A Russian Invasion of Ukraine Would Be Utter Catastrophe for All11 min read

 In Analysis, Eastern Europe, Politics
A large-scale, open war between Russia and Ukraine is back on the agenda, and everyone involved is taking it more seriously than ever. Even back in 2014, when the surprise annexation of Crimea and a brutal covert war in the Donbas defied perceptions of what was possible in post-Cold War Europe, one didn’t see wholesale planning for an invasion like we see today. Unlike in April last year, the masses of Russian troops and equipment gathered at the Ukrainian border—and with them the war scare—have refused to withdraw into the snowy plains eastward. 

Nearly two months later, the West has been forced to acknowledge that Vladimir Putin means business. After talks with the US, NATO, and OSCE, Russia’s core demands—centred around a denial of NATO membership prospects for Ukraine and an overall return to a Cold War-esque European geopolitical order—were left unmet. 

As the reality of the threat finally begins to set in, it is more necessary than ever to appreciate just how diabolical and tragic a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be. 

All bets are off

Analysts whose careers are built upon tensions between the West and Russia had reason for excitement as equipment continued to arrive at the border and diplomacy failed to bear fruit. Kremlinologists, think-tankers, and Russia watchers began to stir, tirelessly drafting lines on the escalation of Vladimir Putin’s “new Cold War” with the West. Maps were released of potential invasion plans with great arrows piercing into Ukraine from almost all directions. Those who routinely bring up Putin’s tired quote about the Soviet Union’s collapse being the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” spoke of “another military adventure abroad” a-la Crimea or Syria to distract from falling approval ratings at home.

Many pondered upon how Joe Biden might respond to the crisis. Some say the US President should place sanctions on the completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Others thought he should push Ukraine to fulfil their end of the Minsk agreements, signed after significant battlefield defeat in the first year of a war whose enduring presence depends entirely on Moscow. From his platform on Fox News, right-wing champion Tucker Carlson suggested a novel approach: taking Russia’s side and giving up Ukraine to Moscow. 

In what is perceived to be the great poker game that is NATO-Russia relations, there were few who asked what Ukraine had to say.

From conflict to catastrophe

When Russian troops amassed at Ukraine’s borders in April 2020, the prevailing rhetoric was one of laconic dismissal. “War with Russia?”—went the common line—“we’ve been at war with Russia for seven years, and yet here we stand, stronger and more united than ever.” This time feels different, and though there is still no panic on the streets of Kyiv, city authorities have announced the examination of the capital’s extensive network of Soviet-era bomb shelters, with drills for the capital’s citizens expected to occur soon after. 

Ukraine’s military has certainly not shied away from discussing the invasion threat. Soon after Russia’s massive deployment began, a map was published showing the spread of Russian battalion tactical groups (BTGs) positioned at Ukraine’s borders, complete with likely invasion routes, with the central Dnieper river considered as the prime strategic objective of a Russian attack. General Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s defence intelligence chief, spoke frankly to international media: “There are not sufficient military resources for repelling a full-scale attack by Russia if it begins without the support of Western forces.” 

Analysis by Ukrainian and foreign experts alike shows that indeed, in a full conventional invasion scenario, Ukraine’s military is vastly outgunned by Russia, both in personnel and equipment. Any Russian attack is likely to open with a wholesale strike with Iskander ballistic missiles targeting Ukrainian military equipment, roads, and other infrastructure. Ukraine may have improved its military capabilities greatly since the chaos of 2014, but it still has few answers to these weapons. Likely crippled logistically in a very short period of time, Ukrainian units in the field would be left to fend for themselves against a ground invasion that would also come with complete air superiority. 

After gaining a military victory over Ukraine, Russia would find occupying large parts of the country a much more difficult task. Even just the portion east of the Dnieper, a territory larger than England, would leave Russia’s estimated 120,000-strong army stretched thin. Making matters more difficult, Ukraine has now been on a permanent war footing for almost eight years. Unlike in 2014, when there was widespread pro-Russian sentiment in the territory occupied, even Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine are now staunch supporters of their own independence. In a poll carried out last year, a majority in the region identified Russia as the greatest threat to Ukraine, while 39% indicated their intentions to actively resist an occupation in some way. Meanwhile, continuing a legacy that began in 2014, volunteer armed civil defence units remain on high alert in cities all over the country. In a sad admission that the chance of Western powers intervening militarily is next to zero, an Atlantic Council article suggests that guerilla tactics would be “Ukraine’s best deterrent” against a Russian invasion.

Everyone loses

Once the vocabulary shifts from discussions around “rebalancing” and “spheres of influence” to “Iskanders” and “guerilla tactics”, it starts to become clear that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would easily be—to steal the phrase—the greatest geopolitical catastrophe in Europe since the Second World War. Its likelihood has been discussed largely in the context of previous Russian military “adventures” abroad, but in reality, a large-scale attack on Ukraine would be a completely different beast. This is no Georgian War of 2008, where an immeasurably weaker enemy was pushed over in a few days with barely any new territory occupied. This is no Crimea, where no shot was fired, and also no Donbas, where the covert nature of Russia’s war restricted its scale, and the use of airpower or ballistic missiles. If Russia attempts to enter Ukrainian cities, a better comparison would likely be with the urban destruction of the Chechen or Balkan wars. On a European scale, an invasion of Ukraine would mark an end to the post-war order of European peace, while also giving nations like Taiwan reason for panic. 

It should go without saying that war with Ukraine is never in Russia’s interests─one only needs to listen to their own analysts. Ivan Timofeev, Programme Head of the Russian state-backed Valdai Discussion Club, concludes that the costs of such a war “far outweigh the benefits”. Timofeev has no illusions about the fact that in an invasion scenario, Russia would be the aggressor, that Russian troops would not be welcomed even in eastern Ukraine, and that “there is no demand in society for war with a neighbour” back at home. With thousands of Russian soldiers returning home in body bags, a fully-fledged war would hardly be the popular sensation that the annexation of Crimea was. 

If Russia already imagines itself as a pariah state, it is nothing compared to the diplomatic and economic isolation that would follow an invasion. Targeted sanctions against high-ranking officials and exclusion from the international banking system would be a likely given. Looking forward, a resolute move away from Russian oil and gas, while not immediately possible, would undoubtedly be devastating for the Russian economy in the long term. With their Italian villas and offshore accounts at risk, Russia’s political and economic elite will hardly be pushing the president to give the order to attack.

Asking for the impossible

Given all this, whether or not Russia will invade Ukraine frustratingly all comes back to one question: is Vladimir Putin prepared to step into the abyss?

The mainstream opinion holds that Russia’s huge military deployment and aggressive rhetoric are all a bluff intended to push for strategic concessions from the US and NATO. However, recent talks confirmed what was already obvious: the core Russian demand of rejecting Ukrainian NATO membership and cooperation─let alone the return to a pre-1997 European security order as requested by Moscow─is irreconcilable with the West’s geopolitical principles, and not something compromise can be reached over. Russia will have known this already.

Some argue that the talks are an end unto itself for Putin. It may well be the case that the effort and costs of the several month-long field deployment of 75% of Russia’s ground forces, the stern public ultimatums, the ridiculous manufactured stories of US chemical weapons provocations in Donbas─were just a way to bring Joe Biden and Jens Stoltenberg to the table. On the face of it, however, these measures seem wildly disproportionate to a final result in which no changes are made to the fundamental status quo. In the aftermath of talks in Geneva, Brussels, and Vienna, Russian delegation head Sergei Ryabkov “didn’t see reasons for further talks”, while foreign minister Sergei Lavrov proclaimed that Russia “would respond to the development of events” in the context of US/NATO rejection of Moscow’s demands.

Pressuring Ukraine to make further progress on the implementation of the Minsk Agreements is also a non-starter, as are the agreements themselves, seven years of far-from-frozen conflict later. The key concessions required are too much to give for both sides, and thus progress is deadlocked. With positions hardened by the ongoing war, Ukraine providing constitutional autonomy to the Donbas would be seen as capitulating to Moscow, political suicide for any president in Kyiv. For Russia, which still claims not to be party to the conflict, returning control of Donbas and its borders to Kyiv equates to giving up any real leverage. Minsk may be the only peace process we have, but it is broken beyond repair, and no amount of international pressure from either direction can change that. Again, Russia will have known this already.

A return to Putinology

Once more, all roads inevitably lead to the object of so much contemplation: what is Putin thinking? With very little of meaning to be gained from negotiations, and 120,000 troops showing no sign of withdrawing, there’s nothing left to do but to take the president at face value when he talks of taking “military-technical measures” in Ukraine. 

All of Putin’s other foreign “adventures” can be explained by rational, if belligerent geopolitical logic. After each of them, debates began anew over a multitude of possible Putins: an obsessive nationalist bent on restoring the Russian Empire; a cold, calculated chess player who never shook his KGB mentality; a paranoid opportunist who always put the preservation of his own power first, or any combination of the above.

Whichever portrayal of him is the most apt on any given day, Vladimir Putin is undeniably obsessed with Ukraine. Public statements and propaganda narratives from the Kremlin betray the fact that the events of 2014 constituted a personal insult to the president, leaving scars that are yet to heal. Though he pulled off a clean coup in Crimea and bogged Kyiv down eternally in Donbas, Putin’s vision of a divided Ukraine and the return of historical Novorossiya backfired, as Russia’s “brotherly nation” rejected its abusive larger sibling forever. Putin’s sprawling essay, published last July, on the “historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians” gives away his personal bitterness. In a text nobody asked him to write, Putin concludes with a starkly personal admission: “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”

To realise this glorious “partnership”, an unequivocally calamitous invasion of Ukraine is now on the cards, and signals from Russia─bluffs or not─point only in one direction. Putin the driven imperialist seems to be rearing its head higher than ever. With Europe desperately dependent on Russian gas and a US administration choosing humiliation and defeat over drawn-out war in Afghanistan, an opportunity this good to pursue revisionary dreams may never come around again.

A likely answer to the eternal question of Putin’s mind re Ukraine is that he hasn’t made it up yet. Rightly refusing to betray Ukraine, the West’s next steps must now carefully dance the line between deterrence and provocation to convince the president that a quiet de-escalation is in his best interests. In the meantime, more rounds of dialogue, however unfruitful, must be offered to give the tension the best chance to cool off. If all else fails, one must sincerely hope that the Putin who rises from bed each morning in 2022 is ultimately one of rational persuasion, who sees the catastrophe of large-scale war for what is.

Featured image: Ukraine crisis / Francis Farrell
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