Hannibal ante portas, it is a famous Latin quote, issued by Roman senators in Antiquity, out of fear and anxiety of invasion by the famous Carthaginian General, a declared enemy of Rome. It seems a good fit for the delicate military situation at the Ukraine’s Eastern border. Russia has massed in the last couple of weeks, more than 90.000 troops, and US intelligence communities estimate that the number may get close to 175.000.¹ The question is will Russia go for a full scale military invasion of Ukraine?

Context

In 2014, a Ukrainian revolution erupted against President Viktor Yanukovych. Vox populi shifted towards desiring European Union and NATO membership for the East European country. This marked a red line for the Russian Federation, that triggered a hybrid military response, the result has the annexation of Crimeea, which is Ukrainian territory and opening the Eastern front, in the Donbas region. Why does the Russian Federation so vehemently oppose the integration of Ukraine into NATO? The response is found in geography.

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Warsaw Pact, a military and economic alliance designed to offer a response to NATO, stretched all the way to Central Europe. The Eastern European countries of Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, represented a comfortable buffer zone from a potential Western attack against Russia. After 1991, the situation change dramatically for the Russian Federation, the collapse of the USSR, meant that countries regained their independence, among them: Ukraine, the Baltic States, Belarus, Republic of Moldova, etc.

Russia’s historical buffer zone, the land that protected Moscow from arch enemies such as Napoleon in the 19th century and Hitler in the 20th century, was made up particularly from Ukraine, the Baltic States and Belarus. In 2004, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, officially became NATO member states. This constituted a threat, from the Russian strategic point of view.

 

From Latvia’s most Eastern point, only 590 km now separated NATO from Moscow. At that point Russia was too weak to intervene, President Putin was in office only for four years. Ten years later the situation was different, Russia invested massively in its military buildup and when it saw the situation unfold in Ukraine, another key state for its buffer zone, it reacted annexing Crimeea and opening a long conflict in the region of Donbas, Eastern Ukraine. This was a clear message towards NATO that Ukraine is a red line.

 

source: Google Earth

Current status quo

After seven years of conflict, in which all the instruments of hybrid warfare have been used by both the Russian and the Ukrainians, the fog of war is still very thick. Ukraine is a large country, its land spreads on 579.330 sq km, it has a population of 43.7 million people.²

After the invasion of Crimeea from 2014, the Ukrainian army has been investing and developing its capabilities with speed. Benefiting from American support, the Ukrainian armed forces represent today a far better challenge for the Russian army than the ill equipped forces of 2014. Even though the Russians are the larger, more experienced and technologically superior force, breaching through Ukraine and controlling Kiev may take place in less than a week, but the difficulties begin after that for the Russians, which will likely face guerrilla warfare from Ukrainian freedom fighters and reserves. This type of war would stretch for a long period of time and will result in significant human losses for both sides plus a hit for the Russian spending apparatus, that is not doing very well at the moment due to the economic sanctions, Covid and global economic uncertainty.

The question is why then is Vladimir Putin mobilizing such a large number of Russian troops at the Ukrainian border? The answer is, we simply don’t know yet, but we can test different hypothesis and grade them on a probability level.

Mr. Putin, claims that the enlargement of NATO constitutes a threat to the Russian Federation. This state has been labeled as a false claim, NATO was formed and continues to be a defensive alliance, every member adheres and respects the underlying principles and values of collective defense. Further more, NATO’s official policy towards Russia is to not seek confrontation and not pose a risk. This principle was reaffirmed at the NATO summit in Brussels, anno domini.³ At the end of the Cold War, Russia committed to participate in an collective European defense architecture, this was reflected into four international legal actions: the Charter of Paris, the establishment of the OSCE, the NATO – Russia founding act and the Euro – Atlantic Partnership Council.⁴

Every sovereign nation has the right to decide it’s own trajectory, this includes what type of alliances it becomes a member of. This represents a core principal of democracy and of NATO, therefore Ukraine has the right to decide what it wants to do in the future, without suffering consequences or aggressive Russian behavior.

The increased military presence could be part of a strategy of negotiation that would bring Washington and NATO at the table of discussions with the Kremlin. Last week, Russia issued a list of demands regarding NATO:⁵

  • A Russian veto on future membership for Ukraine.
  • Removal of US nuclear weapons from Europe.
  • Withdrawal of multinational NATO battalions from Poland and the Baltic States.

Some of the demands have been disqualified immediately from the list, such as the veto option. For the rest it remains to be seen how Bruxelles and Washington will respond, although it is unlikely that they will concede any of the requests. Moscow is probably aware of this and is playing a long game, in which it desires to receive other concessions. By raising the stake so high, and mobilizing troops at the Ukrainian border it creates a sentiment of panic and uncertainty, this opens the doors for negotiation.

Prior to Russia’s demands, NATO has issued an official statement marking its support for Ukraine: “ We are gravely concerned by the substantial, unprovoked, and unjustified Russian military build-up on the borders of Ukraine in recent months, and reject the false Russian claims of Ukrainian and NATO provocations. We call on Russia to immediately de-escalate, pursue diplomatic channels, and abide by its international commitments on transparency of military activities.⁶

 

source: https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-ukraine-troop-buildup-satellite-imagery/31598141.html

 

source: Google Earth

 

The White House is using a multilateral approach to determine the G7 members to draw a red line for Russia. On December 12th, they issued a common statement, condemning Russia’s aggressive military posture at the Ukrainian border, recommended the pursuit of diplomatic channels, and the respect of international law regarding the prohibition of using armed force in order to change borders. The G7 members consist of: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, with a combined GDP of 33.91 trillion, it represents a formidable economic power, with the ability to damage Russia’s already fragile economy.

Russia doesn’t have a lot to gain from invading Ukraine, in the eventuality it manages to defeat fast the Ukrainian army, it will be positioned in hostile territory, with a high probability of facing a long draining guerrilla warfare. It will suffer severe economic and financial sanctions that will cripple the economy even more. At the same time Ukraine does represent an essential country for Russia’s sphere of influence, it represents its historical buffer zone, which makes it a critical fighting objective for the Kremlin. It would be in Russia’s interest not to engage in full conflict, maintain a level of threat that brings the US and NATO at the negotiation table, and play this strategic game on the long term, until more pressuring international issues become prevalent for NATO, and Ukraine slowly renounces the idea of EU and NATO membership.

Russia will use a complete set of tools to achieve its objectives in Ukraine and one of them is disinformation. The bear’s disinformation playbook is sophisticated and effective and something that I will dissect in the following analysis.

1 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 2021, December 7th, Boots on the Ground: Satellite images reveal Russian troop buildup near Ukrainian border and in Crimeea, accessed online at: https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-ukraine-troop-buildup-satellite-imagery/31598141.html, on December 19th, 2021.
2 CIA/World Fact Book, 2021, October, Ukraine, accessed online at: https://geopoliticalfutures.com/a-russian-move-in-europe/, on December 19th, 2021.
3 North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 2021, October 22nd, Nato – Russia Relations: The facts, accessed online at: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_111767.htm, on December 21st, 2021.
4 Ibid.
5 Gabrielle Tretrault – Farber and Tom Balmforth, Reuters, 2021, December 17th, “Russia demands NATO roll back from East Europe and stay out of Ukraine”, accessed online at: https://www.reuters.com/world/russia-unveils-security-guarantees-says-western-response-not-encouraging-2021-12-17/, on December 19th.
6 North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 2021, Press Release:189, 2021, December 16th, “Statement by the North Atlantic Council on the situation in and around Ukraine”, accessed online at: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_190373.htm, on December 19th.
Author: Mihai Barloiu