Russia has stoked conflict in Ukraine and conducted unannounced military drills in recent weeks, displaying increased aggression ahead of a key economic summit in China where Vladimir Putin will meet with western leaders who have been unable to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.
Tensions over Russia’s provocative behavior are high ahead of the G-20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, where leaders from 20 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany will gather on Sept. 4 and 5. The war in Ukraine, as well as strained relations between Russia and NATO, are likely to influence the meeting.
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It was at the same summit in 2014 when western leaders criticized Russia for its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, leading Putin to leave the two-day meeting ahead of schedule. Russia has been subject to U.S. and EU sanctions for its role in the Ukraine conflict, and the U.S. Treasury Department on Thursday expanded its sanctions lists to punish more Russian individuals and entities for the continued violence.
Sanctions, thus far, have been insufficient in deterring Russia’s occupation of Crimea or accompanying violence that has persisted for more than two years. NATO member states in Eastern Europe have also grown increasingly weary of the possibility of Russian invasion, leading the alliance to bolster military forces there, in defiance of Russian warnings.
On the sidelines of the G-20 summit, Putin is likely to meet with President Obama, who has been critical of Russia’s behavior in Ukraine but has not given lethal aid to Ukrainian troops, despite pressure from lawmakers and some in his own administration. Putin is also due to hold bilateral meetings with British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Francois Hollande.
Merkel and Hollande said ahead of the summit that they remain "extremely concerned" about the situation in eastern Ukraine, renewing calls for the implementation of a ceasefire deal that has long been ineffective at curtailing fighting.
It is unclear whether leaders will prioritize discussions on the Ukraine situation, given other matters of international concern, such as the Syrian civil war in which Russia has intervened to prop up Bashar al Assad’s regime.
Dalibor Rohac, an expert on Central and Eastern Europe at the American Enterprise Institute, said that he does not expect western leaders to take a hard line on rebuking Russia’s actions in Ukraine at the summit.
"Of course Ukraine is still on the agenda, but I don’t expect major pushback from the West. There are rising constituencies in all of these countries, mostly in the world of business, who want to return to business as usual," Rohac said. "With Syria, divisions inside the EU, Brexit, U.S. presidential election, not many remember—and fewer care about—the conflict in eastern Ukraine."
The fighting in Ukraine escalated in mid-August. Russia on Aug. 10 accused Ukrainian intelligence agents of plotting terror attacks on critical elements of Crimea’s infrastructure and then began to stage thousands of military forces near Russia’s border with Ukraine. The accusations, which Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described as baseless and a "pretext for more military threats," led Ukraine to order its troops on high alert in anticipation of potential conflict.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s military said Wednesday that 100,000 Russian troops are stationed in Crimea, separatist-controlled parts of Donbas, and along the border with Ukraine. He also said that around 700 tanks are present in separatist-held areas of Donbas.
"Effective deterrence requires more than talk," Rohac said of the western response to the conflict. "In the Ukrainian context, lethal aid is needed, as well as commitment to shepherd the country into the Western geopolitical space, through EU accession talks, prospect of NATO membership."
Russian military forces have also been participating in unannounced military drills for the last week in the central, southern, and western military districts of the country. The spontaneous "combat readiness" exercises, which Putin ordered last Thursday, involved air forces and naval forces in the Black and Caspian Seas and were said by Moscow to prepare troops to protect Russia’s territory national interests in the event of security threats.
The drills, which ended Wednesday, drew ire from NATO’s No. 2 official, who said this week that Russia has conducted unannounced military drills "with increased frequency" and has as a result exacerbated tensions with the alliance. NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow said that roughly a dozen such drills have occurred over the last two years.
"If there is an interest in Moscow in stability and predictability, then these exercises are not the way to go," Vershbow said, describing the alliance’s relationship with Russia as "very unsatisfactory."
"These are certainly making Eastern Europeans understandably nervous, especially given that Russia would enjoy a significant tactical advantage over NATO should a conflict in the Baltic region take place," Rohac said. "Together with the frequent airspace incursions there is a real risk of a human error that could lead to war."
The Ukraine conflict has raised concerns among NATO members about the possibility of Russia invading other countries in Eastern Europe.
NATO member states in July agreed to deploy four battalions in Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.
Russia responded to the planned deployment by pledging to create three new Army divisions in its western and southern military districts to counter the bolstered force.