Ukraine at the Center of the Confrontation Between Russia and the West

The escalation of the global competition between Russia and the West leads to the intensification of the military confrontation between the parties



Victor Hvozd
Doctor of Military Sciences


Since March 2021 Russia has significantly intensified its military activities on the Baltic and Black Sea directions, as well as around Ukraine. Given the continuation of Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine, this is quite expected to be seen as a threat of a new invasion of Ukrainian territory by Russian troops. However, the reasons for Moscow’s military preparations are deeper and are related to the escalation of the global confrontation between Russia and the West. At this, the confrontation between the parties is intensifying also in the military sphere, as shown by their actions to build up and demonstrate military force.

As predicted by most political scientists, J. Biden’s coming to power in the United States really led to changes in American policy, in particular, in terms of a tougher policy towards Russia. The result is an escalation of US-Russian relations and, consequently, Moscow’s actions to increase pressure on the United States and its allies and partners. However, this is just a continuation of the process of increasing the level of confrontation between Russia and the West, which was initiated by V. Putin in 2007. Since then, both sides have been stepping up their military activities in the main areas of intersection of their interests, including around Ukraine.


…The escalation of the global competition between Russia and the West leads to the intensification of the military confrontation between the parties…

Thus, from the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, the Russian Armed Forces began to resume operational and combat trainings typical of the former Soviet Army. The main ones were the strategic command and post exercises (SCPE) “West”, “Caucasus”, “Center” and “East”, and then — “Ocean” and “Thunder” (exercise of strategic nuclear forces). Given Russia’s military capabilities at the time, these exercises were much smaller in scale than the USSR’s exercises “Dnepr” (1967), “Ocean” (1970), “West-81” and “Shield-82” (when a scenario of nuclear war was rehearsed). However, they got the same character in terms of rehearsing various forms of armed conflicts and wars between Russia and the United States and NATO, as well as with other Russian adversaries. At the same time, there began the process of reforming and strengthening Russia’s Armed Forces. Despite this, at that time the intensification of Russia’s military preparations did not actually provoke any reaction from the United States and Europe, which were still hoping for the possibility of building a constructive relationship with it. In turn, this was perceived by Moscow as the West’s weakness and “untied its hands” for the attacks on Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.

From that moment on, the situation took on a fundamentally new character. Unexpectedly for Moscow, the United States, NATO and the EU put heavy pressure on it, and also provided assistance to Ukraine, which greatly thwarted Russia’s plans. In response, Moscow resorted to large-scale actions to build up its troops on the North-Western (Baltic) and South-Western (Ukrainian and Black Sea) directions, as well as intensified openly anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian exercises. Such actions by Russia were seen by the United States and Europe as a threat to their security, which required an appropriate response. Thus, during the NATO Welsh Summit in 2014, it was decided to return to the strategy of deterring possible aggression from the East. In accordance with that decision, the deployment of US and NATO troops in Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltics began. In addition, the United States and NATO returned to the elements of military exercises typical of the Cold War.


…By 2018-2019, both Russia and the United States/NATO had largely completed the implementation of the first phase of building up their military forces…

By 2018-2019, both Russia and the United States/NATO had largely completed the implementation of the first phase of those plans. As you know, in the western regions of Russia were deployed the 1St Tank and the 20th Combined Arms Army of the Western Military District (MD), the 8th Combined Arms Army of the Southern MD, were formed the 4th and the 6th Armies of the Air Force and Air Defense, and were strengthened the naval groups and coastal troops of the Black Sea, Baltic and Northern Fleets. At this, a strategic command “North” was created on the basis of the Northern Fleet, which was reorganized into a new military district.

In turn, the United States and NATO have restored the military command system at the European Theatre, as well as mechanisms of bringing American troops to Europe and deploying them in threatened areas. Besides, the system for rapid response to military threats to Europe from the East has been improved. It is based on the NATO Multinational Corps Northeast in Poland, a multinational division of the same purpose in Romania (under formation), and four NATO’s battalion-size multinational battle groups in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Plus, in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic states, separate units and forces of the US Armed Forces have been deployed.


…The SCPEs of the RF Armed Forces are beginning to approach the content of the strategic exercises of the former Soviet Army…

At present, both sides are taking steps to implement the second stage of their military plans. In particular, Russia continues to take measures to further increase and improve the groups of troops that it has created on the North-Western and South-Western directions. The scope of the SCPEs of the RF Armed Forces has been significantly increased. Their content has been changed, which has acquired a bilateral character from the battalion to the army and district (front) levels. Due to this, the SCPEs of the RF Armed Forces are beginning to approach the content of the strategic exercises of the former Soviet Army.

At the same time, Russia is demonstrating a more rapid military response to all developments that affect its interests. Evidence of this was the deployment of troops of the Western MD of the Russian Armed Forces on the Belarusian and the Baltic directions in the spring and summer of last year during US/NATO exercises in Poland and the Baltic states, as well as during mass protests against the Lukashenko regime.

For its part, the United States/NATO have begun to deploy full-strength combat and ground forces, which should form the basis of the first echelon of their defense at the European Theatre. In particular, in 2014, command structures and separate combat units of the V Corps of the US Army were stationed in Poland, which was in Germany during the Cold War and then returned to America. During the same period, the 2nd Fleet of the US Navy was restored, which will oversee operations in the Atlantic (including — to ensure the deployment of American troops to Europe).

Apart from this, the United States has largely restored the system of operational and combat training typical of the Cold War. Such trainings address a wide range of issues related to the repulse of Russia’s possible aggression, namely: bringing rapid deployment forces to threatening areas; deployment of American troops to Europe; deployment of US/NATO troops in Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltics and in the rear; conducting defense and counter-offensive operations.


…The United States has largely restored the system of operational and combat training typical of the Cold War…

Since 2020, the main one of such exercises has been the DEFENDER-Europe, which includes a set of separate measures to address these tasks. In general, DEFENDER-Europe exercise will be held at the entire European Theatre, the North Atlantic and part of the Arctic. However, its main events are held alternately in Northern and Southern Europe.

In particular, the scenario of the DEFENDER-Europe 20 exercise was to repulse Russia’s attack on Poland and the Baltic states. At this, one of the main training tasks was to counter the attempt of Russian troops to break into Kaliningrad region of the Russian Federation through the so-called Suwalki Corridor (running from Grodno region of Belarus along the border of Poland and Lithuania). To this end, with the participation of American troops transferred to Europe, the NATO Multinational Corps Northeast and the V Corps of the US Army were deployed in the direction of the Suwalki Corridor. In fact, the above-mentioned scenario is “symmetrical” to the scenario of the “West” type SCPE of the Armed Forces of Russia and Belarus, during which the Russian troops’ breaking through the Suwalki Corridor is rehearsed.

This year, the main activities of DEFENDER-Europe 21 exercise are held in the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions. Officially, the exercise scenario envisages the participation of NATO Forces in the settlement of the armed conflict in the Balkans. At the same time, the US and NATO leaderships openly position the exercise as a demonstration of their determination to defend their allies in the Black Sea region. At this, the United States and NATO do not ignore their allies in the Baltic region. Thus, some DEFENDER-Europe 21 events will be held in Poland and the Baltic states. First of all, due to the plans of the “West-2021” SCPE with the above-mentioned scenario of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and Belarus.

In total, military units of 26 NATO member states and allies (including Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, as well as the Balkan countries) will take part in the exercise. The main phase of DEFENDER-Europe 21 exercise is to take place in early summer this year in Italy, Greece, Albania and Romania. In the summer of 2021, separate training events will be held in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, as well as in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway.

At present, American troops are being redeployed to Europe in preparation for the exercise. In addition, some elements related to landing operations and live-fire trainings at training grounds in Albania, Romania, Bulgaria and Estonia are being worked out.

In May–June this year, a separate exercise of NATO Forces Steadfast Defender 2021 is planned to be held at the European Theatre and in the North Atlantic. The exercise is expected to test the efficiency of the new NATO’s Joint Support and Enabling Command based in Ulm, Germany (established in 2018), ensure the safety of naval transportations in the North Atlantic (involving the British Navy aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth, about 20 NATO ships and 40 aircrafts, including F-35 fighters), and the deployment of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) in Romania.


…Under the guise of preparing the “West-2021” SCPE, Russia has in fact deployed two fronts against the United States/NATO and Ukraine…

That is why Russia is stepping up military activity on its side of the European Theatre. At this, Moscow views Ukraine as a de facto US/NATO military ally. Evidence of this is their support of our state, as well as the participation of Ukrainian units in the DEFENDER-Europe 21 exercise. Moreover, while the possibility of armed conflict with the US/NATO on the North-Western direction is considered unlikely by Russia, on the South-Western direction — it is considered quite real. Especially, given the continuing armed confrontation in the Donbas, the istuation with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the “frozen” conflict in Transdniestria.

In view of this, under the guise of preparing the “West-2021” SCPE, Russia has in fact deployed two fronts against the United States/NATO and Ukraine. The most powerful of these can be called the “South-Western Front”, which includes at least four army groups, including in Crimea, North Caucasus, Rostov region and in Bryansk, Orel, Kursk, Belgorod and Voronezh regions of Russia. It includes troops of the 20th Combined Arms Army of the Western MD, the 8th, 49th, and 58th Combined Arms Armies of the Southern MD, the 41st Combined Arms Army of the Central MD, the 4th Air Force and Air Defense Army, the Black Sea Fleet, the Caspian Flotilla and a number of airborne units.

The second (auxiliary) — the “North-Western Front” — consisting of two army groups was created in Leningrad and Pskov regions of Russia, as well as in Belarus. It includes the 1st Tank and the 6th Combined Arms Armies of the Western MD, the 6th Army of the Air Force and Air Defense, the naval groups and coastal troops of the Baltic Fleet, separate airborne units, and the Belarusian Armed Forces.

There may be another front — the “Northern” one, based on Russia’s Northern Fleet, but it is far from Ukraine and has little to do with it.

Besides, Russia has conducted a number of military demonstrations in the Black Sea and Baltic regions, as well as in the North Atlantic and the Arctic. All of them were quite well-known and traditional, with the exception of deploying six submarines to the North Atlantic to demonstrate the possibility of disruption of US naval transportations.


…Ukraine will continue to be at the intersection of Western and Russian interests and at the center of the confrontation between the parties…

All this allows us to draw some conclusions.

First, Russia and the United States/NATO and Europe have de facto resumed the Cold War, accompanied by an escalation of military confrontation.

Second, the positions of the parties are irreconcilable, which, in fact, excludes all possibilities of reaching compromises between them on issues that concern their strategic interests.

Third, Ukraine will continue to be at the intersection of Western and Russian interests and will be at the center of the confrontation between the parties. In view of this, military tension around Ukraine will be getting even more complicated. Thus, another increase in Russian military activity on the Ukrainian direction should be expected this summer during the active phase of Russia’s and the United States/NATO’ strategic military exercises.


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