Scholar: Russian aggression at Russo-Ukrainian border seeks to create chaos

Ukrainian soldiers walk at the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels near Katerinivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on Dec. 7. Photo: The Associated Press

By Michael R. Malone

Ukrainian soldiers walk at the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels near Katerinivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on Dec. 7. Photo: The Associated Press

Scholar: Russian aggression at Russo-Ukrainian border seeks to create chaos

By Michael R. Malone
University of Miami lecturer and Russia expert Marcia A. Beck assesses the Russian military buildup on the Ukrainian border and explains the role of Florida National Guard advisors deployed to the country.

The presence of more than 100 Florida National Guardsmen deployed to Yavoriv, in far western Ukraine, certainly seems surprising to some, but Marcia A. Beck, a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Miami, explained that the deployment is simply part of an ongoing training mission to the country that the United States and the West support as a potential stable democracy as well as a buffer against Russian aggression and expansion. 

The 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team Gator arrived in early November, replacing an outgoing combat team from the state of Washington, to begin manning the training center for the next 9–12 months, according to Beck. The guardsmen work together with other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) partners under the auspices of the Joint Multinational Training Group to train and advise Ukrainian defense forces. 

Recent media and intelligence reports indicate more than 100,000 Russian troops amassing on Ukraine’s eastern border, posing the threat of an invasion early next year.   

“They’re not sending the guardsmen now because of the build-up,” Beck said, explaining instead that the deployment constitutes the 11th rotation of U.S. guardsmen to Ukraine since 2015 and the so-called “Revolution of Dignity” or “Maidan revolution”—the conflict and protests that resulted in the ousting of then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian leader. 

“The deployment is not an in-your-face move from a Western perspective, but it’s very provocative for Russia to have foreign forces in what it considers to be a country that is not only intimately connected with its national identity, but part of its purported sphere of influence in the region,” Beck said. 

The scenario represents a “huge paradigm conflict” between the United States and its allies and Russia. While the U.S. sees foreign policy in terms of self-determination and national sovereignty, Russia looks at the world through spheres of influence. 

“Russia considers that it has every right as a power—it used to be a great power and wants to be a great power again—and one way that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin thinks he can move from being a regional power to a global power again is by reestablishing this sphere of influence along Russia’s borders,” Beck pointed out. 

The Russian expert referenced unclassified intelligence documents and maps as part of her assessment. She noted that the number of Russian troops could reach a high of 175,000, explaining that Russia military contract fighters could significantly add to forces amassed on Ukraine’s eastern border. 

While not dismissing the possibility of an invasion, Beck described the current border escalation as a scripted approach the Russian government has followed for decades, one that ultimately seeks to reassert Russia’s power. 

“Putin wants to foment uncertainty and confusion—it’s a purposeful policy and the same thing Russians do in the United States when they try to polarize America during elections,” she explained. “Americans always make a big mistake in assuming that Russia supports a specific candidate. That’s totally wrong. Russia wants to pit American against American to weaken our national resolve—[Putin is] doing the same thing in the international arena.” 

While acknowledging that an invasion would quickly overwhelm Ukrainian defenses, Beck emphasized that such a move poses a huge risk for the Russian leader. 

“Putin is playing a dangerous game,” she said. “On one hand he gets immense popular support by emphasizing Russia’s connection to Ukraine because there are many historic, linguistic, and familial ties.” Beck reported that when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014—retaliation for the country’s intent to join NATO and the EU—his approval ratings jumped to 90 percent. 

The many close ties between the two countries date to the ninth century and the Slavic tribes that inhabited the region, she noted.

“Russians like it when Putin expresses support for that connection,” she said. “Yet polls conducted by those same Russian pollsters show that there is little or no support for military intervention into Ukraine, and he has to worry about his domestic position,” Beck added. 

While many view Putin’s power—as either president or prime minister since 2000—as absolute, Beck suggested his support from the Russian oligarchs is “built on a house of cards.” 

“If he’s seen as weak, if Ukraine suddenly becomes a bastion of investment possibilities based on market standards and a rule of law and Putin loses the support of those oligarchs, he could be in trouble domestically and the whole thing might fall apart,” Beck pointed out. “Putin is very concerned about his domestic position, especially with elections coming up in 2024.” 

The threat of an invasion creates a dilemma for the United States as well, she said. 

With a newly elected chancellor and foreign policy minister in Germany and the French President Emmanuel Macron up for reelection, as well as Biden being relatively new and untested, Putin is poised to sow dissension, Beck indicated. 

She also noted that sanctions relating to the Nord Stream Pipeline are back on the table. But when they were weakened, Putin saw the opportunity for Russia to cause a rift between the United States and Germany, because of Germany’s dependence on the pipeline reserves. 

“Putin wants to get NATO out of the frontline of Russia’s borders and to catapult the country once again to global power and have a seat at the table and a voice in determining security relationships,” Beck acknowledged. 

She pointed out that in 2008 the outgoing George Bush administration sent its national security team to a NATO meeting in Bucharest to discuss enlarging the alliance. Both  Ukraine and Georgia expressed “deep interest” in joining NATO and Western allies attempted to chart a path for their eventual membership without antagonizing Russia. 

Later that summer, Russia carried out what is considered the first cyber warfare in history, shutting down Georgia’s government institutions and banks as a warning that they should desist from seeking to strengthen ties with the West.

That attack started, according to Beck, with Russia claiming they were only carrying out training exercises on the border of Georgia and eventually annexing two territories in the north and west of the country. 

Russia attempted the same tactics in Ukraine in 2014. But there, the attempt backfired and led to the protests and ouster of the pro-Russian leader. 

“Putin won’t admit that these countries want to join Western military and economic alliances out of their own free will—it’s more appealing than whatever sort of authoritarian grip they get from Russia,” Beck said. “Russia mouths the idea of national security only if it’s under their yoke.” 

The current border escalation follows the same Russian pattern to destabilize and create chaos as a means of advancing its power in the region, she said. 

“Russia has been creating confusion by bringing troops to the border and moving them around—sometimes back, sometimes forward. They know that intelligence forces are monitoring them, and they don’t want the West to be able to tell if they’re going to invade,’’ Beck suggested. 

Russia wants to make the situation into a huge international crisis, while the West wants to tamp it down, she indicated. 

“Who knows what they’ve been planning and for how long they’ve been planning it,” Beck declared. “It does seem to be coming to some kind of a head now. Hopefully the threat of severe economic sanctions, which would hit Russian oligarchs hard, will be enough to make Putin back down—if not, the region could once again be in big trouble.”