Earlier this week, Russia claimed that it was reducing its troop presence around Ukraine after concluding military exercises. However, intelligence sources revealed that Russian President Vladimir Putin had in fact sent 7000 additional troops, in both Russian-backed Belarus in the Ukrainian north, as well as in Crimea in the southeast. With this, Ukraine is now reported to be surrounded on three sides by 190,000 Russian troops. In addition, Russian backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine have started shelling schools and other buildings on the Ukrainian side.
Weeks ago, the US had warned the world about a ‘manufactured’ crisis in Eastern Ukraine that Putin might use as a pretext for invasion. Putin can claim that ethnic Russians in Donbas are under threat and require Russian protection. With this recent development, the US claims are now taking shape.
So, the question on everyone’s mind now is whether Russia is making final preparations to invade. To answer that, we must consider one fundamental question. Is war, rather than the threat of war, more beneficial for Russian interests? The answer to that question is no. An actual invasion will be a massive failure of Russian foreign policy.
Putin is a seasoned strategist. He has tactfully used his globally cultivated negative image to make moves along the border and send the world into a frenzy. By edging closer and closer to war, Putin has cashed in war hysteria to seek concessions. He is giving off the impression that diplomacy is working by telling the world his troops are retreating, while at the same time staying war ready and not giving up leverage that he will further use as a negotiating tactic.
Putin’s strategy seems to be working so far. As a solution to the crisis, President Emmanuel Macron of France suggested ‘Finlandization’ of Ukraine. This term refers back to the 1948 treaty by which Finland agreed to stay out of NATO in return for the guarantee by Moscow that it would be safe from invasion. To this day, Finland has stayed out of NATO. If implemented, Macron’s proposal will give Putin the major concession that Ukraine will never join NATO. Even if the proposal is not implemented, it sends the signal that Europe is prepared to give any concession necessary to avert war. It plays perfectly into Putin’s hands.
The threat of invasion has also created a rift between the US, Europe and Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has blamed the US for unreasonably sounding the alarm and creating an atmosphere of panic. Ukraine is used to Russian aggression and does not take every Putin antic as a threat. Zelensky also wants to prevent foreign investors from pulling out of Ukraine. As a result, he has been critical of the US approach.
As a solution to the crisis, President Emmanuel Macron of France suggested ‘Finlandization’ of Ukraine. This term refers back to the 1948 treaty by which Finland agreed to stay out of NATO in return for the guarantee by Moscow that it would be safe from invasion.
Europe has also been critical. A Russian invasion of Ukraine will topple the European security order. It will also create a large number of refugees and higher energy costs. They are not willing to deal with these ramifications. As a result, critics in Europe have a vested interest in trying to avert war and think Biden’s approach of sounding the alarm will actually worsen the crisis.
Putin disapproves of the post-Soviet era security structure led by the US and aims to weaken this alliance by sowing discord. By threatening war and creating disagreements between Western leaders over foreign policy, he is succeeding in that aim. By actually invading, Putin will undermine this by uniting the Western alliance over the singular goal of countering Russia and eliminating them from Ukraine. He will give up his leverage and concessions will then be off the table.
Putin also knows that war will hurt Russia economically. Europe is heavily dependent on Russian gas to meet its energy demands, for which Ukraine is a key transit country. As a result of this crisis, they are now looking beyond Russia to meet its energy needs. Just take Germany for example. Two-thirds of the gas burned in Germany last year came from Russia. They have built a 746 miles pipeline called Nord Stream 2 that flows from St. Petersburg, Russia to north-eastern Germany. By doing this, they have tightened their relationship with Russia over energy.
However, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said last month that he will consider the severest of penalties against the pipeline if Russia invaded Ukraine. In addition, the country is considering building an LNG terminal as well as investing heavily in renewable sources of energy. All of these measures indicate that as part of their future vision, Germany is aiming to reduce their reliance on Russian gas and to diversify the sources from which they fulfil their energy needs. The rest of Europe will also follow suit.
There are two factors that do play in favour of a Russian invasion. Firstly, sanctions will hurt Europe more than they hurt Russia. Over-reliance on Russian gas has placed Europe in a precarious position. While threatening penalties and diversification, Europe is still highly dependent on the import of fossil fuels, most of which comes from Russia. In addition, if the pipeline is prevented from going into operation, Germany could be liable for damages to the companies involved, which could run as high as €40 billion. As a result, sanctions may end up hurting Europe more than they hurt Russia.
Secondly, Putin also has a long-standing friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping who has supported Russia in these times. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Xi stood by Putin in minimising the impact of US and European sanctions. Now, China is one of the biggest purchasers of Russian weapons, fish and timber. They are also the largest importer of Russia’s crude oil. However, China never formally recognized the annexation of Crimea and is unlikely to support a war now, as sanctions against Russia will also be heavily felt in China.
Despite Europe’s reliance on Russian gas and Putin’s friendship with Xi, war is still not feasible for Putin. The Russian economy currently is not doing well. Domestically, Putin’s hand is weak. Invasion will bring a host of penalties and sanctions on different sectors, most importantly the Russian banks. This will create further discontentment amongst the Russian public. By invading Ukraine, Putin will make a weak hand weaker. By not invading, he can use the threat of invasion as a political advantage.
Most importantly, an invasion will create an enormous backlash from the Ukrainian public. The annexation of Crimea and the events surrounding it are still fresh in people’s minds. In 2013, Ukraine was close to signing a trade agreement with Europe to lock it in with a Western alliance. However, pro-Russian president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, backed out of the deal — leading to a resistance movement now known as the Revolution of Dignity. Protesters gathered in the Independence Square in Kiev were dispersed by riot police leading to the deaths of over one hundred civilians. While protesters were eventually able to drive Yanukovych out of power, Putin struck back and annexed Crimea.
Today the Revolution of Dignity stands as an ugly reminder of Russian aggression. Memorials have sprung up across Ukraine remembering the civilians who were killed as heroes. Businesses have cut ties with Russia and created new ones with Europe. Former Russian army members are openly vowing to fight against Russia if they were to invade. More Ukrainians now, than at any other time in their history, think Ukraine should join NATO.
By trying to ensure Ukraine stays out of the Western alliance, Putin has pushed Ukraine closer to the West. His actions have led to the formation of a strong Ukrainian identity trying to break from its Soviet past. Some analysts believe Putin refuses to acknowledge the strength of anti-Russian sentiment that exists in Ukraine. For someone of Putin’s astuteness, that is unlikely to be the case. He knows that in the event of an invasion, Ukrainian public will fight back.
With 190,000 troops amassed at the Ukrainian border, a lot can go wrong. Russia is sending a host of false signals. The slightest misinterpretation of these signals can thrust the world into the biggest war since WWII. According to some estimates, it could lead to 25 to 50 thousand civilian deaths in Ukraine, 5 to 25 thousand deaths amongst the Ukrainian military, 3 to 10 thousand amongst the Russian military, in addition to creating an influx of millions of refugees across Europe. The US has already deployed thousands of troops in Poland and Romania to deal with such a possible refugee crisis.
With all that being said, Putin has surprised the world many times in the past. Intelligence analysts have made entire careers out of guessing his next move. None can predict with certainty whether he will actually invade. But one thing is certain – the threat of war, rather than war itself, is more beneficial for Russian interests. A calculated guess at this stage says he is bluffing. But only time can tell for sure.