Russia’s war drums are beating… Does Russia really intend to invade Ukraine?

Introduction to translation

In their article published in Foreign Affairs, authors Michael Kimmage and Michael Kaufman discuss Russia’s military preparations on Ukraine’s borders, and whether Moscow is really preparing to use hard force and invade a European country again. The authors argue that given Moscow’s threatened interests in Ukraine and its desire to establish itself as a geopolitical player, in conjunction with the decline of American deterrence, the prospects of war may not be far away.

translation text

The harbinger of a Russian military attack in Ukraine looms this winter, as Moscow has reinforced the presence of its forces along the Ukrainian border over the past months, allowing it to pave the way for a military operation that will resolve the political deadlock in Ukraine in its favour. Although Russian President “Vladimir Putin” used to brandish the use of tools of force in the exhibition of diplomacy, Moscow seems to be doing more than brandishing this time. If the parties to the crisis do not reach an agreement, the flames of conflict may flare up again on a much larger scale.

Let us ask why Putin would risk turning the tables geopolitically and economically, when he benefits from maintaining the regional status quo. Russia seized Crimea in 2014 in one of Europe’s largest land grabs since World War II. And when the West imposed sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, it left no deep scars. Russia’s overall economy remains stable. At the same time, Moscow continues to hold the European energy market through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will reinforce Germany’s dependence on Russian natural gas, and the pipeline appears to be on its way to operation despite several legal obstacles. Currently, there are talks for strategic stability between them. Presidents Putin and Biden met last June in the midst of their efforts to build a more understandable relationship for the two countries.

However, from under that calm surface, there is a path that takes Russia and Ukraine towards a renewed unresolved conflict between them, which could redraw the map of Europe once again, and spoil Washington’s efforts to rationalize its relationship with Russia. Moscow has been losing political influence in Ukraine year after year, as the government in Kiev took a decisive stand against Russian demands last year, signaling that it would not bow in order to reconcile its relations with Putin. As for the European countries, they seem supportive of the Ukrainian position, at a time when Kiev has expanded its security cooperation with Russia’s European and American competitors.

Simultaneously, Moscow has rebuilt its financial position since the adoption of Western sanctions in 2014, and it has in its possession $620 billion in foreign exchange reserves, and it has significant influence over Europe this year in particular, given the high gas prices and the expected shortage of energy supplies. As Russia’s confidence grows politically and economically, Washington’s attention and resources to competition with China may have convinced Putin that Ukraine is now a spot of marginal importance to the United States.

Russia’s leaders have declared that they are fed up with diplomacy, and that they see Ukraine’s increasing integration with the United States and NATO as something they cannot tolerate, and therefore the stage is set for Moscow to reset the balance by force, unless it reaches a peaceful solution to the crisis with Washington and Kiev.

war drums

Russia’s military position now does not suggest that an invasion is imminent, and perhaps Moscow has not yet made the political decision to launch a military operation. However, Russian military activity in the past months far exceeds its usual training cycle, as military units have moved thousands of kilometers to the Western Military District bordering Ukraine, and the rest of the military branches from the Caucasus have sent their units to Crimea. These are not routine exercises, but rather a clear effort to redistribute units and equipment for possible military action.

What has changed over the past year to bring those changes with it? First, Russia’s strategy in Ukraine has not yielded an acceptable political solution. After an election campaign in which he expressed an openness to dialogue with Russia, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky turned the tables on the possibility of reaching a solution with Russia a year ago in a way that dashed the latter’s hopes that it would achieve its goals through diplomacy. Talks between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France reached a dead end, and Moscow no longer saw a way to escape from Western sanctions, and then political and diplomatic efforts in this regard were scattered, while Moscow knew for sure that it had previously achieved its goal when it took the path of force.

At the same time, Ukraine has deepened its partnerships with the United States, Britain and the rest of NATO, and Washington has provided lethal military support to the Ukrainian army, which is a thorn in the back of Moscow, which has slowly changed its position from considering Ukraine’s membership in NATO a red line to rejecting the growing structural defense cooperation Between Ukraine and the West in whole. The Russian leadership has stated its position, using the strongest terms over the past year, and warned of its red lines in Ukraine, without seeing a serious response from the United States to its rhetoric. In October 2021, Putin noted that Ukraine, although it did not obtain official membership in NATO, “its military development on the ground is already underway, and poses a threat to Russia.”

Most likely, these are not just words. The Russian leadership does not see the prospect of a diplomatic solution, and thinks that Ukraine is gradually being drawn into the American security orbit, and perhaps it believes for this reason that war is inevitable. Russian leaders are sure that the use of force will not be easy or without consequences, but they see Ukraine on an unacceptable path, and therefore their options are limited to save their previously existing policy. tomorrow.

Closed door of diplomacy

Although Zelensky, the current president of Ukraine, nominated himself pledging to open the door to negotiations with Russia and attempt to initiate diplomatic dialogue, he changed course in 2020.

Russia scored a bizarre victory during its 2014-2015 attack on Ukraine, imposing cease-fires unfavorable to Kiev. The Ukrainian army has developed a lot since then, but its Russian counterpart has also developed, and the margin of Russian quantitative and qualitative superiority remains wide. However, Russia’s success on the battlefield has not translated into diplomatic success since, as the “Minsk Protocol” that resulted in the war proved a losing deal for both sides.

For its part, Ukraine did not regain its sovereignty over its territory, and the United States and its European allies failed to compel Russia to withdraw under the pressure of sanctions, despite their success in avoiding aggravating the conflict between them and a major nuclear power. As for Russia, its influence has steadily diminished since 2015 – apart from the territories it seized or conquered – when Ukraine signed an association agreement with the European Union in 2014, placing it within the European legal system, the same result that Russia sought to prevent. Kiev has pursued its relentless pursuit of NATO membership, and despite its current lack of opportunities to enter the alliance, its cooperation with it has been increasing.

Although Zelensky, the current president of Ukraine, nominated himself pledging to open the door to negotiations with Russia and actually tried to launch a diplomatic dialogue after entering office, he changed his approach in 2020, closed pro-Russian TV stations, and adhered to a strict line in rejecting Russian demands, and placing his country on The path toward “euro-Atlantic integration,” the term US diplomats insist on using to describe Ukraine’s strategic kiss away from Russia. Although the fighting subsided in eastern Ukraine after 2016, the conflict was simmering on the back burner, which in fact concealed an unstable situation on the European continent.

Russia and the United States, whose spheres of influence overlap in Eastern Europe, are at odds with what Washington calls a “strategic rivalry,” but the gulf between American words and actions in Ukraine and other countries opens the door to exploiting that gap before it ends. The Syrian conflict has exposed the waning American resolve regarding its previously stated goal of Assad’s departure. Washington did not bother to confront the Russian military presence, and allowed Moscow to expand its influence throughout the Middle East. At the same time, the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and what provoked French anger over the exclusion of the submarine “Ocos” agreement with Australia, revealed serious problems in coordination between the parties to the Atlantic alliance.

With Washington looking war-weary, Russia wonders whether Washington’s declared political support for Ukraine will be matched by real resolve. And if it appears to Putin that US officials’ support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity is just words – and there is really no evidence that it is not just words – he will proceed unchecked in adjusting the regional balance of power by force. It would be ridiculous for Putin to try to invade all of Ukraine, a huge country of more than 40 million people, but it would not be fanciful for him to seek to split it in half or force a compromise that halts Ukraine’s slide into the Euro-Atlantic orbit.

Russia has long tried to revise its post-Cold War settlements. Moscow’s goal all this time has been to restore a regional order in which Russia and the West have an equal say over security in Europe. It is unlikely that Putin would believe that such a settlement could be achieved through persuasion or traditional diplomacy. As for Russian military action, it could frighten the major European countries enough to accept a new agreement with Moscow, especially since some of those countries see themselves as having occupied a second-class seat. In the American strategy, it prefers to take a position in the middle between China and the United States. Finally, none of this means that such a scenario is actually likely, but it could be the possibility on the minds of Russian leaders now.

Stability from the womb of conflict

The United States can draw two conclusions from the reinforcement of the Russian military presence near Ukraine. The first is that this military move is not only a show of force. The key thing for Washington is to prepare for the possibility of war, to conduct precautionary coordination with its European allies, and to send clear messages to Moscow regarding the dire consequences of launching a military operation. If the United States acts now, it will be able to work with European countries to raise the economic and political costs of Russian military action, and thus reduce the possibility of war.

The failure of a coordinated response to the Russian offensive took a heavy toll on Ukraine in 2014, and it took Russian-backed separatists to shoot down a civilian airliner in July 2014 for Europe to wake up to the gravity of the matter and start imposing sanctions. While Washington would likely want to keep some of its options under the table, it should publicly state the broad lines of its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty over its territory, and do so before a major military conflict erupts. This will need to detail the West’s resolve and red lines in the next few weeks.

Although Victoria Nuland, the US Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs, described the US commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as “iron,” the US has not given Ukraine any formal security commitments to date, not to mention that such statements are eerily similar to political support. Declared for Georgia before the latter’s war with Russia in 2008 (in which Russia seized two provinces from Georgia). Not only will Russia not be deterred by these discredited diplomatic rhetoric, but it will try to undermine the reputation of the United States (to its allies) when Washington appears as an underpowered power.

The second conclusion is that the United States and Europe must be frank about the current diplomatic impasse, whether or not war actually breaks out in the coming months. In any case, Russia is not in a state of geopolitical decline, and Ukraine, in turn, does not intend to reverse its position, and the continuation of the battle for influence in Ukraine will remain an irreparable wound, and will definitely worsen before it heals. This does not negate the importance of searching for a diplomatic solution that reduces the risk of the conflict spiraling out of control.

The ongoing conflict is the single and most prominent source of instability between the Russian and American forces, and the search for a strategic balance between the two poles remains a difficult matter while a conflict is taking place at the same time. However, the competition between the two major nuclear powers has begun to intensify, which makes the search for strategic balance a necessity, not a luxury or a fantasy.


Translation: Noor Khairy

This report is translated from Foreign Affairs It does not necessarily represent the site of Medan.

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