24 January 2022   2 comments

The US and its European allies are trying to forge an effective stance to persuade Russia to draw down its estimated 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian borders. Today, the US put 8,500 troops on “active alert” pending a decision to send them to Eastern European NATO members such as Poland and the Baltic states. I hope that the alert status is simply part of a bluff to send a message to Russian President Putin that there is a possible NATO military response to any Russian invasion of Ukraine. It would be a serious mistake to send those troops in advance of any Russian military action since a premature deployment would only heighten the Russian sense of insecurity. Additionally, any actual deployment of troops should be contingent on clear Russian military action, and not in response to a cyber attack or guerilla activity by Ukrainian forces loyal to Russia.

I remain convinced that neither Russia or the US wish military action in Ukraine, but both sides are making it difficult to defuse the situation. The Russians have already scheduled military exercises with Belarus which neighbors Ukraine from the north and Belarus has very strong ties with Russia and is dependent on Russia for economic support. But the Russians have been satisfied with keeping the situation just below boil since its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and, despite the military build-up along the border, an outright invasion of Ukraine seems inconsistent with Russian military strategy. And the Russians have already encircled most of Ukraine, as the map below suggests.

The Russian demands are also simply not credible. The demands are described by The New York Times: “Russia’s central demands include a guarantee that NATO will not expand eastward or allow former Soviet states like Ukraine to join, and a withdrawal of the alliance’s forces and weaponry from all the countries, such as Poland and the Baltic republics, that joined it after 1997.” Putin is a realist and knows that the US and NATO could never agree to these demands and that an invasion of Ukraine would only bind the members of NATO tighter together.

As I suggested in the post on 2 December, Putin sincerely believes that Ukraine is historically part of Russia and the long-standing interest in Ukrainian agricultural land is a powerful incentive for close Russian ties with Ukraine. But an outright invasion of Ukraine would render Russia a pariah state for most other states in the world and the subjugation of the Ukrainian population would be extremely difficult. Alexey Muraviev makes a persuasive argument:

“Back in 2014, Russia had a better chance to invade and occupy more of Ukraine beyond Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Lugansk regions. Then, the Ukrainian military had almost no effective fighting capacity: under trained and poorly equipped, morale was at an all-time low. The majority of senior and middle ranking Ukrainian officers were the product of Soviet defence educational establishments, many with at best neutral sentiments towards Moscow, and some willing to change sides (as happened in Crimea).

“In 2022, the situation is different. The Ukrainian army has been recalibrated to confront a hostile Russia. The officer corps was cleansed of pro-Russia sympathisers. Individual and unit training as well as exercise activity intensified, with some equipment acquired. Many soldiers have gained combat experience in eastern Ukraine.

“This is not to say that the Ukrainian army could expect to repel the Russian offensive. The larger, better trained and technologically advanced Russian force would sweep through rapidly, particularly after gaining air superiority and control of the battle space. However, a military success on the ground may turn out to be a loss in the longer-term. Eight years of confrontation has transformed Ukrainian attitudes towards their eastern neighbour. The Russians are likely to encounter cool reception from locals with the majority considering Russia to be hostile.

“Based on its Crimean experience, Moscow would have to commit an astronomical amount of resources as part of the post-war reconstruction, which the Kremlin would find especially challenging, particularly in the face of promised severe sanctions. “

The more difficult situation for the US and NATO are non-military actions by Russia to undermine the Ukrainian government. The options available to Russia are numerous and calibrating effective responses is very difficult. But those difficulties should be left to the Department of State and not the Department of Defense. For now, avoiding a military conflict should be President Biden’s highest priority.

Posted January 24, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

2 responses to “24 January 2022

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  1. As always – appreciate your perspective and writing. Two questions, feel free to answer one, both, or neither:

    I was not alive during the cold war so I’m curious -how does this tension compare to back then? Obviously the stakes this time are not nuclear war and thus inherently lesser, but does the arm-wrestling match seem similar to you? Furthermore, how does it compare, in your gut, to the tension back in 2014?

    If Russia were to invade – how do you see that playing out? Would it bit a quick flare, and then a ceasefire to negotiation – or would it be a domino effect?

    Thank you.


  2. It is hard to replicate the tensions of the Cold War, particularly the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis. So I do not think we are in the similar situation. But any time there are massed troops at a border, the dangers of conflict are high. As I said in my post, I do not believe that the US or Russia are interested in a face-to-face conflict. But there are always miscalculations when there are so many moving parts. The tensions are similar to the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the takeover of Crimea in 2014, but the US/NATO response thus far is far more robust than in 2014, so the dangers are greater.
    A Russian invasion would trigger a strong Ukrainian response and a long, drawn-out guerilla war. There is probably no likelihood at all of a quick Russian victory, but the Russians might seize some territory and then declare a cease-fire. But the Ukrainian government would not agree.
    Thanks for your questions.

    Liked by 1 person

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