Russian troops on the Ukrainian border ring the alarm bell for a possible invasion. A geopolitical rather than military strategy.
Since 2014, the conflict in eastern Ukraine, resulting in nearly 14,000 victims and 1.5 million displaced people, has remained an open wound in Europe. Not only is the diplomatic resolution of the conflict within the framework of the Minsk agreements deadlocked, but military risks have skyrocketed at times: in the spring and especially fall of 2021, the accumulation of Russian troops on the Russian-Ukrainian border generated fears of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. Along with the gas crisis and the migrant crisis on the Poland-Belarus border, this has made Europe feel very vulnerable and – in line with Putin’s wishes, as clearly expressed in his speech at the expanded meeting of the Foreign Ministry Board in November 2021 – under such pressure that it holds back from taking any action that would provoke Moscow.
Few commentators have full access to military intelligence and can accurately assess the technical readiness of Russian troops for a possible attack. The Americans and the Europeans seem to diverge sharply in their analysis. The Ukrainians, who were relatively unconcerned at the beginning of November, grew much more alarmed after Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba’s visit to Washington. Russia obviously denied any belligerent intentions and invoked its right to conduct maneuvers on its own soil. Indeed, in its previous operations in Crimea or the Donbass, Russia used strategic surprise rather than the beating of drums.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine is an extreme scenario. The risks would be too high: new Western sanctions, the stopping of the Nord Stream 2 project that is now in the certification phase, and a further deterioration in relations with the United States, which have barely begun to experience a "stabilization of the confrontation" since the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva in July. New open aggression against Ukraine would prevent Moscow from claiming, as it currently does, its status as a mediator in what it calls the Ukrainian “civil conflict." In fact, Russia retains control over the separatist parts of Donbass: it has distributed almost 700,000 Russian passports to residents, recognizes the documents issued by the separatist authorities, gives businesses in these regions access to its own public market, and so on. These regions are more useful to Moscow within Ukraine, as a lever of pressure and a hotbed of tension to be rekindled when considered necessary. Occupying the territories currently under Ukrainian control is a challenge on a totally different level. The Ukrainian army is better trained and better equipped than it was during the battle of Debaltseve in early 2015 (almost 6% of Ukrainian GDP goes to military spending today and the country received significant military aid from the US) and could inflict significant losses on the Russian army. But, above all, even in case of a military victory, keeping these territories, which are far from being pro-Russian, under occupation would have a prohibitive (geo)political cost for Moscow. On the Ukrainian side, despite the recent purchase and the first use of the Turkish drones that played a decisive role in Azerbaijan’s victory in Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020, an offensive to recover the separatist territories by force would be suicidal. Former President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili’s fatal mistake that led to war in Georgia in 2008 should serve as a lesson for Kiev.
As in spring, the autumnal maneuvers seem to have more of a geopolitical purpose than an immediate military one. They put pressure on both President Zelensky and his Western partners. Russia no longer seems to believe in the advancement of the Minsk process and accuses Paris and Berlin, which are parts of the “Normandy format,” along with Russia and Ukraine, of showing complacency towards Kiev. An unusual gesture – the publication by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs of confidential diplomatic correspondence between the German, French and Russian ministers of foreign affairs – goes in the same direction. In the view of the Kremlin, President Zelensky accumulates negative points with his hard posture, the closure of pro-Russian media, the sanctions against Viktor Medvedchuk, who is close to Putin, and the launch of the Crimean platform, which puts back on the table the question of the annexation of Crimea. In the Kremlin’s mind, diplomacy does not bring tangible results: NATO troops conduct maneuvers in the Black Sea, and weapons and military instructors continue to arrive in Ukraine, which even without formal NATO membership would risk becoming the “aircraft carrier” of the Atlantic Alliance. The final goal of this escalation ultimately goes beyond Ukraine: the Kremlin is demanding long-term legally-binding guarantees to impose its security interests, including the end of NATO enlargement and the non-installation of Western military systems close to Russian borders. Vladimir Putin seeks to repair the “original sin” of Mikhail Gorbachev – who trusted the oral promises of the West to not enlarge NATO during the unification of Germany – and to achieve a reversal of the situation, which would bolster his legacy at least as much as the annexation of Crimea. These are the real stakes of this military escalation, which President Biden finally acknowledged after the second (this time virtual) bilateral summit on the 7th of December. Biden did not promise anything specific, however, and, for the Allies, the commitments Putin demanded would be an unacceptable concession to the Kremlin. The conflict is therefore far from being settled and further sequences of military escalations cannot be ruled out. The conflict in eastern Ukraine will continue to be a major fault line in Europe for the foreseeable future and to worry Europeans.
There are several points that require close vigilance, two of which should be emphasized. The first concern lies along the Russia-Ukraine border (but also the line of contact between Ukraine and the separatist regions): even if war and direct invasion are unlikely, the accumulation of equipment and troops at the border implies the risk of an “incident”, followed by uncontrolled escalation. The second is the domestic situation in Ukraine, where President Zelensky is experiencing his moment of greatest weakness since being elected. His popularity has fallen from 73% at the time of the election to 21%, and his recent declaration on the Russia-backed coup plot against him with the help of the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov reflects his feeling of great fragility, regardless of the reality of whether the plot actually existed. The internal destabilization of the Ukrainian state remains possible even without open military aggression. In the foreseeable future, issues around and inside Ukraine will remain highly challenging for European security and the diplomatic capacity of the EU. Ukraine’s evolution is also a test for democratic transformation in the post-Soviet space which, thirty years since the fall of the USSR, is in dire need of a success story.