Will Russia invade Ukraine, again?
Military action is 70% likely but a proper ground invasion is 50/50
Hello there! Long time, no see! It has been more than 15 months since my last post and I know consistency is key and all that but…oh well…such is life. Although I have been writing on other platforms on a variety of issues, from Canadians’ views on foreign policy to Sino-Russian alignment to a premortem of Biden’s first year to geopolitics. I also hosted an 8-part podcast series called “Across the Pond” on Canada and NATO. But you are not here to read about why the silence in Hindsight 20/20. So let’s get to the issue:
Will Russia invade Ukraine, again?
TL;DR: I see the probability of some sort of military action (including standoff and air strikes with no/little ground troops) before April 1st, 2022 to be around 70%. Invasion with ground troops, including moving more troops openly to Russian-controlled Donbas to be around 50%.
Here is why:
I cannot see how Putin will walk down from the escalation ladder without some significant concessions based on his demands and those key ones are not forthcoming. What are those key demands?
No military/security cooperation between NATO nations and Ukraine, including training, exercises etc. It is no longer limited to “no Ukrainian membership in NATO”.
Implementation of Minsk on Russian terms.
If all he ends up getting is arms control talks after escalating dramatically, what would he need to do next time? “All I got this is a lousy t-shirt…” meme suggests itself if he cannot get what he wants in terms of NATO involvement in Ukraine (expansion is not gonna happen but he is not gonna be satisfied with that…any military cooperation between Ukraine and NATO is anathema for Kremlin) as well as on Minsk, which are, to repeat, his two primary political aims by threatening force.
The recent statements coming out of Ukraine suggesting the threat to be overblown is puzzling to me. It is possible that I am wrong and Ukrainians have better information/reading of the situation and Putin will walk away without realizing his two primary political goals. But it is also possible that they are engaging in wishful thinking/motivated reasoning.
It is also possible that Putin might have a different cost calculus and may be more optimistic about his success than Ukrainians and/or others. It’s also highly likely that Putin feels his window of opportunity is closing that it will be more costly to do it in the coming years so he has to act now. A lot of wars do start after all because one side were more optimistic about their chances than it actually is. Putin’s personality, his increasingly smaller inner circle etc could also contribute to a lop-sided analysis on his side.
The path I can see is that Putin would have to demonstrate that he is willing to use force and bear costs. He might very well think that a short but intense attack, mainly done via long-range strikes and airstrikes against Ukrainian military assets, backed by a credible threat of ground invasion (thanks to build up around Ukraine) in case Ukraine or NATO responds, say by targeting Russian-controlled Donbas or a move towards Crimea will be enough to scare the pants off the EU (especially the Germans) and perhaps even the US. The EU and the US then coerce Ukraine to give in to Russian demands or at least some significant portion of them, for example restarting the implentation of Minks or publicly declaring that they are not seeking NATO membership, downgrading military cooperation etc. Essentially the West forcing Ukraine to appease Russia because they are afraid of the war spreading further.
This, I think is the best case scenario Putin is hoping for. He probably hoped to get there by this massive build-up alone but so far he failed to achieve either of his primary political goals.
The thing is, I cannot discount the possibility that his forecast of Western reaction may be right and the West, particularly the West Europeans *cough* Germany and France *cough* will cave in when the first missiles start to fly.
Of course, it’s very hard to see how things could evolve after the first salvos so Putin may have to follow on through his threat of ground invasion if above mentioned scenario does not happen or does not happen quickly. That’s how we might get into the ground invasion.
One other possibility is that an official recognition of the separatists “republics” in Donbas and placing Russian troops permanently there on the “invitation” of those puppet regimes could provide an option of walking down the escalation ladder for Putin. Basically making the defacto Russian occupation in Donbas also formal, using some sort of excuse to protect compatriots abroad, a pretext for “preventing impending Ukrainian military action” (which is not gonna happen, Ukraine will not replicate Georgia’s mistake in 2008) etc. That could keep the pressure on Ukraine but also provide a way for Putin to stand down on from a fullscale invasion threat.
But to repeat: Putin needs significant progress regarding his two primary objectives but that is unlikely to happen without Russia demonstrating that it is ready to risk a large scale war. It is increasingly likely that Putin is coming to a conclusion that he needs to use force to get the concessions he wants and doing so now is going to be less costly than delaying it.
Long story short, I am higher on military action that may not involve ground troops invading and lower on full scale invasion but the first can evolve into 2nd relatively easily, thus bringing me to the current estimations I have.
Please do share this post and also comment below. I’d love to hear what you think I got right and what I might have gotten wrong. Let me know in the comments!