There’s little doubt that the military build-up would allow for a large-scale attack on Ukraine, should Putin decide to make such a move in the New Year, but Western nations are puzzled by the Kremlin’s intentions.
London: American intelligence has revealed a huge build-up of more than 100,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, which they believe are possible preparations by Moscow to invade their neighbour from multiple locations as early as January next year. Airstrikes, artillery and armour attacks involving about 100 battalion tactical groups would quickly be followed by airborne assaults in the east, amphibious assaults in Odessa and Mariupul and a smaller incursion through neighbouring Belarus, according to the Ukrainian head of defence intelligence. Brig Gen Dudanov told the Military Times last week that Russia’s large scale Zapad 21 military exercise earlier this year proved that they could drop upwards of 3,500 airborne and special operations troops at once. There are also reports that Moscow has called up tens of thousands of reservists on a scale unprecedented in post-Soviet times. In Kiev’s view, the anticipated attack by Russia would be far more devastating than anything before seen in the conflict that began in 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and supported the independence of the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass, a war which so far has seen more than 14,000 Ukrainians killed.
President Putin has a history of brinkmanship and earlier build-ups on Ukraine’s border have come to nothing. But this time developments appear to be more threatening, even though in a speech last week, Putin said that his goal was to keep the US and its allies on edge. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Friday that Moscow is plotting a coup in Ukraine on 1 December, a claim swiftly denied by Moscow. Zelenskiy later confirmed that his troops were in full control of the country’s borders and stood ready for any escalation by Vladimir Putin.
There’s little doubt that the military build-up would allow for a large-scale attack on Ukraine, should Putin decide to make such a move in the New Year, but Western nations are puzzled by the Kremlin’s intentions. A full-blown war would not only be tragic for Ukraine and potentially ruinous for Russia, it would also create the deepest security crisis for NATO’s easternmost members on Ukraine’s doorstep since they joined the alliance two decades ago. If Moscow intends its menacing military build-up merely to garner negotiating leverage over Kiev, western acquiescence risks prompting Russian challenges to NATO’s eastern flank, which in turn could leave the alliance a brutal choice between honouring its collective defence commitment to those members or war with Russia. A frightening prospect.
Some analysts see a strategic link between events which have happened in recent months: the anti-satellite test, which blasted a Russian satellite into thousands of pieces; Kiev’s crackdown on pro-Russian media and politicians; Germany’s delay in approving the recently completed Nord Stream-2 pipeline (which would give Russia control over 40% of Europe’s gas); and Kiev’s persistent knocking on NATO’s door with the hope of joining. They noted how “panic-stricken and confused” was the West’s response to Moscow’s proven ability to debilitate America’s vital and vulnerable satellite constellations at the outset of any aggressive action against Ukraine. This, they argue, would allow Putin some confidence that he can get the West to stay out of his way long enough for him to achieve his aim of reuniting Ukraine with Russia. After all, apart from some sanctions, the West did nothing when Putin grabbed Crimea in 2014.
It was in July this year that Vladimir Putin re-stated his firm view that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people—a single whole”. In a 5,000-word article published in July, which read like a declaration of war against Ukrainian independence, he emphasised that “Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus….and are bound together by one language (Old Russian), economic ties….and the Orthodox faith”.
Thirty years ago, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russians living in Ukraine told me that they couldn’t understand why they were now considered to be living in a foreign country. Russians and Ukrainians were “blood brothers”, they said, echoing Putin’s argument.
For the past two years, Moscow has been slowly but steadily issuing Russian passports to more than 650,000 Ukrainians living in the regions of eastern Ukraine currently under Kremlin control. This “passport protectorate” provides the best clue to Moscow’s intentions, following Putin’s deputy chief of staff Dmitry Kozak’s warning in April this year that Russia “would be forced to come to the defence of Russian citizens in eastern Ukraine”. Later he added that the resumption of large-scale military operations by Kiev would signal “the beginning of the end of Ukraine”, confirming the widely held fears that Russia would use its newly minted citizens in eastern Ukraine to justify a military invasion of the country.
So, if Russia formally annexed the Donbas region and then advanced further into Ukraine in the New Year, would there be any military response by the western democracies? Probably not. The reaction of both France and Germany to the new phase of Russian aggression has been to threaten harsher sanctions, not military action. Germany is undergoing a complex generational change in political leadership following the elections held two months ago. France’s Emmanuel Macron is facing a tough re-election campaign next year and there is little chance that he would currently risk military action in defence of Ukraine. In any case, as Ukraine is not a member of NATO, there is no possibility of protection from NATO’s Article 5.
The key, of course, would be Washington’s response to any Russian invasion. The US has been supplying Ukraine this year with a range of weapons, including Javelin anti-tank missiles. It’s also helping Ukraine to re-build its naval power as Russia seized much of its navy following the annexation of Crimea. This summer, Washington approved the sale of 16 Mark V1 patrol boats and other equipment as part of a $2.5 billion package of assistance to Ukraine. Having dropped earlier plans to send destroyers into the Black Sea due to concerns about escalating tensions with Russia, the Pentagon in June this year launched a military exercise off southern Ukraine, Sea Breeze 2021, involving more than 30 countries, ignoring Moscow’s call to cancel the drills. Despite all this, it’s unlikely that the US would send troops to support Ukraine in the event of an attack by Russia. America is war-weary following the disaster of Afghanistan, and public opinion would not support another foreign venture involving its troops.
President Putin has probably calculated that any invasion of Ukraine would only involve Russian and Ukrainian boots on the ground, and in this scenario Russia would be the clear winner. Putin will have achieved his aim of halting Ukraine’s closer embrace with the West before it progresses any further, although Russian troops would face strong public resistance in Kiev and other cities. Because of this, Putin might decide to halt his incursion at the river Dnieper, splitting Ukraine into two halves, occupying only the industrial “Russian” eastern half and creating a new state which would be given the Czarist-era name, “New Russia”.
Unwilling to take any military action, the West would inevitably resort to its only weapon, further sanctions. The Kremlin fully understands that any attempt to occupy large amounts of Ukrainian territory would trigger sweeping sanctions that could batter the Russian economy. Washington confirmed last week that it is working on a package of measures and a menu of options which will be put to NATO members within weeks, with the aim of steering Putin away from further aggression on Ukraine. President Biden declined to specify what might be included, but with heavy sanctions already on many parts of the Russian economy, including its defence and finance sectors, one area left to attack might be energy.
These threats are unlikely to deter President Putin, who regards the Western world as weak and sees the current situation as a window of opportunity for Russia. Many in Moscow also see the present geopolitical conditions as favourable, confident that the West has no appetite for confrontation following the underwhelming response in recent years to repeated Russian acts of aggression. In this climate, attempts to appease Putin will only serve to further convince Russia of Western weakness and encourage additional Kremlin adventurism. Few predicted in 2014 that Russia would seize Crimea and push into eastern Ukraine, changing Europe’s borders and creating a conundrum for the West. For the unprepared, history has a nasty habit of repeating itself.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.