Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Russia Isn’t About to Attack Ukraine

Moscow occupying its neighbor would be expensive, dangerous, and pointless.

By , a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s department of international history.
Ukrainian servicemen take part in the joint Rapid Trident military exercises with the United States and other NATO countries nor far from Lviv on September 24.
Ukrainian servicemen take part in the joint Rapid Trident military exercises with the United States and other NATO countries nor far from Lviv on September 24. Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP via Getty Images

Over the last few weeks there has been increased chatter in the Western press about Russian military moves in its southern region. Numerous units including combined arms battalions of the 1st Guards Tank Army have reportedly been deployed to the regions near Ukraine, and the West is so alarmed that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Russia on Nov. 10 against any renewed aggression against Ukraine.

But is Russia actually about to attack Ukraine? The answer, based on the empirical evidence, seems to be a resounding no. These moves might be disturbing, especially given Russia’s history in Ukraine—but they don’t presage war.

First of all, Russia has made no effort to conceal the movement of these forces, both in transit and when they arrive. Commercial satellite imagery shows military units arrayed in vehicle parks and encampments without any camouflage or concealment. A real offensive would take far more care, and it would have other warning signs such as increased air defense systems deployed and activation of reserve units.

Over the last few weeks there has been increased chatter in the Western press about Russian military moves in its southern region. Numerous units including combined arms battalions of the 1st Guards Tank Army have reportedly been deployed to the regions near Ukraine, and the West is so alarmed that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Russia on Nov. 10 against any renewed aggression against Ukraine.

But is Russia actually about to attack Ukraine? The answer, based on the empirical evidence, seems to be a resounding no. These moves might be disturbing, especially given Russia’s history in Ukraine—but they don’t presage war.

First of all, Russia has made no effort to conceal the movement of these forces, both in transit and when they arrive. Commercial satellite imagery shows military units arrayed in vehicle parks and encampments without any camouflage or concealment. A real offensive would take far more care, and it would have other warning signs such as increased air defense systems deployed and activation of reserve units.

Russia has concentrated troops in its southern provinces since April, but the slow pace of deployment seems to indicate a general shift of Russian forces into its Western and Southern military districts, the two command regions of Russia’s five regional commands close to potential conflict zones. The deployment then can be viewed as a far larger change in Russia’s general strategic deployment than a sudden buildup for a renewed offensive.

To be sure, Russia may have in part viewed the very unconcealed rotation and drilling of units as a way to rattle its sabers at the West during a time of heightened tension. Both the recent Black Sea military exercises undertaken this summer by the U.S. Navy and several partners and the increasingly tense Belarus border crisis make this an uncertain time.

Yet a renewed invasion of Ukraine or even a drastic escalation in hostilities by Russian-backed forces is a foolish prospect for several reasons.

The Ukrainian army, at this point, is experienced, modernized, and highly motivated. It would not be a pushover—and any war in addition to being extremely costly in terms of troops and material would have a high chance of bringing in others, and it would have a terrifying chance of going nuclear. Even if Russia did manage to occupy Ukraine, what would it get out of it? Occupations are expensive, dangerous, and often fruitless, as the United States discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Russia’s current occupations of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Crimea are expensive, but they are viable because there is an element of the local population there that welcomes Russia. This welcome is a byproduct of the complicated cultural legacies of the post-Soviet states. Such a dynamic does not exist in western Ukraine, which has made its preference for the West abundantly clear.

A renewed war against Ukraine then would only be to Russia’s detriment, and it would tie down large quantities of resources that Russia cannot afford to spend. It would permanently alienate Russia from Europe and make any movement on sanctions relief, a prospect that may be gradually becoming more feasible, a political impossibility. Russia has absolutely nothing to gain from invading Ukraine, but it has a fair amount to lose.

Of course, Russia has a recent history of invading its neighbors, from Georgia in 2008 to the hostilities in Ukraine in 2014. But while these invasions happened, they did not come out of the blue, nor were they simple revanchism or expansionism for its own sake.

In 2008, then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili greatly misread the amount of support he would receive from the West and dramatically escalated the long-running conflict with Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions. Russia, which already had peacekeepers deployed there, pushed back and kicked Georgia out of the contested regions and captured a few strategic cities beyond them. But Russian troops did not push on to Tbilisi or try to occupy the whole of Georgia, a nation far smaller in both area and population than Ukraine.

In fact, Russian troops withdrew after the cease-fire to the breakaway regions, where they have remained largely with the consent of the breakaway governments—albeit governments largely directed out of Moscow itself, but with a strong degree of local support. The 2014 seizure of Crimea was an example of hubristic overreach and a serious miscalculation, yet from Russia’s perspective it was an attempt to secure a vital strategic asset against an unapologetically pro-Western regime that would soon take power in Kyiv, where, Moscow believed, Washington was hatching its own plots.

This was a significant miscalculation, as it created a global backlash and has left Russia a pariah state. The actual seizure was not waged with a conventional attack but in a lightning deployment of unmarked units, which generally just showed up and took over with minimal violence. It helped that Crimea had few cultural ties to Kyiv, which was handed to it in 1954 as a bureaucratic gesture of goodwill.

The breakaway regions of Ukraine in Donbass saw clashes between Russian and Ukrainian troops, but again they were marked by relative strategic restraint. Russia has not hesitated to utilize force multipliers like artillery units firing from its own territory and supposed volunteer units deployed across the border, but the conflict in the Donbass region largely focused on stabilizing the front line and not escalating to a full-scale drive on Kyiv. As with its deployments in Georgia, Russia was careful not to overreach, and Ukraine was careful not to provoke an incident by refraining from targeting assets on Russian territory.

Nothing has changed that would make open invasion of Ukraine more tempting. Ukraine has no other breakaway regions Russia can exploit, and the military is far better armed and more capable than it was in 2014.

During this latest war scare, the government in Kyiv has also behaved in a very mature fashion. Ukrainian forces do not seem to have changed their alert posture, despite the government engaging in a growing war of words. Ukraine has faced far more serious provocations than the latest shuffling of troops. In 2018, Russia closed the Kerch Strait, which leads from the Sea of Azov, as part of its construction of a causeway linking Crimea to mainland Russia. Ukraine, which has ports in Azov including a naval base, tried to force ships through the strait, and Russia captured three Ukrainian patrol boats in a skirmish. Both sides, despite an initial increase in tension, worked to resolve the issue, and a year later the boats were returned.

Russia is aggressive in what it calls its “near abroad”—essentially the old Soviet states—but it still operates with restraint, making what Moscow sees as calculated moves to preserve its own region of influence. None of this means its actions are morally justified or valid under international law. The Crimea seizure in particular was a blatant disregard for the norms of international relations. But they were understandable, if not excusable, actions.

Russia may indeed see conditions someday where an invasion of Ukraine would be to its advantage—or it could conceivably be driven by strategic ineptitude or domestic nationalism at home to blunder into war. But today, if Russia were to attack Ukraine it would have a lot to lose for almost no gain. A renewed invasion is extremely unlikely. Far more likely is an escalation in clashes along the cease-fire line in Donbass in an effort to compel further negotiations.

Yet the reckless behavior of the Western press and some governments, from the panicky headlines in Bloomberg warning of a full-scale invasion to various statements vowing to defend Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, has only served to increase the tensions in an already tense region. War is never inevitable, but acting as if it is makes it far more likely—and no less devastating.

Jeff Hawn is a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s department of international history. His research focuses on the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis and the post-Cold War international order.

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