Russia is massing an unusual number of troops on the border with Ukraine, posing an early test for the Biden administration as it looks to repair relations with NATO allies and distinguish itself from former U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial approach to relations with Moscow.
The buildup of forces on the Ukrainian border, along with hundreds of cease-fire violations in Ukraine’s eastern territories controlled by Russia-backed separatists, has alarmed NATO and sparked a flurry of phone calls between senior members of the Biden administration and their Ukrainian and Russian counterparts.
“They’re probing, they’re trying to see what we’re going to do, what NATO would do, what the Ukrainians would do,” said Jim Townsend, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO until 2017. “Is this a jumpy administration, or is this an administration that’s going to act with resolve? They’re doing all of these things to assess where the new administration is.”
President Joe Biden spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday, according to a Ukrainian readout, the first conversation between the two countries’ leaders since Trump’s ill-fated call in July 2019 with Zelensky that sparked his first impeachment investigation. “We stand shoulder to shoulder when it comes to preservation of our democracies,” the Ukrainian leader tweeted after the 50-minute conversation.
Envoys from the 30-member NATO alliance met on Thursday to discuss the matter and expressed concern about Russia’s large-scale military exercises and the uptick in cease-fire violations, a NATO official told Foreign Policy. “Russia’s destabilizing actions undermine efforts to de-escalate tensions,” the official said. “NATO continues to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We remain vigilant and continue to monitor the situation closely.”
On Friday, the Kremlin warned that any deployment of NATO troops to Ukraine would escalate tensions further and prompt Russia to take additional measures to protect itself.