There is a growing danger of a major Russian military move into Ukraine. Nevertheless, the constraints remain significant, making a full-scale Russian military endeavour risky. Instead, a limited military incursion with the aim of achieving the decentralisation of Ukraine is more probable.
Ukraine is back on Russia’s agenda. Recent months have seen an unusually coordinated set of diplomatic and military moves aimed at testing Kyiv’s resolve for self-defence and the West’s willingness to support Ukraine’s sovereignty. There is a growing belief among analysts that Russia is seriously contemplating making a major move in Ukraine. Tens of thousands of Russian troops amassed along Ukraine’s border remain a continuous reminder of what Moscow could do.
Western reactions betray fear and concern. This month, CIA Director Bill Burns visited Moscow, where he warned Russian officials about military steps against Ukraine. UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has visited Kyiv, while Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov visited Washington to meet US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Moreover, even generally more reluctant officials in Paris and Berlin warned Russia of ‘serious consequences’ if an escalation takes place.
Ukraine in Russian Thinking
The reasons for Russia’s behaviour vary. Ukraine is increasingly seen as unfinished business, a sore point in Russia’s pursuit of great power status. Though there have been some attempts to downplay the country’s importance within Russia’s evolving worldview, the emphasis on Ukraine has actually grown in Moscow. In fact, in the age of great power competition and the need to secure a respectable place among many geopolitical poles, for Russia it is not its successful military operation in Syria or its peacekeeping gambit in Nagorno-Karabakh that matter. Rather, it is Ukraine, with its territorial size, population, economic potential and most of all geographic position, that is at the centre of Russian geopolitical thinking.
It is geopolitical, but for Vladimir Putin it is also deeply personal, as he has witnessed many defeats in Ukraine since the early 2000s, when pro-Western politicians undermined Moscow’s influence. For Putin, Ukraine is an inseparable part of the Slavic heartland and the historical birthplace of the first Rus’ state, calling upon him to re-establish Russian influence. Those who believed that Russia got most of what it wanted in 2014 by annexing Crimea and instigating separatism in Donbas miss the wider picture. Ukraine is not Georgia or Moldova, which can remain pro-Western while Russia is happy to simply wait, watching and relishing the internal troubles of these small countries. Even if successful, they would not pose a significant challenge to Russia, either militarily or economically. Their potentially successful democratic development is unlikely to serve as a model for Russians to follow.
But with Ukraine it is a different story. First, Moscow may fear that Ukraine is slowly but steadily turning into a more organised state with a functioning military and a rather more agile economy than it had before 2014. The emerging consensus in Moscow could be that wearing down Ukraine will lead nowhere, and that the gap between the two countries will continue to narrow. Moreover, Russian actions in Crimea and Donbas did not derail Ukraine’s pro-Western tilt. And while NATO/EU membership prospects remain distant, growing military cooperation with NATO member states casts a shadow on Moscow’s hopes of seeing an internally destabilised Ukrainian military.
Ukraine in Russian Actions
There is thus an urgency with which the Russian political class discusses Ukraine. Both Putin and former president Dimitry Medvedev have penned scathingly adversarial articles on Ukraine, filled with mistaken historical facts and narratives. They sounded personal. Yet the articles reflected a new sense of urgency regarding the need to find a solution to the Ukraine problem. Medvedev went even further in his article, seeing no point in negotiating with the current Ukrainian government, which he believes is controlled by the West. The pieces showed that Russia has lost interest in negotiations and that a different set of moves will likely be enacted.
This went along with the Kremlin increasing funding for the Donbas and pledging humanitarian support to the population of the rebel-controlled regions, thus facilitating trade between Russia and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. Moscow also allowed the population to take part in Russia’s recent elections. In the latest move, on 15 November, Putin issued a decree which removed barriers to trade between the Russian-occupied regions and Russia proper.
And the momentum now is with Moscow. Putin has settled the Belarus problem, at least for now – the country is increasingly dependent on Russia, thus killing off any ideas of a diversified foreign policy that Minsk entertained before 2020. Turning against Ukraine at this exact moment makes sense.
Moreover, it is also important to consider the wider Eurasian picture to see the momentum behind Putin’s moves. The China–US competition and the resulting recalibration of Washington’s foreign policy away from parts of western Eurasia and towards the Indo-Pacific region makes the US less willing to commit militarily in the Middle East. The wider Black Sea region could be another area where the extent of Western commitments is unclear; Putin is also testing this possibility.
Thus, a range of favourable geopolitical circumstances, coupled with personal ambitions motivated by past failures and the historical ambitions of the ruling Russian political elite, have created a momentum for persistent military moves along Ukraine’s borders. This, however, raises the question of what Moscow’s real aims are this time.
A full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine would be self-defeating. It is true that Ukraine is largely flat, facilitating freer movement, but it is also vast, meaning that rolling tanks into Kyiv could be easier than retaining and controlling the newly acquired territory.
A second argument against a full-scale military campaign is that in all its military campaigns since the early 2000s, Russia has been deeply pragmatic, with a clear set of achievable goals for each endeavour. The invasion of Georgia secured military bases in and control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia and prevented Tbilisi from joining NATO. In 2014, Russian invaded Ukraine partly because it feared NATO expansion, but primarily in order to prevent a potential loss of access to military facilities in Crimea. The venture in Syria was motivated by the potential loss of the Khmeimim military base. None of these major military campaigns involved a full-scale invasion to occupy as much land as possible. Rather, military tools were used to achieve concrete geopolitical goals with tangible immediate results, while possibly hoping for further long-term success.
Therefore, while a potential military move deep into Ukraine by Russia cannot be negated entirely and is much more possible now than in previous years, a limited incursion in order to achieve a concrete political result is more probable. This would most likely be an agreement from Kyiv on decentralisation, which would essentially prevent the country from entering Western military and economic institutions.
Yet another constraint on Russian military moves is greater Western support for Kyiv. On 10 November, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned the Kremlin against a major military move. Furthermore, a US–Ukraine charter on strategic partnership was signed on 11 November, further underlining the fact that Washington could provide more serious support to Kyiv.
Part of US Defence Perimeter?
There is a distinct Russian threat to Ukraine, but no clear solution as to what should be done to prevent a potential showdown. Various ideas have circulated recently, ranging from full-scale US support for Ukraine to Washington essentially making Kyiv comply with the 2015 Minsk agreement. The implementation of the latter would involve decentralisation, giving Donbas a critical vote on the country’s foreign policy.
Yet neither is realistic enough to produce long-term stability. Through the implementation of the 2015 agreement, Russia would gain a freer hand to destabilise Ukraine, which could lead to its internal fracturing. US military commitments, meanwhile, will not be sufficient unless Washington chooses to see Ukraine as a part of its defence perimeter.
A third way could be more beneficial. Based on strategies the US pursues elsewhere in Eurasia, Washington could help to build a web of partnerships between the Black Sea states and, perhaps, Poland in order to help Ukraine. The US could act as an external anchor. It does this with AUKUS and the QUAD, and is likely to increasingly rely upon allies and partners rather than pursuing direct military involvement. This would still require a significant US commitment. Washington is understandably hesitant, but it could place an emphasis on fostering critical partnerships in the wider Black Sea region. Managing and improving relations with Ankara would give freer access to the US military in the Black Sea. Encouraging Turkey–Ukraine military cooperation with some elements of US involvement could be a cornerstone for building capabilities and serve as a block against Russia. The strategy should be ensuring that Russia will see potentially grave consequences if a decision for a major military move is made. This will obviously take time, and Russia will ramp up the pressure so as to cause a war scare.
But the policy could pay off, especially since Turkey and Ukraine have already entered a fruitful cooperation. Recent use of Turkish drones in eastern Ukraine against Russian military technology unnerved Moscow. Moreover, the Turkish company Baykar Defence will build a plant in Ukraine for the production of Bayraktar TB2 drones. The cooperation also involves constructing a centre for their testing and maintenance, as well as personnel training.
But most of all, Turkey and Ukraine could work on building naval cooperation, as both are hostile to Russian moves which overturned the balance of power in the sea following the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
It is thus naïve to believe the Kremlin has acquiesced to the existing status quo in Ukraine. Quite the opposite – the Ukraine issue is back on the agenda in Moscow and indeed remains a sore point in the Russian leadership’s attempts to build a near-exclusive sphere of influence in its neighborhood.
Presently, a military move by Moscow is very much possible, especially in the light of recent coordinated efforts by the Kremlin to stir anxiety over Ukraine’s fate. But the Kremlin cannot be as irrational as many believe it to be. For the moment, Russia seems to be less concerned with potential immediate Western support for Ukraine, but rather with what it can achieve in a military campaign in a vast country. The likely scenario is a small-scale, targeted campaign, which will put pressure on Kyiv to make some concessions regarding the 2015 Minsk agreement. The solution to the Ukrainian problem for Moscow seems to lie in decentralising the neighbouring country.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution. This article first appeared at RUSI.