A consensus is beginning to form that a new war in Ukraine has become inevitable. In large measure this is due to the escalation in both rhetoric and military preparedness coming from Moscow. Combined, they create a situation where the costs of retreating for Russia might now be too high. The clout and credibility acquired over the last decade—which people close to the Kremlin applaud as a return to superpower status—would suddenly evaporate were President Vladimir Putin to order the troops amassed on Ukraine’s borders to return home.
At present, it seems very unlikely that the Kremlin will get more than symbolic concessions from Washington, much fewer than it perhaps hopes to get after more concrete tokens of Russian determination. The problem is not just that Washington will never make the kind of commitments about NATO expansion that Russia has demanded, but that most people in the Biden Administration think such commitments are a red herring. Putin is less interested in substantive commitments than in the spectacle of Russian assertiveness and American retreat. A deal would invite further provocations from an emboldened Russian leader. Hence the gloomy forecasts.
The question, were Russia to make a move, is what kind. Kremlin insiders such as longtime foreign policy advisor Sergey Karaganov have downplayed the prospect of an invasion followed by territorial occupation as leading nowhere. “The seizure of Ukraine is not included in our military plans,” he recently said, “if only for the reason that capturing a country with a destroyed infrastructure and an angry population is the worst possible scenario.” Similarly, a document authored by a number of leading Ukrainian military experts argues that “a large-scale offensive operation in an attempt to hold large occupied territories is an adventure that has no chance of a positive outcome for Russia.”
One mooted possibility is an amphibious invasion through the Sea of Azov. Such an operation would not be easy to accomplish. Ukrainian forces have been preparing for just such a scenario since 2014 and would be able to put up sufficient resistance that a Russian invasion would become prohibitively costly, measured in either Russian casualties or the time needed to conclude the hostilities. Russia could always combine a ground invasion with massive air support, but at what cost in civilian lives? As a former European Head of State put it to me this week, “the big question is whether it will be also an air war. If yes, it will be a slaughter. If not, it will not be easy for Russia.”
Putin is certainly aware of the dynamics of public opinion in Western democracies. News of repeated atrocities in Ukraine would lead to the adoption of the most punitive economic sanctions. And then there is the possibility of a Ukrainian insurgency, inevitably supported by the West. In urban areas and in the west of the country, Russian troops and even transport convoys would be subject to isolated but deadly attacks. Sabotage would be another weapon of Ukrainian insurgent groups and even targeted assassinations could not be ruled out. When I talked to a number of security and intelligence officers in Kyiv in 2018, they offered that argument as final reassurance that Russia would not try to invade and occupy further Ukrainian territory, including the famed land bridge connecting the Donbas to Crimea or isolated bridgeheads somewhere on the Black Sea Coast.
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Although militarily less ambitious and therefore less risky than an outright invasion and occupation, other kinds of military intervention might be politically bolder, as the intervention in Syria in 2015 undoubtedly was. One model Putin might be tempted by is the punitive strike. In a way he would be mimicking American practice—as exemplified by the air strikes Bill Clinton ordered against Iraq after it refused to cooperate with weapons inspections—while overturning the existing American monopoly on the use of military power, a monopoly already breached in Syria. The logic of a punitive strike would flow naturally from the ratcheting up of tensions we have seen in recent weeks. New incidents may be manufactured in coming days, after which Putin would address Russia and the world, explaining that he had no alternative but to order a series of air strikes and limited ground operations against targets inside Ukraine, as a way to eliminate a threat against Russian interests. His goal would be to degrade Ukrainian defence capacities, provoke a political crisis in Kyiv and affirm a new precedent for Ukraine and beyond. A symbol of imperial power rather than an ugly battle for territory.
After a humiliating military defeat, Ukrainian President Zelensky might even be ousted by a Moscow-aligned new government in Kyiv, as suggested by revelations from the British Foreign Office over the weekend. And with Ukrainian defenses significantly degraded, Russia would be in a privileged position to launch new hostilities at any time in the future.
If the strikes end after a week or so, and mass civilian casualties are avoided, would they qualify as the kind of “minor incursion” President Biden thinks one could live with? We know European countries remain deeply divided over what level of Russian aggression should trigger sanctions, with Germany even pushing for an energy exemption in proposed dollar sanctions on Russia. Given these constraints, the Western response might be kept within certain limits, but neither Ukraine nor world politics would survive unchanged.
The existing security order in Europe would be broken beyond repair. Europeans would suddenly be living in a world where Russia would have a claim to intervene anywhere in its near abroad or even beyond, any time it felt important interests were at stake. The Russian television anchor Dmitry Kiselyov, known as a reliable Kremlin mouthpiece, explained on air during the past weekend that the current crisis is not about Ukraine: “The scale is much bigger.” He is right, but then the military endgame is unlikely to be the prolonged and costly battle for territorial control over Ukraine—a new Chechnya, as Boris Johnson called it earlier this week—that Western leaders keep warning Moscow about.
The crisis is not about Ukraine but about Russia. If Washington is serious about limiting Russian power, it should focus less on what comes after a Russian attack than on offering Ukraine the tools to defend itself, especially during the initial stages of conflict, when air and standoff missile strikes will be deployed against military bases, power plants, key transportation nodes and other critical infrastructure. A visit to Washington by Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov in November detailed an urgent need for air defense capabilities. Ukraine believes the ability to shoot down Russian aircraft can deter Putin from invading.
We no longer live in the old liberal order where rules must be enforced and violators punished. We live in a new order where power must be balanced with power. The U.S. must reflect on whether it can afford to reduce its presence in Europe before a proper counterweight to Russia has been created in Brussels. The pivot to Asia may need to wait for a solution to the European crisis. As for Europeans, they need to quickly prepare themselves for a new world, where their sovereignty and security may well be at stake.
Economic sanctions may influence how the Kremlin plans its actions in the next few months and years, but they cannot change the underlying dynamics. The existing order is starting to buckle and Washington needs to decide how best to replace it with new arrangements. Does it prefer to reach a grand bargain with Moscow whereby the two powers divide Europe among themselves? Or does it prefer to encourage and support the development of a new European pole capable of balancing Russian power? Should Biden spend the rest of his term in fruitless summits with Putin or should he sit at the table with the European Union and Britain to discuss how Europe can become a sovereign actor in foreign policy and security? To me the choice seems an obvious one, but what is frustrating about the current crisis is how we keep avoiding the larger questions of political order. By hesitating we allow others to assume the role of reformers and innovators. Eurasia, the supercontinent, is being reshaped before our eyes.
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