Analyzing the Evidence: Will Russia Invade Ukraine?
Rob LeeForeign Policy Research Institute
Lee supports in a detail analysis for FPRI that a ground invasion of Ukraine is likely because, over the past year, the Kremlin has come to regard its neighbor “as a permanently hostile country” which has increased both its military capabilities and its defense cooperation with NATO in a way that poses long-term security risks for Russia. Moscow – unable to force Ukraine into military neutrality and deter Kiev, the US and NATO from adopting what it sees as “anti-Russian” policies – has changed its approach “to deterrence under duress”. In Lee’s view, Moscow’s cost-benefit analysis likely suggests that “significant military escalation…would be less costly today than in the future if Ukraine continues to build up its military capabilities.”
Lee describes several factors that have changed Moscow’s perception of the threat. One was Russia’s dashed hopes of achieving its security goals through improved relations with President Volodymyr Zelensky, elected in 2019. A key step would have been a negotiated solution to the eight-year-old conflict in the eastern Ukraine on favorable terms in Moscow. But Kyiv backed away from pledges made in 2019 and 2020 that would have bolstered the political legitimacy of Russian-backed separatists, and last spring went up against Ukraine’s most prominent pro-Putin politician, Viktor Medvedchuk— by shutting down his three television channels and placing him under house arrest. In impassioned remarks to his Security Council, Putin hinted that Ukraine was turning, “slowly but surely, into…an anti-Russia.”
Moscow’s fears were probably exacerbated by NATO as well support for Kyiv. Lee specifically mentions a $2.3 billion Anglo-Ukrainian deal for the joint production of missiles and other naval weapons, as well as strategic defense agreements with the United States, not to mention tens of millions of dollars in US military aid. Similarly, NATO member Turkey supplied Ukraine with combat drones which, while unmatched by the Russian armed forces in a full-scale war, could have been a game-changer in Kiev’s struggle. against the separatists. Putin and other Russian officials have also sounded the alarm on the prospect of long-range missiles based in Ukraine, which could reach Moscow in minutes.
Russia’s previous military buildup near Ukraine in April was a shot across the arc, writes Lee. But this show of force failed to deter Ukraine’s defense modernization, NATO support for Kiev, or Zelensky’s reprehensible policies. Now Moscow”may see military force as his last resort to change what he sees as an unacceptable status quo.
Lee focuses more than most analysts on the details of Russia’s objectives, military options and military capabilities — not surprisingly for a former marines officer working on a doctorate in war studies. Goals and options are clearly linked: “The more ambitious the goal, the more force it takes to change the cost-benefit calculation of Kiev and NATO. If Russia aims to impose constitutional changes on Ukraine or a modified version of the Minsk Accords, he argues, it will need a ground invasion or “extensive use of fire” that could threaten the survival of the Ukrainian state. The objective would be to impose unacceptable costs on Ukraine — destroying military units, inflicting casualties, taking prisoners of war or degrading Ukraine’s ability to defend itself — and alter Zelensky’s incentive structure enough to induce painful concessions. For this, writes Lee, the most likely Russian offensive option would be a ground operation, mainly east of the Dnieper, possibly including a planned withdrawal in just a week or two. Land around Kyiv could be occupied in the blink of an eye for Russia’s demands to be met. Such an operation would keep Russian troops out of towns and thus reduce the risk of civilian casualties and effective insurrection. Lee also discusses less ambitious options, noting that they would likely be supported by hybrid means, such as cyberwarfare and electronic warfare systems. “The problem with these more limited options,” he writes, “is that they probably wouldn’t solve Russia’s main problem: a hostile Ukraine increasing its conventional deterrent capabilities. A more aggressive option is therefore more likely.
By examining the “current posture of Russian forces”, Lee concludes that not only are they better positioned now than in the spring for a major offensive, but “the scope of this deployment of ground combat power is unprecedented for post-Soviet Russia. “. Some of the troops, weapons and other materials moved to Ukraine’s northern border are heading to Belarus, where Russia says it will hold joint military exercises.
A significant military escalation in Ukraine, however, may not happen immediately. Like Kofman, Sherman and others, Lee mentions the Olympics: The planned exercises with Belarus are to end on February 20, the same day as the closing ceremony. In addition, equipment is still on the way from the Russian Far East. Once he arrives, however, “preparedness costs” will likely force Moscow to decide whether to use force in the coming months.
Samuel Charap, Edward Geist et al., RAND Corporation
In a RAND report on Russian military interventions, the authors analyze 25 interventions that Moscow has undertaken since 1991 in an attempt to identify their drivers, patterns and “signposts”. The report was released in September 2021, before the current buildup at the Ukrainian border. Nevertheless, when its four main conclusions are compared with some of the evidence given above and elsewhere, the results suggest that an invasion is more likely than not.
- “Changes on the ground in post-Soviet Eurasia that create an external threat or the perception of a rapid change in the regional balance or status of Russia in a manner contrary to Moscow’s interests should be considered as potential triggers for military action Moscow will not hesitate to act, including with force, in its immediate vicinity.
Clearly, Ukraine is in “post-Soviet Eurasia”. Some of the threatening changes that Russia has perceived in its security status vis-à-vis Ukraine and NATO are described above. Other analysts, including Carnegie’s Dmitri Trenin, pointed out that prior to the current Russian reinforcement, NATO had “increased the scale and frequency of its military exercises in the Black Sea region”. Also, in September, (around the period ohf the publication of the report, in this case) Kiev has launched joint military exercises with the United States and other NATO countries in western Ukraine, and members of Congress have called for more security assistance from Ukraine and to more US troops on NATO’s eastern flank in Poland, Romania and the Baltic states.
- “Russia appears to be acting in a manner consistent with the desire to avoid losses to the regional checks and balances. Moscow intervened when it perceived that regional balances were moving away from a status quo favorable to Russian interests. U.S. planners should consider future potential large (perceived) losses to Russia as potential signals for military action.
Again, the abandonment of a Russian-friendly status quo is described above.
- “Although Russia intervenes in some cases in response to exogenous shocks, it often openly signals its interests and even its red lines. Prior to the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, Moscow had made it clear that it anticipated the need for action after the NATO summit in Bucharest. With Ukraine, Russia had made it clear for years that it would react to perceived Western encroachment. Although Russian leaders have frequently spouted untruths about their country’s actions and interests, there are real signals in the noise.
At the 2008 Bucharest summit, NATO pledged to accept both Ukraine and Georgia as members for the indefinite future – a decision urged by President George W. Bush. Two months before the summit, William Burns – then US ambassador to Russia, now head of the CIA –urged the administration to reconsider, writing in a declassified memo a decade later that, if Washington pushes for it, “Russia will respond. The prospect of a subsequent Russian-Georgian armed conflict would be high. … This will create fertile ground for Russian interference in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.”
- “Russia’s only combat intervention beyond post-Soviet Eurasia – Syria – does not appear to set the stage for a series of similar interventions. The success of the intervention in Syria may have made leaders more likely to consider undertaking an expeditionary intervention, but there still remain significant logistical challenges for the Russian military beyond post-Eurasia. Soviet.