The Washington Times Weekly
Putin tests Biden with ‘hybrid warfare’ military operations
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been ramping up “hybrid warfare” operations in Ukraine and the Arctic in recent weeks in an early test of President Biden’s resolve, a buildup that many see as a way for the Russian leader to score points abroad while shoring up sagging polls at home.
The buildup has proved especially alarming for Ukraine, which has had an outbreak of deadly fighting this year with Russian-backed separatists in its eastern half, leading President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to make a personal plea last week for expedited membership in NATO to fend off the Kremlin’s pressure campaign.
“NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbass,” Mr. Zelenskiy tweeted after speaking with alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Analysts say full membership is unlikely for Ukraine in the near term, although there are signs that NATO may increase its presence in the region to counter the Russian aggression. In the interim, the Biden administration is faced with a decision: how aggressively to respond to Mr. Putin’s probing.
“The Kremlin is testing Biden in a couple of places right now. That’s what the Kremlin does. It tests new presidents,” said Donald Jensen, a member of the Russia and Strategic Stability project at the United States Institute of Peace.
“It’s not because Biden has been weak,” Mr. Jensen, a former U.S. diplomat and longtime specialist on Russian domestic politics, said in an interview. The Russian moves are, at least in part, a response to Mr. Biden’s own aggressive signaling toward the Kremlin and Mr. Putin, personally, during his first weeks in office.
In addition to leveling human rights abuse sanctions against Russia in March over the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the Biden administration has vowed to bolster U.S. support for Kyiv and ramped up diplomatic efforts to halt construction of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Western Europe. Although Mr. Biden moved quickly to extend the expiring New START nuclear deal with Moscow, he followed that up by endorsing in an interview the view that Mr. Putin is a “killer.”
Mr. Jensen said Mr. Putin is now bobbing and weaving see what the U.S. administration does if the Kremlin proceeds on a range of sensitive fronts, including use of the Russian Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine as a diplomatic wedge to turning up the temperature on Ukraine and escalating its moves in the Arctic.
“This is typical so-called Russian ‘hybrid warfare,’ replete with feinting and deception, mixing the developments in Ukraine with the Arctic stuff,” Mr. Jensen said.
Four Ukrainian soldiers were killed in a missile attack Kyiv blamed on separatist forces last month. Ukraine’s army commander said last week that Russia had deployed some 28 battalion tactical groups near Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Mr. Putin over Western protests in 2014. That could mean as many as 25,000 more Russian troops are deployed in the combustible region, along with thousands of Russian officers and military trainers working with the rebels inside Ukraine.
Russia has denied the Ukrainian charges that it is responsible for the escalating tensions in the region and said the troops in the region are participating in a training exercise.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the ongoing Ukrainian civil war is proof that NATO membership is not a realistic option for Kyiv.
“We deeply doubt that it will somehow help Ukraine to deal with its internal problem,” he told the Tass news agency. “From our point of view, it will only exacerbate the situation further because people’s opinions cannot be overlooked in any way when you talk about joining NATO.”
Mr. Putin last week signed legislation formalizing a constitutional change that could allow him to hold on to power until 2036. But with the Russian economy battered and polls showing Mr. Putin’s approval rating at historic lows, the Russian president also is facing potential embarrassment at the polls in legislative elections slated for September.
Mr. Putin got a domestic boost from the 2014 Crimean operation, and Mr. Jensen said he thinks the Russian president is employing a similar playbook today.
“Putin is trying to boost his popularity by playing the patriotic card while also trying to show that after the Navalny affair and the recent protests, he remains as strong as ever, even amid Russia’s ongoing economic problems,” Mr. Jensen said.
Pavel K. Baev at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo noted that “Russia’s sluggish economic recovery somewhat mars Putin’s reappearance in the political limelight” after the Russian leader stayed largely out of the public eye for some time.