Making Sense of the Russian Threat to Ukraine

The situation on the ground in Ukraine and the choices being made by Western allies are complex and, in many ways, open to interpretation. This is not an exhausting summary of the current state-of-play, nor an oracle as to what might unfold over the coming weeks – rather, an attempt to shine some light on some of the key issues at stake in an accessible way.


What’s the UK story?

As Westminster is consumed by political scandals and manoeuvring, the UK Government is playing a leading role in an extraordinary regional effort to bolster Ukraine’s defences against an intensive Russian build-up of troops and weaponry along Europe’s borders, on a scale unmatched in modern times. The outcomes of this geopolitical stand-off will bear consequences for the future of European security, and will play a role in shaping the future of the Western alliance.

The UK has a long-standing interest in Ukraine, considering it an essential strategic partner on the flank of Europe’s borders, standing alongside the nation we believe to be the primary regional security threat. We consider ourselves to be the leading European power in NATO, which granted Ukraine ‘Enhanced Opportunity Partner’ status in 2020, affording preferential access to NATO exercises, knowledge exchange, and training. Our most substantial troop presence is based in Estonia, and we have cultivated highly productive and sustained security relationships with many Baltic nations.

The UK Government has chosen to take a robust role in responding to the crisis, through the provision of defensive systems, training and armaments to Ukraine, high-level diplomatic coordination with our allies, intelligence-sharing, direct engagement with and representations to the Russian leadership, and the development of new pacts and partnerships with other key regional actors.


Will Russia Invade?

There’s no room for complacency on this question, because Russia has in fact already invaded Ukraine and is currently occupying sovereign Ukrainian territory. In 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and began to arm and occupy several regions in the East of Ukraine, some Western commentators felt that, while regretful, there was a logic to allowing Putin to ‘get it out of his system’ and that he would be content with reclaiming what he regarded as ‘lost’ territory.

The notion that President Putin can be sated in his appetite for rebuilding Russia’s sphere of influence in former Soviet Union territories has been proven to be extremely naïve, and there is no reason to believe this would be the case now. Putin, after all, described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”, and considered his invasion of Ukraine in 2014 as morally justified on the basis of it being a ‘repatriation’ of Russian citizens and Russian territory to the motherland.

It is important to remember that an ‘invasion’ will likely take a hybrid form – not only involving the traditional armed forces, but also sophisticated and widespread cyber-attacks, intelligence operations, and the disabling of critical national infrastructure. Russia has already begun to flex its muscles in penetrating Ukrainian government communications, and it would likely seek to sow confusion and chaos within the military and other supporting forces, and also amongst the Ukrainian people.


When would Russia invade?

It is difficult to anticipate the timing of any such further invasion, although there has been some discussion as to whether the Beijing Winter Olympics on the 4th of February may provide a useful guide. As I discussed in a BFPG article about the Olympic boycotts, both Russia and China place a significant degree of importance on the Olympics in domestic and geopolitical terms, and the Chinese leadership was rather unenthusiastic about Russia’s decision to move into Georgia during the staging of the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008.

Given that Russia subsequently sought to seize Crimea in the aftermath of its own hosting of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, it is difficult to discount the possibility that there may be some planning being undertaken around this milestone. Recognising this significance, and the broader framework of emerging Russia-China cooperation, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week called China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, to implore Beijing to “use its influence with Moscow”.

There is also some discussion of the scheduled Belarusian-Russian military exercises as a possible inflection point. These are currently due to take place between the 10th and 20th of February. It is also true that the weather will play a significant role in any timing decisions, as there are areas of the Ukrainian border which are only theoretically passable when frozen over.

Many defence experts are of the belief that any invasion will likely begin through a ‘false flag operation’, in which staged aggressions from the Russian military will in fact be attributed to Ukrainian forces. This would in part be intended to muddy the waters of the Western narrative, but also to sell any action that will result in the possible deaths of Russian troops as a necessary response of self-defence to the Russian people.

More broadly, while there has been much understandable focus on the question of the likelihood of invasion, the West should also be asking the question of what President Putin would likely seek to do next. Is his plan to progress further inland from the East and then to make Russia’s retreat a condition of a new settlement, which may or may not be granted? Or to seize Kyiv to demonstrate the full breadth of his power and undermine the morale of the Ukrainian people, and then retreat and leave the clean-up to others? Or is he genuinely seeking to occupy the entire nation of Ukraine in the longer term?

It is essential that we seek to understand his intentions beyond the act of invasion, and to game-plan for multiple scenarios, as Putin himself has been preparing for the past decade. Moreover, to consider the likely scenarios that may emerge in the aftermath of this crisis, in terms of Ukraine’s long-term prospects for prosperity and the functioning of its government.


Why Now?

There are a number of theories as to why President Putin has mobilised at this particular moment. Certainly, the pandemic has weakened his domestic position, as has the persistent scourge of slugging economic growth. Putin enjoyed a substantial bounce in his approval ratings after the seizure of Crimea, so he is well aware of the potential gains he could make in successfully fostering a moment of national prestige and might on the world stage.

President Putin’s calculations also seem to be highly responsive to the evolving circumstances in the West. In particular, the chaotic and painful withdrawal of American, British and other allied troops from Afghanistan was studied carefully, and taken as an indication of structural decay and dysfunction in the Western alliance. Putin is moreover attuned to the delicate domestic political situations in many Western powers, both in terms of the financial and social costs of their pandemic experiences, and the pressures to focus inwards to bolster their national resilience. There is also some speculation that the departure of Angela Merkel, who – for better or for worse – has been a consistent leader in shaping the EU’s relationship with Russia, has also played into Putin’s instincts around a potential European leadership void and a crisis of transition.


What does Putin want?

President Putin has been playing a long game in his efforts to destablise Ukraine. He promotes a narrative of Ukraine as central to the conception of Russian history and civilisation, arguing that these two countries are inseparable and intrinsically linked in ethnic and cultural ways. The end game is for Ukraine to be declared a failed state, fundamentally eroding the patriotism and morale of its people, and creating a vacuum of leadership in which Russian-backed leaders can swoop in and reclaim the full prizes of this ‘lost territory’.

In geopolitical terms, Putin is also seeking new guarantees from the West to limit the expansion of the NATO alliance. Russia regards NATO as a proactive, antagonistic security force pushing up against its territorial integrity, while NATO allies regard the alliance as a necessary defence responding to persistent Russian aggression into the free and sovereign states of Central and Eastern Europe.

Despite some inconsistent messages in the earlier phases of this crisis, it has now been made clear that the United States and its Western allies will not be negotiating with Russia about the future composition of the NATO membership – which they maintain must be kept open to all who wish to join. Both the United States and NATO have issued formal written responses to Russia’s demands, making this clear. Indeed, NATO members recognise that Putin’s own actions are currently reinforcing the value of the alliance and its ongoing relevance in the 21st Century.

Putin is also keen to renegotiate the terms of the Minsk Protocols, which were drawn up in the aftermath of its invasion of Crimea, forged between Ukraine, Russia, and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe – with mediation from Germany and France (known as the ‘Normandy Format’). The Protocols were intended to prevent further fighting and bloodshed in the occupied Eastern territories of Ukraine, and provide pathways to legitimate regional elections. Russia met with the Normandy Format leaders on the 26th of January and all parties committed to the principles of the Minsk II Protocol and maintaining a ceasefire. Given many aspects of the Minsk agreements remain unimplemented, it is hard to assess the specific value of these commitments.


Valuable consolation prizes

Beyond securing these two major prizes, there are plenty of other possible wins for President Putin in this crisis – many of which are already being realised without him having needed to put another foot across the border.

Weakening Ukraine – socially, democratically and economically – increases the opportunity for domestic political corruption and other threats to the functioning of the nation’s institutions and its good governance, which in turn reduces the likelihood that the country will be able to seek pathways to join NATO, let alone the European Union, in the future. Certainly, this new crisis has not encouraged NATO nor the EU to offer any further commitments to advancing Ukraine’s possible future applications for accession.

As has been demonstrated in Belarus, creating instability on Europe’s borders incites internal fissures within the EU and weakens the West, by drawing huge amounts of oxygen and political attention towards these border crises and the consequences of internal squabbling about the best course of action. It is expected that an invasion of Ukraine could prompt a substantial migration crisis heading towards the European Union, which would need to be carefully, centrally managed and absorbed.

A Russian invasion, and the ensuing application of sanctions, may also disrupt much-needed energy supply towards the many countries in Europe still dependent on Russian gas. The diversification and securitisation of Europe’s energy pipelines urgently needs to be addressed, but the short-term impacts of such a crisis taking place in the winter months could prove practically and politically devastating.

Putin’s provocations are already testing the Western alliance as it moves through a strained period of maturation. The vastly different interpretations of the individual and collective risks at stake in this crisis, and the sight of major powers such as Germany and Italy dragging their heels and shying away from providing defensive support for Ukraine, is as much a crisis for the West as it is a crisis for the nation of Ukraine. In the short term, it concretely undermines the credibility of the EU as a cohesive foreign policy actor, and in the longer term – as the United States re-evaluates its regional and global roles – raises significant questions about the future of the European security settlement.


Can we deter Putin?

The Ukrainian land army is relatively strong, and its people will defend their nation with passion and resolve, but the country lacks significant air and naval capabilities. NATO and Western-led defensive instruments will be essential to credibly challenging Russia’s powerful presence, not only as a deterrent but as a potential front line. But we will only achieve this through many individual contributions. The UK and the United States, the Baltics and Poland stand at the helm of the Western efforts to bolster Ukraine’s defences, with some important input – of varying scales – from a range of other European nations, as well as contributions from both Turkey and Canada.

It is important to note that many of these defences stand not within Ukraine but are based in other strategic locations surrounding Ukraine, such as Latvia and Estonia – where the UK has long stationed its most substantial troop presence. The West is seeking to convey the message that even if Russia does progress further into Ukraine, it will not tolerate any further advancement into Europe’s borders in a ‘smash and grab’ operation.

One of the main tools the West has discussed in terms of a collective response to Russian aggression has been economic sanctions, although these are also the subject of some debate between major powers due to their potential to interfere with regional and global economic markets and financial payment systems. There appears to be a relatively solid basis of agreement that some robust punitive economic instruments will be applied to Putin’s regime and the Russian economy in the event of any further incursions into Ukraine, although the Ukrainian Government has argued that these should be considered a deterrent rather than harnessed as a response.

Some politicians may feel it is a difficult sell to explain to their citizens that national troops and resources should be deployed to defend Ukraine – which is not a member of NATO – after the quagmire of Afghanistan, and in a time when populations are weary and anxious after the pandemic, and becoming increasingly sceptical about the merits of military interventions. The UK’s Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, recently published an excellent explanation of how he sees the nation’s interests in defending Ukraine, and other leaders should think about how best to proactively build public consent as a foundation for their nations’ participation in staving off this crisis. Putin carefully monitors these dynamics and is aware of the serious limitations that weak public support can pose to governments’ foreign policy decision-making.


What happens next?

The Ukrainian people are steadfast in their loyalty and willingness to defend their nation, and will not support any capitulation to Russian demands. They stand on the frontline of the aggressions of the nation we have clearly, consistently, designated as the primary security threat to the whole of Europe, and we therefore owe them our support in defending their interests – which also happen to be our own.

This is a fast-moving situation and it is difficult to predict how the coming weeks will unfold, but the West must begin absorbing the lessons of both the first phase of this crisis and also the longer-term revelations about the future of European security.

As a matter of urgency, liberal nations need to get serious about reducing and removing the entanglement of Russian interests in our financial markets and in our critical national infrastructure, including our energy supplies. This crisis has underscored the unsustainable reality of mixed dependencies on Russian-owned and -financed services and investments, and so long as these vulnerabilities remain, the costs of defending Europe’s territorial integrity will remain significant and steeped in unpalatable trade-offs.

The UK appears to have learned from its Afghanistan experience and has sought to pursue crisis preparations rather than simply a crisis response, as well as forging agile new partnerships – ie. a trilateral with Poland and Ukraine – rather than waiting for the old guard to come to the table. Some will wish to apply the lens of Brexit to the UK’s choices in this crisis. The UK’s firmly established interests in Ukraine, NATO and the Baltics, and in challenging Russian security interests in Europe, make it difficult to argue the case of Brexit as a primary motivating factor in our leadership on this issue. However, it is certainly the case that the challenges surrounding UK-EU relations have encouraged the UK Government to think anew about its role in the wider European neighbourhood – compelling, for example, our recent decision to send a Special Envoy to the Western Balkans.

It is also plain to see that this crisis in Ukraine cannot be entirely resolved through a series of small, clustered alliances, nor is this situation entirely the domain of the NATO alliance. We must progress with the advancement of a new framework of European foreign policy and security cooperation, accommodating the UK’s departure from the EU, the EU’s own ambitions as a foreign policy actor, and the evolving role the United States will play in the region.

This will involve all sides accepting the realities of their respective strengths and limitations, building a new structure of collaboration that emphasises the power of a shared baseline of values and interests, but with the flexibility to remain cohesive and effective should any key powers choose not to step up to the table on any given issue. The past decade has strained the Western alliance to its limits and enabled the emergence of existential risks to the future to liberal democracy, but this crisis should underscore that naval-gazing and petty bickering between allies are luxuries we simply cannot afford.


Understanding Ukraine

For those interested to learn more about modern Ukrainian society and politics, I conducted social research in Ukraine with a team of exceptional UK and Ukrainian researchers from Arena just before the pandemic. We looked at the issues of polarisation in Ukrainian society in politics as an obstacle to the nation’s cohesion, unity and prosperity, and examined how Russia was seeking to exacerbate these through a concerted campaign of disinformation.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.