During the last weeks, the tension has skyrocketed due to the massive deployment of Russian troops around the border with Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin’s challenge has set off alarms in the West, where there is still doubt as to whether what is being orchestrated from the Kremlin is simply a form of pressure or whether there are real intentions to invade Ukraine in whole or in part.
Tension between Russia and Ukraine has seemed to be on the rise for several weeks now. Moscow has tens of thousands of troops deployed on the border with its neighboring country and numerous war materials that could suggest a possible invasion of Ukraine. But the world remains unclear if this spectacular military deployment is intended to dissuade the West from achieving a series of objectives with respect to Ukraine or if, indeed, a possible invasion is being considered from the Kremlin.
The Russian military deployment responds to several factors openly denounced from the Kremlin. The first of them is a historical one, from Russia it has always been considered that Ukraine is part of the same people with them. And that, therefore, any approach of Kiev to the Western sphere is something that approaches the “unnatural”. In fact, the history of the two nations has been intimately linked from medieval times to the Euromaidan revolution of 2014, which deposed the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych.
The second, and more important, is the feeling of threat that Moscow perceives regarding Ukraine’s possible entry into NATO. A great “danger” that for this nation crosses one of its red lines, since it could make the missiles of the Euro-Atlantic military coalition just a few minutes away from the Russian capital.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Eastern bloc, Russia has seen how a number of countries that were previously within its sphere of control have joined the ranks of NATO, such as Poland, the Baltic states or Romania, and I would not be willing to see this replicated in the Ukraine, Belarus or Georgia.
But are these reasons enough to unleash an armed conflict against Ukraine that raises tensions with the West to a level not seen since the Cold War? The answer is complex and not even the experts consulted by France 24 have managed to have a unanimous voice on the subject.
An expensive but feasible operation for Russia
Nicolás De Pedro, head of research of the British think tank Institute for Statecraft considers that “although everything can be reduced to a simple deterrence, the numerous deployment carried out by the Kremlin suggests that, if they want, they have the deployment to deal a very devastating blow to Ukraine”. The investigator assures that the Kremlin is “aware of its significant military superiority with respect to Ukraine.”
For De Pedro, the distribution of troops around the border and the war materials available to Russian troops “indicates this”, since “they need a highly visible deployment to break any intention that both the United States and its allies have. Europeans”.
A position that, however, is not shared by the analyst specializing in the post-Soviet space of the media outlet El Orden Mundial, Oleg Lukin, who compares the current situation with that experienced during the first months of 2021, which was lowered with the meeting between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin and after NATO ignored the issue of Ukraine in their meeting. Lukin points out that what interests the Kremlin is “the policy of permanent tensionwithout entering into an armed conflict.
The analyst supports his thesis regarding the high costs that an open conflict in Ukraine would have for Moscow. And although he recognizes Russia’s significant military advantage over Ukraine, he assures that the costs of a campaign of such magnitude would be especially high and “are not of interest” to the Putin Executive at this time. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine violates international law and would mean an ordeal of economic sanctions and trade bans that could affect Russia, which is currently not experiencing its best economic moment.
This policy of “permanent tension” could benefit Putin and his Executive to sit down to negotiate with the West. Although Lukin acknowledges that “some of the demands are unfeasible for the United States and NATO, they are a start to start negotiating with the aim of giving in some aspects later.” The Russian conditions involve reducing the number of NATO members to that of 1997, something that the organization is not willing to comply with under the pretext that “adherence is voluntary for all countries.”
But De Pedro does not consider that it is “enough” for Moscow to apply permanent tension. The Institute for Statecraft analyst acknowledges that Russia is aware of “the sanctions it could face”, but also knows that “neither the United States nor NATO, nor of course the European Union will be involved in an armed conflict in Ukraine ”.
To understand a bit of the realpolitik russian you can consider a range of interventions that the Kremlin has already carried out throughout the 21st century. The most significant case, comparable to that of Ukraine, could be that of Georgia in 2008. This Caucasian nation, which has historically been in the orbit of Russia and the Soviet Union, decided to attack the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, with a majority of the population ethnically Russian and favorable to the Kremlin. Russia’s response was forceful and after 12 days of conflict it managed to break Georgia, which lost control over these areas.
The situation could be compared to that in the Donbass. It must be taken into account that Ukraine has been waging a war since 2014 in this eastern region of the country against pro-Russian military groups that want the independence of a Ukraine closer to Europe and that have established two republics not recognized by the international community: the Donetsk and Luhansk. A reinforced attack by Ukraine against the separatists in the east could provide the perfect pretext for the start of Russian hostilities.
What the two analysts agree that the Russian intentions hide is to try to make the Ukrainian state fail in one way or another, since a prosperous and strong Ukraine would be counterproductive for Moscow if it is not within its orbit of influence. De Pedro especially points out this aspect, considering that “the possibility of once again influencing Ukraine’s foreign policy is one of the main incentives to motivate the conflict.”
The fact that Kiev left the Russian orbit was one of the biggest blows of the Putin era and the perfect excuse for Russia to decide to annex the Crimea region after a referendum considered fraudulent by the international community. It is precisely on this point that Lukin relies to ensure that the tension will not become an open war, since he considers “too much has been advertised in the media. When Russia invaded Crimea it did so in a surprise with virtually no one expecting it, when someone brags so much about military muscle it’s because they simply want to dissuade”. Although the analyst does not rule out that this deterrence could “go wrong for Russia and be involved in a conflict.”
In case of invasion, what scenarios are contemplated?
The American think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies contemplates six possible scenarios in which a possible conflict between Russia and Ukraine could lead. In an article published by its vice president, a status quo of the situation is pointed out, the reinforcement with Russian troops of the Donbass region, the invasion of all of eastern Ukraine up to the Dnieper River, the invasion of all of southern Ukraine to leaving the nation without access to the sea, the siege of Kiev with the movement of troops from the north and even Belarus or the total seizure of the country.
For Nicolás De Pedro, whether one or the other option is carried out will depend on several factors, such as “the resistance they encounter from the army and the Ukrainian population”, although of course he sees the invasion of the coastal territories as much more feasible than the inside. “The situation in the city of Mariupol, for example, is not good at all. It is known that Russia wants to close Ukraine’s access to the Sea of Azov and this could be an operation that allows Ukraine to unite with Crimea and not be too costly militarily.”
The researcher points out that from then on “it will depend on a series of less predictable factors that Russia can continue”, although he sees an incursion into the Ukrainian interior and the west of the nation, which has a strong anti-Russian nationalist character, as complicated.
The theses in the West regarding what could happen on the Russian-Ukrainian border are diverse. But it is clear that the tension will have a complex output for several reasons. The first is that Russia is convinced that it will not yield in this regard and is therefore displaying all its military power, the second is that Ukraine is also willing to defend itself with everything despite its notable military inferiority, and the third, and perhaps most important , is the extent to which the West is willing to sit down to negotiate with Russia or, on the contrary, be partially or totally involved in an armed conflict.