Heightened fears of conflict on the Russia-Ukraine BorderFebruary 7, 2022 in Russia
The primary security concern across Eastern Europe in January remained the Russian military build-up in Russia’s southern region and US and NATO fears of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine. A Kremlin decision in the first week of January to dispatch troops as part of a CSTO mission to quell political unrest in Kazakhstan exacerbated western fears of Russian expansionist intentions. A series of diplomatic talks between Russian, US and NATO delegations followed but appeared to offer little hope for a resolution, as Russian demands on NATO to withdraw forces from Eastern Europe and commit to a restriction against Ukrainian membership were continually rebuffed, while western calls for Russia to deescalate the crisis by withdrawing troops from the Ukrainian border were ignored. Later in the month, US intelligence alleged that Russian operatives were active in Ukraine and planning to stage a false-flag incident to provide a justification for military action against Ukraine, accusations which Russian officials strongly denied. On 17 January Russian military forces began to move into Belarus, ostensibly in preparation for joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises in February, but further inflaming western fears that the Kremlin was preparing for a two-pronged assault into Ukraine while maintaining a pretense of diplomatic de-escalation efforts.
By the end of January, relations appeared to have deteriorated significantly, with a flurry of negotiations between Western states as NATO members offered military support to Ukraine and Eastern European neighbors. Russian officials expressed little hope for negotiations as NATO continued to refuse any concessions on Moscow’s security demands. Despite continued insistences that Russia does not want war, further expanded Russian military deployments to Belarus and the Ukrainian border as well as indicators such as cyber-attacks against Ukrainian government websites and the stockpiling of blood supplies as part of Russia’s preparations have made the prospect of conflict appear more real than at any point since the crisis began. Looking ahead, it is difficult to anticipate what course the situation on the Russia-Ukrainian border will take in the next months, appearing to entirely depend on whether the Kremlin will instigate some form of conflict or choose instead to de-escalate by withdrawing its forces.
Several factors may lead to the conclusion that Vladimir Putin will choose not to attack Ukraine. Recent Russian conflicts, such as in Syria or the annexation of Crimea, have primarily emphasized the use of ‘low cost’ and low casualty methods of airstrikes, hybrid warfare, mercenaries and maskirovka to secure strategic aims. However, during the Ukraine Crisis the US and NATO allies have utilized strategies to increase potential casualties from an attack on Ukraine. US intelligence agencies negated the element of surprise by announcing an anticipated attack early, negating the possibility of any plausible deniability. In addition, the US and allies have increased the likely costliness of an attack in terms of casualties by supplying Ukraine with armaments and security assistance, and by threatening a coordinated suite of sanctions in the event of conflict which would be likely to significantly impact the Russian economy. While western governments have almost entirely ruled out direct intervention in any conflict, it is likely that lethal support to Ukraine would increase dramatically. It is also possible that the Russian government may have never intended to attack Ukraine and that the military build-up on the border was a carefully engineered bluff, designed to coerce concessions from the US and NATO.
However, the crisis on the Ukrainian border, which has now lasted for nearly two months, may have gone on for too long to allow a dignified de-escalation without some form of gain for Russia. If the military build-up had been designed as a bluff to secure concessions, then the bluff has been called by the US and NATO who have flatly refused all of Russia’s extremely ambitious demands, with both sides adhering to their respective ‘red lines’. The maintenance of such substantial military forces at a state of readiness in both Ukraine and Belarus must also be placing a significant and growing financial burden on the Russian government which will have gone to waste if nothing is achieved. If true, more recent US intelligence accusations that Russia is planning to fabricate a false-flag provocation may signal that the Kremlin is attempting to retrieve a possibility of plausible deniability, while claims of a plot to replace the Ukrainian government with a more favourable regime may indicate that Russia is seeking to find a new ‘low cost’ method to achieve its goals in Ukraine. While NATO responses have made a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine extremely costly and unlikely, it is a distinct possibility that the Russian Federation will engage in some form of limited conflict in the Ukraine region within the near future in order to avoid a clear ‘loss’ to NATO. Such an action might entail a small ‘flashpoint’ between Russian and Ukrainian forces as a pretext to return to the negotiating table with amended demands which might be accepted by the West.