Russian minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu announced that Russia will be forming three new divisions in it’s Western and South Military Districts. The divisions will consist of 10,000 troops each and arrive by the end of the year. Shoigu stated that the move was explained as a response “to the NATO military buildup at the Russian border.” The buildup comes as NATO announced a multilateral force of 4,000 troops will be sent to the Baltics and Poland.
There is one problem with this explanation: the new troops will be nowhere near the Baltic. RT has reported that the troops will be based in Rostov-on-Don, Smolensk and the Voronezh regions. These Oblasts border Ukraine and Belarus, not Latvia or Estonia. In fact, even Smolensk, the northern-most region to receive troops, does not even has a major highway leading to the Baltic border.
Moscow’s deployment is essentially a form of asymmetrical political warfare using conventional forces. If Russia massed 20,000 troops along the Baltic frontier it was cause a crisis that Putin might not be able to control. It would put Russia in direct competition with the United States, against which, it cannot directly compete. However, massing troops along the Russo-Ukrainian border puts NATO on the defensive politically, and creates tension within the alliance. This is Putin’s objective .
An extra 20,000 troops on the border of Donetsk and Luhansk will give Putin options for escalation without fear of war with the United States. Although the United States is interesting in preserving the international order, President Obama has made it clear that it will not go to war with Russia to save Ukraine. Ukraine is not a NATO member and the U.S has no obligation to defend it with force.
Although NATO is not bound to defend Ukraine, it does not mean Ukraine is irreverent to the alliance. Russian provocations in the Donbas still cause concern among NATO’s eastern members. They are particularly sensitive to the issue of Russian aggression, having just recently escaped Russia’s sphere of influence after the Cold War.
The gap between generating tension and provoking a war is where Putin thrives and it’s the political ground where he has room to maneuver. Russian troops could conduct large snap exercises, fire artillery across the border and provide supplies and training to the rebels. While all of this is destabilizing, Putin can throttle his aggression to keep the situation from becoming dangerous, much like he has been doing since 2014.
Ukraine then, is a weak spot where Putin can poke and prod. This deployment is an offset to the NATO’s deployment in the Baltics, but it is a political offset, not a military one. Putin has no intention of fighting NATO directly, as it is a fight he would certainly lose. However, he can threaten and attack a key interest on it’s periphery to gain leverage over the alliance.