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This summary is aimed as a primer to provide background on the Ukraine crisis. It is exclusively the work of the author’s and reflects their views and opinions and not those of the British Army or Ministry of Defence. It has been compiled entirely using open-source material.
‘War in general is not declared. It simply begins with already developed military forces. Mobilization and concentration are not part of the period after the onset of the state of war, as was the case in 1914, but rather, unnoticed, proceed long before that.’
Brigadier Commander Georgii Isserson, New Forms of Combat, 1940
Ever since Ukraine declared itself independent of the Soviet Union in 1991, relations between the two nations have been strained. Mr Putin believes that Ukraine is fundamentally part of Russian civilisation, both culturally and historically, with Russia’s Communist Party seeking to formally recognise the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk republics as a possible prelude to a seizure of the region. Tensions had peaked in 2014 with the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the deployment of troops to support a separatist uprising in the Donbas; further clashes in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions killed around 14,000 people and displaced 2 Million. The 2015 Minsk peace agreement subsequently outlined steps for peace but remains unimplemented; Russia claims that it is not bound by the terms of the agreement as it was not party to the conflict.
At the macro level, the crisis could be seen as a personal vendetta by Mr Putin to overturn what he views an unfair agreement imposed on Russia at the end of the Cold War: ‘this is a dictator who is still blaming the West for the demise of the Soviet Union’. If you need further convincing, just read the Russian President’s 2021 article ‘on the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians’ where he refers to the two nations as ‘one people – a single whole’ and wishes Kiev to ‘be the mother of all Russian cities’. Russia’s guise for invasion is a theoretical threat to its borders were Ukraine to join NATO; this is seen as an expansion of the alliance to ‘reclaim the geostrategic space in Eastern Europe’. Modern Russian colonialism employs similar tactics as that of the Soviet Union: the establishment of pro-Russian regimes in satellite countries, followed by the violent suppression of attempts to change political course, both at the level of the population and at the level of elites. These tactics have proved successful for Mr Putin in both Belarus and Kazakhstan. It is true that the presence of NATO would limit Russia’s ability to exert influence in a country that it fundamentally believes is Russian. The question therefore becomes how vital Mr Putin deems this influence on Russian security.
Thus we arrive at the current situation, with approximately 130,000 Russian troops deployed on the Ukrainian boarder conducting ‘war games’ and a bilateral military exercise with Belarus, Union Courage 22. In doing so, Mr Putin now has a capable military force, geographically positioned to invade Ukraine. However, while Russia appears to hold the immediate advantage in terms of combat power, any aggression will face the prospect of an international backlash and be left seeking to govern a hostile population; equally Mr Putin will not want nor can he afford a ‘bleeding wound’ of the likes of 1980s Afghanistan. The economic impact of Russian aggression into Ukraine is likely to be crippling. Following the occupation of the Crimea in 2015, the Ruble fell by 10.8%, the lowest in the Russian stock exchange since the financial crisis in 2008.
‘Attacking the Ukraine would result in ‘such long-term isolation and economic impact it’s hard to see how the government that committed it would be able to endure in the long term with its people’
Ben Wallace, UK Secretary of State for Defence
Consequently, Mr Putin is forced to play a very shrewd strategy, openly being seen to engage with diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions whilst continuing to manoeuvre troops on the Ukrainian border. While the West claims some success in diplomatic discussions, these may prove to be little more than a straw man; the Russian Defence Secretary has said that relations with the UK are ‘almost zero’ while POTUS has fared little better. The sceptic observer assumes Russia is seeking a false flag event as a pretext for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine with Russia responding to Western or Ukrainian aggression; intelligence sources indicate that this could be as early as Wednesday 15 Feb. Few will be deceived by such a ruse yet Mr Putin is likely to employ all sub-threshold tactics to achieve an element of plausible deniability. The West must not escalate the situation further as any form of confrontation, conventional or limited, would be catastrophic. This has led to a distinct ‘whiff of Munich in the air from some in the West’.
Whatever Russia’s intentions, Ukraine’s stance remains resolute with even the most elderly prepared to fight.
‘Russia should have no doubts: Ukraine and its partners are ready to take decisive action to protect our state’
Dmytro Kuleba, Ukrainian Foreign minister.
However, unless the Russian threat subsides, Ukraine faces the unenviable dilemma of violent and bloody annexation or becoming victim to a modern-day siege; the latter would likely incite economic strangulation, political infiltration and an offer of relief from ‘greater Russia’. The Ukrainian economy has experienced a lack of foreign investment given the spectre of war; the decision for some airlines to cease flights to the country will further exacerbate the situation. Long term mobilisation of Ukrainian troops on the frontline is arguably economically unsustainable. It is such a situation that Mr Putin would seek to achieve and subsequently exploit, offering a way out for the Ukrainian political leaders. This would not be without sanctions with Ukrainian autonomy heavily constrained. The situation has now reached such a state that Ukraine had been rumoured to be willing to drop its request to join NATO as part of a political deal to ease tensions (this has since been refuted by the Ukrainian Ambassador to the UK).
While NATO has demonstrated commitment to defence of its Eastern members, the response to events in Ukraine has been fragmented, limited largely to kit, equipment and advisors; with invasion now seemingly imminent, all UK troops have been recovered for fear of a ‘no notice attack’. The issue is Ukraine’s lack of membership. Sir Malcolm Rifkin argues that although a ‘partner country’ since 2008, ‘Ukraine’s not a member of NATO and you cannot send troops to that country without being involved in what could be a full-scale war.’ This means they are not bound by Article 5 and any response would be on moral grounds rather than recognised agreement with NATO. Mr Putin’s assertion of power over Ukraine is an attempt to affirm Russia’s place among world powers whilst undermining NATO and the West if they are not seen to react appropriately.
The crisis challenges NATO’s current divergent approaches of both perimeter defence, the maintenance of territorial integrity at all points along its perimeter, and limited liability, which shuns costs and political risks associated with maintaining large forward deployed formations. Such a defensive posture has been substantially increased with the establishment of the four multinational battlegroups in the Baltic states since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. An alternative approach could see adoption of an elastic defence, conceding Ukrainian territory to buy time to build up capabilities. This would allay any logistical concerns over the deployment of a NATO force in relatively short order but would be politically hard to palate by those nations suffering loss at the front. Either way, the crisis should be seen as an opportunity for NATO to test its assumptions and update its strategic and capstone warfighting concepts.
The EU is having a bad crisis. Their position towards Ukraine has been characterised by division. Having seemingly not learnt the consequences of a divided approach over the Crimea in 2014, the E3 continue to pursue divergent approaches while managing domestic political distractions. Tobias Elwood believes Putin could not have chosen a better time to challenge Europe with Britain consumed by a leadership crisis, France heading into an election and Germany’s new government yet to find its feet and heavily reliant on Russian gas supplies. Despite ambitious aspirations for increased EU self-sufficiency and ‘strategic autonomy’, the Ukrainian crisis has proved something of a reality check. Subsequently the EU finds itself being side-lined by the US during discussions with Russia, highlighting the hollowness of their actual weight in a world of hard power.
Russia’s insistence on a Cold-War style “superpower-to-superpower” negotiation format with the U.S., and disdainfully rejecting any place for the EU at the table, has pulled the rug out from under those in Paris, Berlin and Brussels who dream of a new European security architecture devised among themselves.
This may prove an opportunity for the UK who have been commended for their diplomatic energy and assertive action in response to the crisis; Germany and France are watching with unease as the UK reclaims its position as the US’s most enthusiastic ally. The UKs role as a security provider for Europe has been amplified as a result of the crisis. This presents Britain a chance to prioritise Euro-Atlantic security, to reinstate its role within European security following years of Brexit-related doubts and allaying any European concerns over a shift to an Indo-Pacific focus following the recent Integrated Review. Global Britain could truly strike back onto the international stage.
It is no secret that the US possesses a long-term desire to switch focus away from European security to the Indo-Pacific; this places a greater emphasis on EU self-reliance which we have seen has faltered. The EU’s inability to make itself relevant in managing the current crisis with Russia, and the continued dependence on Washington for European strategic stability matters, are issues of mutual concern. Still scarred from lengthy deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan, President Biden understands the severity of the Ukrainian situation and appears intent on not giving Mr Putin the excuse to trigger a false flag event. ‘When Americans and Russians start shooting at one another, we’re in a very different world than we’ve ever been in.’ While a moral responsibility to maintain world security will always be a consideration of President Biden, he currently stands aligned to the UK in the pursuit of diplomacy and deterrence while reiterating a commitment to defending NATO territory.
Finally, it is worth considering China. A revival of a Sino-Soviet relationship is an opportunity for China and Russia politically but appears largely symbolic. Beijing has aligned itself with Russia but statements from Beijing follow fairly standard political lines such as ‘commitments to deepening back-to-back strategic cooperation and safeguarding international fairness and justice side by side’. Although the Chinese Ambassador to the UN has been critical of the US over their handling of the Ukraine crisis, China has stopped short of openly supporting Russia. This is likely to reflect concern within China that a quasi-alliance could come with economic consequences should the Ukraine crisis escalate. Some cite a worst-case scenario with China using the situation as a test run for an invasion of Taiwan. Whilst not impossible, this is unlikely at this time given there have been no military movements to suggest otherwise. ‘If Putin succeeds, and endures the sanctions, and can tolerate the Ukrainian people’s uprising, and enjoys a resurgence of pride, and glory across Mother Russia, Chinese President Xi Jinping may want to copy that playbook for Taiwan; that’s a lot of ifs and makes this theory unlikely. Whatever the outcome, China is likely to view Ukraine tensions as a win-win situation: if Russians further incur on Ukraine and Ukraine falls, the EU and NATO will be seen as weak. Conversely, should the EU rise up, Russia-China relations will be strengthened.
How will this end?
It is worth considering some of the possible outcomes. A full-scale conflict is in no-one’s interest both in terms of blood or money; de-escalation must be the answer but with it comes associated compromises on both sides. Appropriate implementation of the Minsk II agreement may hold the answer offering demilitarisation, a restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty and full autonomy for the Donbas region. Another conciliatory option is for Ukraine to renege on its desire to join NATO; the President Macron touted ‘Finland Model’ had been offered as an alternative. Unfortunately, this option appears unlikely to be acceptable to Mr Putin who will not want a neutral, buffer state on his border. Either way it does seem difficult as to how Ukraine would be allowed to join either NATO or the EU given the political disfunction and unstable borders; Moldova and Georgia have previously suffered the same fate. While a range of economic sanctions will always form part of any international response, they are unlikely to achieve a decisive de-escalation given Russia’s improved economic resilience since 2014. Whatever the answer, and reporting suggests we will find out soon, there is likely to be a requirement for all parties to save face, particularly for the Russians who will not wish to back down from a seemingly overwhelming position of strength.
McCroary and Beard
Maj Jayne McCroary and Maj Ali Beard, CGS Fellows at Chatham House and RUSI