Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Image: Twitter

Will Vladimir Putin’s Russia invade Ukraine? Anything’s possible. And certainly, hardman Putin has a better record of military success – the Second Chechen War, the Georgian intervention and the seizure of Crimea – than any post-war US president. 

But – ongoing hysteria in Western media and political circles notwithstanding – Russia’s military options are not good. Nor does the political and economic cost of any invasion look worth the paltry gains on offer.

What looks to be in play is a very different dynamic. Did the Kremlin decide that, with the US divided against itself and with the West’s defeat in Afghanistan still fresh in mind, now was the ideal time for brinksmanship?

Russia, after all, has historically been a master at dezinformatsiya, or disinformation. Bluffing about intentions is a central pillar of this strategy. Indications thus far are that Western policymakers and media have taken the “invasion” bait and swallowed it, whole.

Hence the Kremlin may be deploying disinformation and brinksmanship to force the West to – at last – recognize Russia’s legitimate grievances, most particularly as regards NATO’s eastward expansion – and perhaps, reach a working modus vivendi on Moscow’s sphere of influence.

Meanwhile, a close examination of related issues suggests no Armageddon is imminent.

Ukrainian army forces in their operation against separatists in the east of the country from the front line in Artemovks on February 27, 2015. Photo: AFP / Viktor Koshkin / Anadolu Agency

Mission accomplished?

From Russia’s perspective, the build-up of forces on the Ukrainian borders may already have achieved its purpose: Deterring the Ukrainian army from launching a general offensive into the coal-rich Donbas area – the majority of which is inhabited by ethnic Russians and held by pro-Russian rebel republics and backed by Moscow.

Most analyses suggest that the Ukrainian army of 2014 was an empty shell – hence its ineffective response to the Russian seizure of the Crimea that year. That weakness led, in turn, to Kiev relying heavily on some highly dubious militias to fight Russia-backed rebels in Donbas.

Those militias provided a windfall for Russian media: some openly sported Fascist symbols.

But today, Kiev’s armed forces are bigger, better equipped and better trained, having benefited from expanding links with the West, including NATO, which has conducted joint drills and has advisers on the ground in Ukraine.

Russia’s concerns on this issue were made clear by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in statements to the media on January 25. Questioning “who is threatening who,” Lavrov said: “We do not exclude that all the hysteria whipped up by our ‘Western colleagues’ is intended, if not to provoke, Ukraine to undertake some military action in Donbas.”

Power differentials

Moscow certainly wields a larger and more powerful military than Kiev, but the manpower differential in the battlespace does not favor Russia. 

Multiple reports put the Russian troops deployed to the Ukrainian border at about 127,000. And they look formidable. Russian media shows footage of live-fire exercises, armored vehicles deploying across snowfields, explosive anti-mine hoses being fired.

However, this force faces a larger force across the frontier. Security website Global Firepower puts the 2022 strength of Ukraine’s active duty armed forces at 200,000, with 250,000 reserves and 50,000 militia.

Even assuming that Russia boasts superior airpower, artillery, missile forces, armor and cyber capabilities, any attack into Ukraine is going to face a significant, bloody, fightback – particularly if the combat shifts into a guerilla-mode long war.

After all, last September a poll found that 81% of Ukrainians said they had a negative attitude toward Putin.

Nobody in the Kremlin has forgotten the political costs incurred by the zinc coffins coming home from the Afghan War and the First Chechen War. 

Russian troops have massed on the border with Ukraine. Photo: AFP / Anadolu Agency

Not huge numbers

By deploying so many troops – and showing them off to so many audiences – Russia has lost any possible strategic or tactical surprise. This “here we are” signaling stands in direct contrast to the most successful shock and surprise operations launched by Soviet or Russian forces in recent times – the 1979 seizure of Kabul, the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

And in a remarkable feat of memory loss, global media has apparently forgotten that the current build-up of Russian forces started in 2021, in late March, when multiple battalion tactical groups deployed to the border with Ukraine.

Those forces numbered 22,400 men, in addition to about 32,000 troops in Crimea and another 28,000 troops near Donbas – in total, about 90,000.

In April 2021, specialist defense publication Janes identified many of the units and weapons, including artillery and hypersonic missiles. Some came from as far away as Siberia.

And even the current numbers deployed by Russia are dwarfed by those seen in the recent past.

Moscow has shown the world, in plain sight, its ability to shift and drill huge troop numbers that make smaller, professional western militaries gape. In 2018, the Vostok Exercise in Siberia and the Russian Far East deployed 300,000 men, as well as a Chinese contingent.

Risk analysis

Assuming Putin actually wants war, how might a Russian operation eventuate? His troops have three potential jumping off-points: southward from Belarus, westward from Russia and the Donbas area and northward from Crimea and the Azov Sea.

All-out invasion or conquest does not look feasible, for reasons given. Particularly given that Ukraine shares long borders with NATO states Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, over which guerillas could infiltrate and exfiltrate.

This argues for a more limited objective. One would be to seize the coastal strip linking Crimea and the Donbas and Rostov, along the Sea of Avoz. That operation would solve a major headache facing cut-off Crimea: Enabling water supply.

But even if Russian forces grabbed the corridor in a fast operation, it would be hugely vulnerable to hold. Essentially, there is a more than 200-kilometer enfilade.

A likelier scenario would be a pincer operation – or simply a roll-in – to annex the Donbas. But at a time when the US is reportedly mulling massive economic retaliation – including banning Russia from the SWIFT transaction system and sanctioning technical exports of the type that have so impacted Chinese firm Huawei – the pros of this operation look outweighed by the cons.

After all, the breakaway, pro-Russian Donbas Republics already exist and abut Russian territory.

There are also fears Russia could deploy a hybrid operation to emplace a puppet leader in Kiev. It was the fall of a pro-Moscow Kiev government amid the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution which precipitated the current Ukraine-Russia crisis.

But any such operation looks unlikely amid current conditions.

Ukraine has a harsh climate, making travel difficult. Photo: WikiCommons

The ticking clock

Three timing factors suggest that Russia is not going to attack.

Firstly, the window for blitzkrieg-style maneuver warfare is closing. The rasputitsa (“time without roads” – the spring thaw) comes to Ukraine in early March, when frosts end and the ground softens.

While Russia’s sea-, air- and heliborne units would not be affected by this, its ground units would, particularly the heavy armored forces that Russian media have focused on. During the greatest armored clashes in history, on World War II’s Russian Front, major operations halted during the rasputista. 

Of course, armored vehicle technologies have improved massively since 1945 – but largely in armor, optics, turret and signals technologies, not tracks and drive trains.

Hence, if Russia does not strike soon, its mechanized units will face major difficulties maneuvering off-road, making them easy targets. Columns of road-bound armor being ambushed are a nightmare memory from the Russian storm on Grozny in the first Chechen War.

Secondly, the Beijing Winter Olympics are about to start. In December, Putin agreed to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping before the Opening Ceremony, which takes place on February 4.

It seems highly unlikely Putin would ignite a war just as his richest, most powerful and important ally is cutting the ribbon on a festival into which enormous national resources and prestige have been sunk.

Thirdly, every day Putin waits to unleash his forces is another day that jittery NATO countries, including the US and UK, have to rush arms into Ukraine. In other words, the longer Russia waits to attack, the better-armed Ukraine will be.

The weapons sent by the UK – Light Anti-Armor Weapons (LAWs) – look ideal for Ukrainian defenders. They are simple to master and deadly against armor at close-medium range.

All this suggests that if Putin was serious about an attack he would already have launched it.

What does Russia want?

As noted, one Russian aim is to keep the Russian-majority enclaves in Donbas in existence. This is critical to the Kremlin’s worldview. After the Soviet Union collapsed, millions of ethnic Russians were left scattered across the former empire. Their well-being cannot be ignored by Moscow.

Because of this, the 2014 seizure of Crimea proved immensely popular with the Russian people, given its Russian majority population and its immense historical and strategic importance to their nation.

But the bigger issue is Russia’s relations with the West. It is an article of faith within the Kremlin’s walls that in 1990, at a time when German reunification was looming and the Soviet Union was breaking up, promises were made that NATO would not expand.

US documents show that West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher told Russia that “changes in Eastern Europe and the German unification process must not lead to an ‘impairment of Soviet security interests’.” 

And US Secretary of State James Baker famously told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev – in response to the latter’s insistence that “NATO expansion is unacceptable” – that “… not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction.”

Those promises were not kept. As the Warsaw Pact evaporated, NATO not only remained in business, it welcomed the USSR’s former western carapace – the ex-Warsaw Pact states of Poland, Czech, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania (not to mention eastern Germany). To the north, NATO took aboard the Baltic States.

Along with this shift, US troops, missiles, missile defense systems and radars all moved eastward, compromising Russian defenses. Now there are real fears in Moscow that Ukraine – the vast, flat landmass that provides a perfect invasion corridor into Russia’s heart – will join NATO.

Indeed, at 2021’s NATO Summit, NATO reiterated that Ukraine (and Georgia) would become “a member of the alliance with the Membership Action Plan.” While NATO did not propose a timeline, it did lay out the roadmap of conditions that Georgia and Ukraine should meet, and added: ”We highly value Ukraine’s significant contributions to Allied operations, the NATO Response Force and NATO exercises.”

Moscow has other reasons to distrust Washington’s intentions. The US never ratified the 1979 SALT II arms limitation treaty it had negotiated with the USSR and similar actions have continued into Putin’s time in office.

In 2001, Washington pulled out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and in 2019 pulled out of the 1987 International Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.

Of course, situations change and nobody can deny the capitals of the new NATO states their sovereign rights. But to be ignorant or dismissive of Russia’s grounds for complaint is myopic at best, dangerous at worst.

US President Joe Biden at a NATO meeting. Photo: AFP / Olivier Hoslet

Putin the white, Putin the black

Regardless of his concerns about NATO and the US, Putin’s threat mongering and his refusal to recognize Kiev’s sovereignty and acknowledge its agency is a pill that the wider world looks unlikely to swallow. Seen in this light, his aggression may backfire.

And while, in realpolitik terms, the United States may still demand its right to its highly controversial sphere of influence in Latin America, whether the wider world is willing to grant rump Russia the USSR’s old sphere of influence, as Putin’s Kremlin demands, is open to question.

Against this backdrop, the Russian president presents the West with a giant conundrum.

On the one hand, Putin has made very clear that he yearns for the days when Moscow was a hyperpower. His political behavior, both at home and abroad, reflects this.

Naturally, this behavior – crushing domestic opposition, providing a home base for global cyber attackers, engaging in deadly spycraft, threatening and attacking neighbors with naked force – raises the hackles of liberal democracies.

Indeed, Russian naval drills are, at present, even irking such liberal players as Ireland and Sweden.

On the other hand, Putin retains both legitimacy and popularity among Russians.

He rebuilt his country from the rubble of the post-Soviet Boris Yeltsin years and his military campaigns – the Second Chechen War, Georgia, Crimea, Syria – have been successful, especially compared with US humiliations in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Moreover, until Western sanctions were emplaced after his 2014 annexation of Crimea, living standards for his countrymen, in terms of per capita GDP, had been rising.

As a Russian friend – who, it should be made clear, does not support Putin – reluctantly notes: “He is probably the most popular Russian leader, not just in modern times, but ever.”

This is important. On the one hand, this means he will be able to disengage – possibly even lose some face – without facing an angry mob. And on Friday, the supposed warmonger Putin will be holding negotiations on the crisis with French President Emanuel Macron.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Will he invade or hold back? Photo: AFP / Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik

But it is important for a wider reason, too.

Russia has tumbled out of the ranks of G10 economies, replaced by South Korea, and is overly reliant upon energy and defense sales. But it remains the world’s biggest physical country and is a key player in energy supply – including to NATO member countries.

It has a powerful and deployable military and occupies a UN Security Council seat. It is not going to fade gently into irrelevance.

How the West deals with Putin and squares this convoluted circle – at a time when Chinese power is rising, US power is dwindling and the EU is consistently unable to marshal its members into an effective foreign policy bloc – is one of the major geopolitical issues of our era.