9 December 2021

What are the chances of a new war in Ukraine?

By Aliona Hlivco

The situation on the Ukraine-Russia border has long been what you could euphemistically call ‘tense’, but in recent weeks things have become particularly unnerving. Depending on which report you read, somewhere between 100,000 and 175,000 Russian troops are massing near Ukraine’s borders, not just from within Russian territory but also in Belarus to the north and from annexed Crimea in the south. Does this portend a full-blown war, or is it just yet more strategic sabre-rattling from that master of 4D geopolitical chess, Vladimir Putin?

It’s certainly striking that while Western media is falling over itself to warn of a possible attack on my homeland, our own officials are resolutely tight-lipped about the prospect of an invasion. They cleave to the view that the risk of a full-on assault is low at the moment, but we should be prepared for an escalation early next year. One source in Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence suggests that Putin is engaging in his usual tactics of trying to destabilise both Ukraine and its Western partners.

Ukrainian sang-froid in the face of Russian threats is unsurprising: we have been at war with Russia for almost eight years and the mixture of attacks and threats has become an everyday reality. Nonetheless, it’s worth digging into what the latest round of Russian aggression really means.

On one level it’s undoubtedly a reaction to the consistent military support for Ukraine from Nato allies, not least the US and the UK. Not only have there been joint military exercises and British warships cruising around the Black Sea, but both the American and British Defence Secretaries have visited Kyiv in November. As well as symbolic support, there’s are also extensive military aid agreements, including the UK’s £1.7bn defence contract with the Ukrainian government. Unlike in 2014, when a confused, unprepared West was completely impotent in the face of Russian aggression, this time Moscow sees a far more united front against its bullying behaviour, much to the Kremln’s chagrin.

But, as ever with Putin, there’s more to it than that. Escalating things on the Ukrainian border is also a way of pressuring Joe Biden into concessions on other issues, from maintaining Russia’s so-called sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, to the ongoing situation in Belarus and the future of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Given that the two conducted a two-hour video call yesterday, the Russian president may feel that he has already had a degree of success in that regard. The real outcomes of negotiations will probably be seen in the course of the next several days and weeks, but looking at the communiques released after the meeting, there has been little real progress so far. The messages from either side could not be more different in tone: a brief, factual read-out from the White House, with the usual expression of concern and call for de-escalation, versus a Russian statement that went into much more detail, underlining the difference in each side’s view of the situation.

Putin tried pretty much the same gambit in Spring of this year, ordering a big troop build-up on the border until Biden agreed to a meeting in Geneva – a move which gave Putin a veneer of legitimacy following the brutal treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Within weeks of that summit, sanctions against Nord Stream 2 AG – a Swiss company behind the pipeline that transports Arctic gas to Germany bypassing Ukraine – were dropped, which was crucial in getting construction finished by autumn of this year.

But that’s not the end when it comes to Nord Stream 2. The pipeline still has to go through the certification process both by Germany and the European Commission. Given the changing of the guard in Berlin, with a new far less Russia-friendly government in place, it’s in Putin’s interests to push on with the launch of this multibillion dollar project as quickly as possible.

Another perennial issue for Putin is the phantasm of Western ‘encirclement’ and Nato ‘expansionism’ (a line often parroted by the West’s own useful idiots). He regularly claims that Nato has reneged on its promise not to expand into eastern Europe, even though no such promise was ever made and it is the nations of eastern Europe themselves who see the alliance as a bulwark against Russian aggression. The latest bout of myth-making involves Putin’s brazenly counter-factual claim that recent military cooperation with Ukraine means a missile could reach Moscow within just seven minutes, despite the fact there are no plans to put Nato missiles in Ukraine.

Whether he genuinely believes this or it is pure subterfuge, there’s no doubt that Putin and his acolytes still view the world through decidedly Soviet lens, one in which Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and the whole Black Sea region belong exclusively in Moscow’s ‘sphere of influence’. The idea of either Western involvement or, indeed, true national independence for the people of those countries is anathema to him, and the idea of one of these ex-Soviet nations joining Nato is completely beyond the pale.

That warped worldview goes a long way to explaining Russia’s endless meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs ever since the Orange Revolution of 2004. From supporting pro-Russian political parties to annexing part of its territory, the Kremlin has done its utmost to nip in the bud any suggestion of Ukraine joining either the EU or Nato.

Nonetheless, the sheer scale and breadth of the current troop build-up clearly demands attention. Just how far is Russia willing to go to subdue Ukraine and test the West’s resolve? According to Russian military analyst Valery Shiryayev, the idea of an imminent attack doesn’t hold much water. To launch a full-on invasion would require around 300,000 troops. Given that the entire Russian army numbers 500,000 troops, gathering three fifths of them on the Ukrainian border seems at best improbable, if not completely impossible.

But what about the leaked map circulating among Western media, purporting to be the latest attack plan obtained by Nato intelligence? Well, the idea of such a plan is hardly news to the Ukrainians. Indeed, a very similar map was first shared by the head of Ukraine’s Defence Intelligence Agency, Kyryl Budanov, last month. Nor is it much of a secret that Putin has harboured ambitions to seize all of Ukraine’s territory east of the Dnipro – the so-called ‘Novorossiya Plan’ – since the start of the war back in 2014. 

What’s missing from the current Russian invasion plan is a concrete aim. The incursion into Georgia had an obvious objective in preventing the return of Abkhazia and southern Ossetia to Georgian control. Likewise, the annexation of Crimea had a clear, longstanding strategic goal, to seize a base for Russia’s fleet and dominate the Black Sea region. The proxy war in the Donbas may have looked like a separatist movement from the outside, but it was primarily a Russian attempt to stall Ukraine’s development and prevent Kyiv going any further down the path to EU or Nato membership.

What, though, would be the point of a full-on invasion now – particularly given the heavy potential Russian losses, international opprobrium and sanctions that would likely follow? You could just about argue that it would be a megalomaniacal attempt by Putin to recreate the Soviet territory of his youth within the borders of modern Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, particularly as he recently claimed all three countries were ‘one people’ (a typical, patronising Russian conceit towards its neighbours). But Putin is nothing if not a dead-eyed realist, and even he can see that Ukrainians are not going to give up their hard-fought independence lightly. On a more practical note, Ukraine’s military is now far more battle-ready, in terms of both troops and materiel, thanks in no small part to the support of our Western allies. 

So, for all the understandable anguish, a full-on invasion seems fraught with both practical and political difficulties for the Russians. Of course, Putin has always thrived on inscrutable unpredictability, so only a fool would entirely rule out the possibility of an open war. But his periodic bouts of aggression have long been defined by two tendencies: first, only embarking on battles he can easily win, and second, taking the other side by surprise. Neither of those looks at all straightforward in this case.

And amid all this talk of US-Russian relations and spheres of influence, we Ukrainians seem often to be little more than an afterthought. It’s a feeling we’re used to, given our long history of being buffeted by competing empires and subdued by sparring superpowers. But after 30 years of independence, Ukrainians have never been more resolute in their determination to stand up for our sovereignty and independence, no matter what Russia throws at us.

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Aliona Hlivco is Strategic Relations Manager at the Henry Jackson Society.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.