Ukraine Unfrozen: What a ‘Hot’ Russo-Ukrainian Conflict Could Mean for the West By Jacob Adelhoch
In March 2021, after NATO announced seven planned military exercises in Ukraine as part of a greater series of exercises in Eastern Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin took the drastic step of sending 85,000 troops to within 25 miles of the Russo-Ukrainian border, as well as in Russian-annexed Crimea to Ukraine’s south. This put large concentrations of Russian troops within striking distance of a country which Russia helped to divide through its 2014 annexation of Crimea and its support for pro-Russian separatist movements in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk Basin (“Donbas”) region.
While Western diplomatic pressure led to the temporary withdrawal of these Russian forces from their threatening positions, the Russian military returned in force in the autumn of 2021, and, by January 2021, with around 175,000 Russian troops stationed in Belarus (to the north of Ukraine), on Ukraine’s eastern border, in the Moldovan breakaway province of Transnistria (to the west of Ukraine), and in Crimea to the south, world leaders such as President of the United States Joe Biden and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson warned that a Russian invasion was imminent. To many in the West who know relatively little about Ukraine, it is puzzling how a Russian invasion of Ukraine would impact their countries or their individual lives. Even among those who are aware of the brewing crisis, few can anticipate the fallout from a successful Russian invasion or the West’s response. Using historical precedent and taking into consideration the current political realities in Europe and North America, I will share the most likely scenarios for what would result from a Russian invasion of Ukraine (both a successful one and a failed one), and why Ukraine is, as of February 2022, the most important flashpoint in international politics.
Will Russia Invade?
Many scholars and generals will argue that Russia stands nothing to gain from invading Ukraine, or, in the case of the controversial German admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach, that a prospective Russian attack on Ukraine is “nonsense” and that Vladimir Putin deserves more “respect”. While the country of Russia itself would surely pay dearly for an invasion of Ukraine in the form of economic sanctions and loss of life, Vladimir Putin’s government itself cannot afford not to invade Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party synthesizes Soviet-style bureaucracy, militarism, and governmental sway over the economy with Tsarist-era Russian nationalism, pan-Slavic identity, and personality cultism. Putin’s cohort consists of ageing ex-Soviet bureaucrats, military officers, and a few loyal oligarchs who emerged from Glasnost and Perestroika with immense political and economic power. This powerful elite has resorted to unsavoury measures to stay in power, starting with Putin’s alleged ordering of the 1999 apartment bombings in three Russian cities which killed 307 civilians and wounded over 3,000 more; while Putin blamed the bombings on Chechen separatists in order to justify a successful second attempt at reconquering the breakaway North Caucasian republic of Chechnya, members of the investigatory commission were assassinated and much of the evidence at the crime scenes was hastily disposed of. This is an especially important moment in history to recall as the United States has issued a warning that Putin may be planning to stage a “false flag” attack against his own soldiers in either Transnistria or Donbas in order to justify a second invasion of Ukraine, this time with the intent of restoring its pre-2014, pro-Russian political leadership. As the threat of war grows with each passing day, Putin will have an opportunity to finish what he started in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbas, as well as to restore the flagging confidence in his regime which was caused by Russia’s continued economic and geopolitical decline, as well as the brief re-emergence of a pro-democracy movement led by Alexei Navalny. The West has threatened sanctions on Russia in the case of a Russian invasion, and these sanctions could further damage the Russian economy, just as previous sanctions adopted in response to the invasion of Crimea had caused the Russian economy to nearly collapse. However, Russia has pursued economic policies leading the country towards autarky (economic self-reliance), and it is likely that threatened sanctions alone will not dissuade Putin from engaging in a last-ditch attempt to revive Russian patriotism through conflict with Ukraine (in the style of Margaret Thatcher during the politically expedient Falklands War of 1982) and thus reconsolidate the political power which grows older and weaker with its current holders.
Will the West Intervene?
Western reactions to the Russo-Ukrainian crisis have varied from vociferous political and military support in the form of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and other Western nations’ provision of military trainers and weapons to Ukraine, to vocal criticisms of Russian aggression in the form of the European Union’s warnings, to measured responses such as Germany’s seemingly neutral position towards Russian warmongering. Disunity in the West will complicate any attempt by NATO or the European Union to act as a powerful military or political alliance, respectively. While the threat of NATO expansion into Ukraine led Russia to instigate the crisis in the first place, Ukraine is not yet a NATO member and is thus not covered by the protections of Article Five, which would mandate a military response from fellow NATO members. This alone makes a large-scale Western intervention unlikely, even in the case of a Russian invasion.
The causes of these mixed reactions vary. In the case of Germany, the government currently in power was elected during a relatively calm year in European affairs, as 2021’s main global security threat at the time was Iran, whose attacks on merchant shipping in the Straits of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, and whose support for paramilitary rocket attacks in Iraq and Yemen did not concern Germany as much as they did the United States and the United Kingdom. German voters mandated a shift in German politics as the Social Democratic Party and the Greens formed a coalition (also including the liberal Free Democratic Party) which focused more on social and environmental issues than external issues, which the previous Christian Democratic Union, under Chancellor Angela Merkel, had emphasized during the European political and security chaos of the mid-to-late 2010s. Like American president Jimmy Carter, German chancellor Olaf Scholz came into power with the intent to focus on peacetime issues important to voters at home, such as expanding social programs and implementing environmentalist policies. In Carter’s case, his presidency was marred by the emergence of external crises he was unprepared to deal with, most importantly the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, both in 1979. The United States’ initial inaction, or misguided actions, during these events, cost Carter re-election by a wide margin in 1980. Chancellor Scholz’s refusal to commit to any serious action against Russia, apart from sending 5,000 helmets to Ukraine (for which he was derided by Ukrainian MP Vitali Klitschko, who sarcastically requested that Germany send pillows next), may doom his progressive coalition to electoral failure should a conflict arise and Germany, like the United States in 1979, be unprepared for a crisis which will inevitably hit close to home.
The United States is in a similar situation, also being governed by a centre-left leader who was elected almost purely on economic and social grounds as the antithesis to the highly controversial and polarizing President Donald Trump. President Joe Biden faces a real test of his leadership as his own presidency, which has so far prioritized infrastructure and recovering from the economic and societal crises caused by COVID, faces a new and unexpected threat from Russia. American society is already deeply polarized along political and ideological lines, and the violence of 6 January 2021 shows that American democracy is, itself, under threat from within. Any American policy commitment towards Ukraine will have to navigate the deep partisan divide in American politics, and the United States would have to find a way to quiet its deep internal divisions in order to prioritize committing itself to potential foreign action. Given the United States’ recent defeat in Afghanistan, progressive and right-wing populist criticisms of “globalist” interventions, and the very real prospect of the Republican opposition retaking control of Congress in the November 2022 midterms, the Biden administration’s priorities seem to remain within America’s borders, and not with a committed response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.
How Will a Russian Invasion of Ukraine Impact International Relations?
If war breaks out in February, as President Biden warned, it will be between a confident Russia and a deeply insecure and divided West. 175,000 Russian troops are already stationed on the Ukrainian border, and recent reports have stated that the Russian military is even moving spare blood to the border, indicating that the Russian military is preparing for a conflict involving casualties and the need for blood transfusions. While Ukraine has a slightly larger military than Russia, its superior numbers were trounced by smaller numbers of separatist fighters backed by Russian firepower before tenuous ceasefires were declared in 2014-2015. Russia’s most likely move, as anticipated by British intelligence, would be to invade Ukraine from Belarus and advance 100 km (62 miles) south on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, either before or after pro-Russian elements in Ukrainian politics – most likely coming from the sizeable pro-Russian “Opposition Bloc – For Life” party – would seize power and elevate one of their leaders (speculated by Britain to be Yevhen Murayev, and by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to by Rinat Akhmetov) to the presidency of Ukraine. President Joe Biden attracted controversy for stating that the United States’ response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine would depend on the severity of the Russian “incursion”; he later clarified that this referred to whether Russia engaged in a military invasion or cyberwarfare, but the United States has thus far only put 8,500 of its soldiers on high alert for potential deployment to Ukraine, suggesting that the United States would send too few troops to constitute a lone bulwark against a Russian invasion. A pro-Russian government in Kyiv would inevitably be met with a crisis of diplomatic recognition from the West, but a violent governmental change in Ukraine is hardly unusual, as the very Ukrainian democracy in power today had its genesis in the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, labelled a “coup” against the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych by Russia. It is uncertain at this point as to whether a limited incursion supporting or installing a Russian puppet government in Kyiv would mandate a Western military intervention.
In addition to a successful Russian invasion likely resulting in the establishment of a pro-Russian government in Kyiv, such a change of power would likely bring up the question of the fates of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine. While both Russian-majority regions broke away from the Ukrainian central government in 2014 in response to the repeal of laws protecting minority languages such as Russian, a reconciliation between a pro-Russian government in Kyiv, which would likely restore the legal protections granted to the country’s sizeable Russophone and ethnic Russian minorities, would be likely, and quite possibly lead to the reunification of Ukraine as a Kremlin satellite state.
Should a Russian invasion of Ukraine be halted by the Ukrainian military, the hundreds of thousands of highly patriotic Ukrainian civilians who have taken up arms with the volunteer “Territorial Defense Forces”, and, perhaps, with the help of the few hundred NATO special forces operatives in the country, it is unlikely that the West would support a Ukrainian counteroffensive to reclaim the Crimea and Donbas from Russia, as many Ukrainians might hope. As John Mearsheimer posited in 2014, Ukraine is not a vital strategic interest of the United States, and the Ukrainian government’s reclamation of Donbas or Crimea would, by that same logic, not be something that the American public would be willing to sacrifice its citizens’ lives for. Europe as a whole has, since the end of World War II, been more hesitant about military interventions than the United States, rendering the United States’ European allies less likely to support a pushback against Russia and its regional proxies. Neither will there be a massive, cataclysmic NATO offensive from Eastern Europe towards St. Petersburg or Moscow; as far as the United States and NATO are concerned, any war in Ukraine would be a defensive one for the West and not an opportunity for an all-out war for regime change in Russia.
Instead, what is most likely to happen in the case of a successful repulse of a Russian invasion would be negotiations between the West and Russia. As aforementioned, Russian nationalism runs deep in Russian politics, as does timidity in Western politics since the foreign intervention fiascos in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Unless Russia directly attacks the West, which is highly unlikely given Putin’s strategic genius (as displayed in his shadowy interventions in Chechnya and Syria) and his knowledge that Ukraine itself means little to the West, the West will not intervene as a united, strong force. Instead, what is likely to occur, based on recent precedent, is that the West, perhaps led by the more diplomatically-minded nations of France and Germany, will engage in negotiations with Russia to prevent a regional crisis from exploding into an all-out war. Germany’s dependence on Russian gas, as well as the non-militaristic nature of its current government, will likely render the Federal Republic a neutral peacemaker between the more interventionist NATO nations (the United States, the United Kingdom, Poland, and the Baltic states) and Russia. France has also assumed a laid-back role in the crisis, announcing the deployment of troops to Romania as a token contribution to the defence of neighbouring Ukraine.
Whether Russia succeeds or fails in toppling the Ukrainian government, these peace talks are just as likely to be held, and just as likely to result in similar concessions being made. Russia will press for the issue dearest to its heart: an end to NATO expansion, particularly into Ukraine, which was, until 2014, a neutral buffer between the Western (NATO) and Eastern (CSTO) Blocs. As the West is in no apparent hurry to accelerate Ukraine’s NATO membership, this concession may be made due to the political expediency of saving the West a war for which it is ill-prepared and generally unmotivated. Even if the Ukrainians and NATO forces were able to repel a Russian invasion, Russia would still be able to claim a victory in preventing Ukraine from joining NATO. The Ukrainian military would most likely be unsuccessful in attempting to reclaim the Donbas region without Western support as long as Russia continues to provide troops and supplies to the breakaway states, thus rendering the situation a status quo ante bellum from February 2014. If Russia was able to install a new government in power, it is unlikely that the West would attempt to overthrow it by force, and what would likely ensue would be a political crisis in Ukraine, and perhaps armed uprisings by the dominant pro-Euromaidan strain in Ukrainian politics against the smaller, yet resurgent pro-Russian faction which would be empowered by Putin’s invasion. As long as Russia is able to render Ukraine a non-aligned buffer against NATO encroachment on its borders, with or without a pro-Kremlin government in Kyiv, Russia can claim a victory. Europe would remain divided between an increasingly fractured West and a resurgent Russia, able to resume its covert polarization of Western politics (through disinformation, cyberwarfare, and interference in elections) to keep the Western nations introspective and keep Western democracy under threat.
Vladimir Putin is playing a dangerous game with Ukraine, and whatever events occur over the next few months will keep the world in suspense. Putin is also playing an unfair game: the Russian regime wins not only if it can overthrow the Ukrainian government and undo the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, but also if it forces the Western nations to concede that Ukraine means too little to them to be covered by NATO’s Article Five or to wage war over. Putin’s Russia is not the kind of nation to accept defeat in the great game of geopolitics: Putin allegedly engineered a Second Chechen War to avenge the humiliation of Chechen independence in 1996, invaded Georgia in 2008 to protect Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgian recovery, sent troops to Crimea and Donbas in 2014 to keep alive Russian naval and political interests in Ukraine, respectively, and turned the tide of the Syrian Civil War in favour of Syria’s pro-Russian government with an aerial intervention starting in 2015. Russia’s multiple victory conditions make this conflict an unfair fight as long as the West continues to display disunity and a reluctance to intervene abroad. The only way the West can keep Russia from winning, with or without a war, is to make it plain that Ukraine is an equal ally of the West, that Ukraine is worthy of being defended as if it was a NATO member (meaning the mass deployment of NATO troops to forestall a Russian invasion), and to refuse to accept a compromise peace involving a neutral Ukraine. Ever since the 2014 Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine and the failed 2020 “Slipper Revolution” in Belarus, Russia’s elite is increasingly paranoid about democratic expansion in Eastern Europe, and Russia has emerged from these near-misses as a bellicose power willing to start a potential third world war over Ukrainian non-alignment or Russophilia. The West thus has two options if it wishes to avoid war: either wholly abandon Ukraine to the Russian orbit and shun the Ukrainian government’s hopes of joining NATO, or show unity in action and stand fully with Ukraine, stacking the scales against Russia with the threat of united military action rather than the limited effect of sanctions or tough talk. The West must now, more than ever, answer in unison the crucial question, “How important is Ukraine to you?”