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Putin’s unlikely war with Ukraine

Media outlets around the world are now frantically discussing the prospect of a full-blown war between Ukraine and Russia. Whilst such debate continues to grab headlines, the realities on the ground will likely result in a much more different outcome.

February 2, 2022 - Joshua Kroeker - Articles and Commentary

Ukrainian border guards patrolling the border between Ukraine and Russia in the Kharkiv region. Photo: Andriy Kuzakov / Shutterstock

There will be no full-out war with Russia.

Over the past few months, both the West and the wider international community have been confounded by the tense situation on the Russian-Ukrainian border. Reports have confirmed a Russian military build-up on the Ukrainian border, with up to 100,000 troops massing on Kyiv’s northern, eastern and southern frontiers. American President Joe Biden and EU politicians have voiced their concerns that Russia intends to invade Ukraine before the end of the winter. This is understandable, as Russia does prove a real threat to Ukraine and its sovereignty, as well as wider international stability. What many western politicians, political commentators and journalists seem to have forgotten, however, is that this situation is anything but new. Rather, this is a tried and tested strategy that the Kremlin has been using since Euromaidan in 2014.

Russia is looking to upset the status quo. This fact, however, does not imply that Russia is prepared to go to war. Since 2014, there has been an impasse in both the Ukrainian conflict and relations between Russia and the West. The Minsk Protocol has all but failed and the East-West political dichotomy appears to get worse by the day. With the European Union and the United States on the one side and Russia on the other, walls are being built up by ineffective sanctions and apathetic rhetoric that prevent both dialogue and cooperation. The Kremlin is tired of waiting for the West to take it seriously and make concessions. Russia wants its interests recognised and respected.

A war between Russia and Ukraine, let alone a war between Russia and the United States or the European Union, is not a realistic prospect. It would be costly, detrimental to all parties involved and outright dangerous. After all, it would challenge the very norms of international stability that emerged following the Second World War. These may seem far too academic and intangible reasons to not fight a war. For the men in the Kremlin, however, the thinking is much simpler. There will not be an outright war with Ukraine for three main reasons.

A pointless war?

First of all, the Kremlin has nothing to gain from a war with Ukraine (or the West). Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle are seeking concessions from the West, such as an end to the eastward expansion of NATO and guarantees regarding Moscow’s supposed sphere of influence. The Kremlin is also looking for affirmation that Crimea is and will remain part of Russia, as well as a general end to hostilities with Ukraine. Putin wants to be taken seriously, he wants his issues heard and he wants action. He does not, however, want another war.

A war with Ukraine would likely see Russia face international isolation. With a stagnating economy hit hard by the effects of COVID-19 and volatile oil prices in 2020 and 2021, Russia cannot afford to lose its western trading partners. China, for its part, is neither capable of nor willing to replace the purchasing power of the European Union. Presently, Russia is banking on the launch of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and the EU, which would double the amount of gas sold to the bloc. The Kremlin is not looking to hold Ukraine hostage via the new pipeline but rather double the supply and therefore increase its returns. In spite of the sceptics, Moscow does not want to simply replace one pipeline with another. Import substitution may have created new production facilities in Russia since the implementation of sanctions against Russia in 2014. However, Russia’s economy is not nearly strong enough to lose its largest trading partner: the European Union.

A war with Ukraine would not necessarily involve the presence of western or NATO soldiers in the country. It may remain a regional conflict between two Eastern European states. Nevertheless, Russia would face a massive and crippling sanctions regime that it cannot afford. Moreover, neither the EU nor the United States would consider making any concessions to Putin after such an offensive move. Putin would forfeit a strong bargaining position which he has carefully constructed over the past eight years. NATO and the West would only push harder on Russia’s borders, whilst any sort of détente would be utterly out of the question. None of Putin’s interests would be secured in the case of a war with Ukraine.

Ultimately, Russia’s interests in Ukraine are not what one may expect. They are far more cultural and linguistic than material. The Kremlin is focused on the Ukrainian nation, an East Slavic people that it views as part of a greater Russia. It is not interested in raw materials, oil or commodities. The Kremlin is very much aware of the fact that the Ukrainian people are of monumental importance to its relations with both Kyiv and the West. It knows that it can achieve much more through soft power endeavours and hybrid warfare strategies than it ever can through hard power action. To reiterate, a full out armed conflict between Ukraine and Russia is unlikely for the straightforward reason that Russia has little to gain from such an undertaking.

Trouble at home

Secondly, the Kremlin has everything to lose in the case of a war with Ukraine. Moscow has been faced with unprecedented internal challenges over the past few years. Socio-economic stability, for which Putin is so highly regarded, has recently begun to evaporate. COVID-19, economic stagnation and the rise of dissent and political opposition such as Alexei Navalny (a popular figure among the middle class and Russia’s youth) are all upsetting the balance of power within the Kremlin. If Russia were to invade Ukraine, the balance may just tip. It would provide room for greater dissent and bolster the opposition. Waging war is not a hobby, rather it will take much of the focus of the Russian leadership and the Kremlin to keep things in check. They will be concentrated on issues abroad and therefore distracted from domestic politics. This would provide a long-awaited opportunity for the opposition to act. Putin will not risk his own position at the top of the country and internal stability for a war with few benefits. The Kremlin is very aware of this fact.

Moreover, such a war would undoubtedly deepen an already apparent division within Russian society. For Russian nationalists, including those found in the Kremlin and Duma (Russian parliament), a war with Ukraine would be quite popular. These are the same people who supported the annexation of Crimea, as well as the “independence” of the Eastern Ukrainian territories of Donetsk and Luhansk. Whilst nationalism is on the rise in Russia, a war with Ukraine would be immensely unpopular among wider society. Radical nationalism and pro-European movements will be pitted against each other, polarising Russian society even further. Nearly every Russian has a friend, cousin, grandparent or loved one in Ukraine. These are not “the enemy”. The Kremlin would have a very difficult time framing these people as such. Claiming that the Ukrainian government is a fascist junta that is abusing and robbing its citizens may be effective at the beginning. However, once images of atrocities make it into the media, Russians will swiftly revoke their support. The population is now increasingly using apps such as Telegram, with information such as the war’s body count likely to come to light soon after the start of hostilities. Ukraine could well become the next Afghanistan, a highly unpopular war that cost the lives of thousands and resulted in great disarray within Soviet society. The difference here, however, is that Ukrainians are not unlike Russians. For the Russian people, a war would be pointless at best and macabre at worst. Without the support of large segments of society, Putin will very quickly lose his popularity. “Winning” in Ukraine will not outweigh the loss of losing to the West. In fact, it may cost Putin all that he has achieved in the past two decades.

New crisis, old tactics

Finally, the most plausible reason for a continued status quo in Ukraine is the fact that nothing has recently changed in Russia’s tactics. This is not the first time that Russia has amassed soldiers on Ukraine’s border. Similar headlines existed in 2018 and 2020. Implying negative actions without actually making real threats reflects a tried and tested military strategy. Known as maskirovka in Russian or “deception” in English, Russia seeks to sow confusion and discontent in the West. It is clear that this strategy is working. If the West believes that the Kremlin will go as far as starting a war with Ukraine, then perhaps the West will make concessions that would prevent such a conflict. Perhaps NATO will give Russia certain guarantees. Discussions concerning such matters have already taken place, with multiple meetings between diplomats and foreign ministers in Geneva. Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also visited Moscow in mid-January. If Russia is able to project the image of a state ready to go to war in order to achieve its interests, then western governments have no choice but to take it seriously. The Kremlin knows what it is doing and it is currently succeeding, keeping the entire world on its toes whilst it and only it knows what is going to happen along Ukraine’s border. Maskirovka is effective for exactly this reason: it hides the reality whilst giving the impression that something else could happen. Diplomats and politicians should be aware of this.

The world currently finds itself on the brink of an international crisis. This situation, however, is nothing new. We have been in this crisis since 2014. Only now, the flames are being fanned by both Ukraine and the West on one side and Russia on the other. The Kremlin is now looking to alter the status quo and test the proverbial borders of various new western governments, especially those of Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The West would be wrong to underestimate the Kremlin and Putin’s willingness to enforce his will on Ukraine. Yet they must also analyse this situation in a sober manner. For Putin and the Kremlin, a war with Ukraine will bring them nothing, whilst it may ultimately cost them everything.

Joshua Kroeker is a historian and political scientist, holding degrees from the University of British Columbia in Canada, Heidelberg University in Germany and St Petersburg State University, Russia. He is currently undertaking his doctoral study at Heidelberg University. He specialises in modern Russian and Ukrainian history and politics and is Editor-in-Chief of the Energy Politics Journal ENERPO based at the European University at St. Petersburg, Russia.

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