Mainstream Western analysis of current Russian policy towards Ukraine has tended to suggest that Moscow has had three overriding considerations in amassing over 100,000 troops within and around Ukraine’s eastern borders in April of this year before announcing their withdrawal at the end of the month.
The first one is that Russia has wanted to pressure the Ukrainian government into making concessions on the status of the Donbass, Ukrainian territories occupied since 2014 by pro-Moscow forces to which Russia has provided decisive support.
The second idea is that Russia has been resorting to foreign adventurism to detract attention from the growing resistance to Putin’s twenty-year old regime and convince the Russian man and woman on the street that however disenchanted he or she is with the plunge in living standards and the government’s abysmal handling of the covid crisis, Navalny is a petty criminal, a hooligan, or even a terrorist that has to be reined by the (totally un-independent) Russian judiciary
The third idea is that Putin is testing Washington and the West in general to see if they have the gumption to stand up to Russia in and around Ukraine and elsewhere in post-Soviet space.
If you were to ask me how Putin has been doing on these counts, I would say pretty well. Yes, the Ukrainian government has not buckled, at least not yet. But the Russian internal resistance to Putin is shutting down, Navalny’s network of offices having been declared foreign agents. The US and its allies hollered a bit about the massing of Russian troops in and around Eastern Ukraine, but they did effectively zip.
All, that said, there is a further dimension here that has been largely lost from view. Putin has demonstrated to Beijing that he can place over 100,000 soldiers on the borders of another state in Europe and get away with it. Moreover, all is in place for a repeat performance. Russian equipment has been left in place and the forces Russia deployed to Ukraine have been moved to Voronezh, just a day way.
So, Russia has signaled to its Chinese allies that it can carry out a major military action in and around Ukraine, to which it assumes there will be no serious riposte.
If you were Xi Jinping, what would be your take on this: go for it Russia, and while you are going for it, we can go for Taiwan. The idea would that an America, still healing its domestic wounds and still in an unsure relationship with its traditional allies in Europe and Asia, would not be able to respond effectively.
This might not necessarily prove to be the case. But such assumptions are what wars are made of.