eye.
In an analysis circulated this week by the Jamestown Foundation, Mr. Baev said Mr. Putin “feels the need to address the deepening discontent in order to boost his sagging popularity — and in his experience, nothing works better toward these aims than a crisis on Russia’s borders.”
“Ukraine,” Mr. Baev added, “presents a target of convenience.”
The question is how the Biden administration, which is already stretched by crises at home and foreign policy challenges in China, Iran and Central America, intends to respond.
President Biden on Friday had his first direct phone call with Mr. Zelenskiy since taking office, affirming America’s “unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression,” according to a White House statement.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price called on Russia Monday to “refrain from escalatory actions,” telling reporters that the administration had reached out to the Kremlin to request “an explanation of these provocations.”
The Pentagon also accused Russia last week of violating a 2020 cease-fire in Ukraine with the March 26 incident that killed the four Ukrainian soldiers — a clash Ukraine’s military blamed on a Russian mortar attack.
U.S. military officials have separately sought to draw attention to the increased Russian military activity in the Arctic. CNN reported that new imagery has revealed a major Russian build-up there and claimed Moscow is actively testing new weapons in the region freshly ice-free due to changing climate patterns, in a bid to secure its northern coast and dominate a key shipping route from Asia to Europe.
The CNN report cited weapons experts and Western officials expressing particular concern about one Russian “super-weapon” — the unmanned Poseidon 2M39 torpedo, a stealth projectile powered by a nuclear reactor and intended by Russian designers to sneak past coastal defenses on the seafloor.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday that U.S. military officials are well aware of Russia’s Arctic activities as build-up.
“Without getting into specific intelligence assessments, obviously we’re monitoring it very closely,” Mr. Kirby said. “[We] obviously recognize that the region is key terrain that’s vital to our own homeland defense and as a potential strategic corridor between the Indo-Pacific, Europe and the homeland — which would make it vulnerable to expanded competition.”
Mr. Kirby said the administration is “committed to protecting our U.S. national security interests in the Arctic by upholding a rules-based order in the region, particularly through our network of Arctic allies and partners who share the same deep mutual interests that we do.”
Mr. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, countered Tuesday that Mr. Putin sees the placement of Russian troops in the Arctic as “absolutely necessary.”
“The Arctic zone is a very important region of the Russian Federation, which applies both to our borders and to our special economic zone,” Mr. Peskov said. “The economic potential is growing from year to year, you know that there are general plans for national development in the Arctic zone, and all this is being consistently implemented.”
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