Last spring, a U.S. Navy admiral mused that China could invade Taiwan in the next six years. Now officials and analysts are warning that Russia might invade Ukraine in the next two or three months.
A recent report by the Pentagon’s intelligence agency, which is otherwise quite hawkish on China, downplayed the plausibility of a near-term war over Taiwan. But senior officials seem urgently worried about the fate of Ukraine. Earlier this month, CIA Director William Burns flew to Moscow to express concerns to President Vladimir Putin about Russia’s troop buildup in the area. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines flew to Brussels to brief NATO allies about possible Russian aggression that could go well beyond the incursions into the eastern Donbass region in 2014.
Are Russia and Ukraine—formerly the two largest republics of the Soviet Union and close allies for centuries before then—on the verge of war? What would happen if war happened? And what should the United States do to help prevent an eruption?
First, it’s not entirely clear what’s going on. In the past few months, Russian troops have been moving close to the Ukrainian border. The chief of Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency, Brig. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, told Military Times last week that an invasion was possible by February 2022.* However, a chart reprinted in the article, based on Ukrainian intelligence data, showed that, in fact, the buildup—in troops, tanks, and other military equipment—falls well short of similar movements during a “war scare” this past April. (After that scare, the troops rotated elsewhere in Russia.)
Jason Bush, senior analyst and Russia expert at the Eurasia Group, notes that much of the current buildup is on Russia’s border with Belarus. Some analysts infer that Russia might not only pour troops into the eastern Donbass region but also send troops through Belarus to capture Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, in the western part of the country. “This scenario is very hard to believe,” Bush told me in a phone conversation. “It would be the largest war in Europe since World War II.” The Russian buildup, in the vicinity of Ukraine and Belarus, is said to total 92,000 military personnel. “How do you occupy a country of 50 million people with 92,000 personnel?” he asks.
By comparison, in 1968, the Soviets mobilized 250,000 troops—including five tank divisions—to occupy Czechoslovakia, which back then had about 10 million people. (Its capital, Prague, had about 1 million people; Kiev today has 2.8 million.) Finally, as a member of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact military alliance, Czechoslovakia had no independent army. Ukraine does have an army of 255,000 personnel—probably no match for a Russian invasion force, even one of a much smaller size, but also, in Bush’s view, “no pushover.”
Critically, Ukraine’s army has improved since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, largely due to $2.5 billion in U.S. military aid as well as training not only in combat but also cyberoperations and psychological warfare. Russia’s army, though, has greatly improved as well.
Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, an Arlington, Virginia–based research institute, says the current number or location of Russian troops is not important. “What’s important is how this will play out over a course of months,” Kofman told me on Tuesday. “There’s no evidence that a decision has been made in the Kremlin. But there is evidence that the Russian military has been instructed to prepare for a large-scale contingency in Ukraine.”
If Putin did order an outright invasion, it would be out of character. “All of his military operations have been small scale, low cost, and low risk,” Bush said. In a five-day war with the former Soviet republic of Georgia, he restricted operations mainly to a contested enclave. In Syria, he has sent air support but few troops. His most brazen feat, the annexation of Crimea, was bloodless; many of the people who live in Crimea had long regarded themselves as Russian. (Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave the island of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, but since both countries were part of the Soviet Union, which was the determinative power, the gift was largely symbolic.) Even the incursions into eastern Ukraine were carried out by special forces coordinating with local separatist rebels. To this day, Putin has not acknowledged that any Russian troops crossed the border at all.
If Putin did invade, he would be taking a huge gamble that the United States would not respond militarily. The gamble would be reasonable, at least in the short term. Ukraine is not a member of NATO. Washington has signed various protocols over the years expressing “unwavering commitment” to Ukraine’s territorial integrity—but this falls short of NATO’s Article 5, which treats an attack on one member nation as an attack on all.
However, after an invasion, Putin would face two problems. First, he would need to occupy Ukrainian territory for some time—and the Russian army has never been good at sustaining offensive operations or maintaining supply lines, which would be vulnerable to guerrilla forces. Second, he would galvanize the revival of NATO—as a political and military alliance—more powerfully than at any time since the end of the Cold War. “It would mean the U.S. returning to Europe in a big way, just as Biden is reorienting toward China and the Indo-Pacific,” Hofman says. “Our allies would call for reassurances that they won’t be next, and we would have to respond to that call.”
This revitalization of trans-Atlantic relations would wreck a strategy that Putin has been crafting, as a crucial plank of his foreign policy, over the past decade or so—promoting and inciting fissures between the U.S. and its allies, in order to weaken NATO and drive the U.S. off the European continent. Why would Putin risk reviving the Cold War on terms very unfavorable to himself?
One reason, probably the only reason, he might feel tempted to do so, despite the risks, would be a fear that Ukraine is breaking away from Russia. And here we get to the likely motive behind Putin’s recent maneuvers in the region.
Putin, who once declared the breakup of the Soviet Union to be “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century,” has always regarded Ukraine as a part of Russia, a view that he reaffirmed in an article this past July. In a still more recent speech, to his diplomats, Putin raised concerns that the U.S. was threatening this connection, noting the expansion of U.S. training bases in Ukraine and of joint U.S.-Ukrainian military exercises in the Black Sea. For many years, Ukraine has applied for membership in NATO. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, made this request again during a recent trip to Kiev by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Austin said he wouldn’t close the door to that possibility. In his October speech, Putin acknowledged, “Formal NATO membership may never happen, but,” he emphasized, “military expansion on the territory is already underway, and this really poses a threat to the Russian federation.”
More broadly, the “U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership,” signed earlier this month by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Ukrainian counterpart, touts the long-term goal of Ukraine’s “full integration into European and Euro-Atlantic institutions.” The ouster of a Moscow-backed president and the election of a Western-leaning one was the impetus for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursion into the Donbass region back in 2014. Challenges to Moscow’s regional dominance and internal politics also sprang up this year in surprisingly large street protests against the contrived reelection of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, and in the rise of Alexei Navalny in Moscow politics—both of which were put down with brutal force.
Thomas Graham, distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former senior director for Russia on the National Security Council during George W. Bush’s presidency, thinks that Putin’s concerns are genuine. “For all the talk about how successful Russian foreign policy has been under Putin,” Graham told me on Tuesday, “the fact is, Western institutions—material and ideological—have been moving closer to the Russian border.”
In the years just after the end of the Cold War, while Russia was supine, the U.S. expanded NATO—incorporating nearly all of Russia’s former Warsaw Pact subjects into the Western military alliance—despite earlier assurances, by President Bill Clinton, that it would not do so. (Putin recited this history, as he has many times, in his recent speech to diplomats.) Many who fear a Russian invasion of Ukraine acknowledge that Putin may be motivated by his own fear that, unless he moves forcefully and swiftly, Ukraine will drift definitively into the West’s orbit.
In a recent article in Politico, Samuel Charap, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and co-author of Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia, argues that President Joe Biden should not only coerce Russia into ending the standoff, but also “push Kiev to take steps toward implementing its obligations under the Minsk II agreement.” That agreement, which Ukraine signed under Russia-imposed duress, called for a cease-fire but also for the Ukrainian government to hold a dialogue with the Donbass region’s separatist leaders.* Kiev has shown no interest in actually holding these talks—and understandably. But Charap argues that Ukrainian compliance with the agreement, “flawed as it is, might actually invite de-escalation from Russia and reinvigorate the languishing peace process.”
He adds: “For Moscow, the Donbass conflict has always been a means to an end: having a lever of influence over Ukraine, in order to limit its Western integration.” If Putin can’t achieve this goal politically, he might use military means to keep Ukraine from slipping away. Even if he means only to threaten an invasion, possibly as a way to rivet Biden’s attention and force the U.S. (and Ukraine) to the negotiating tables, these sorts of threats can get out of hand. In escalation scenarios, one side’s defensive moves are often seen by the other side as acts of aggression.
Many, here and in Europe, desire Ukraine’s “Western integration,” but it may be time to ask whether that goal—which has been in the works for many years and is nowhere near fulfillment—is worth the risk of war or even, short of that, permanent tension and instability.
Graham calls for a mix of “deterrence and diplomacy”—assisting Ukraine on security matters, even holding joint military exercises, but also holding talks on security matters that concern Russia and the rest of Europe. Is that mix feasible? The only way to find out is to start talking.
Correction, Nov. 23, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Kyrylo Budanov’s first name.
Correction, Nov. 24, 2021: This piece originally misstated that the Minsk II agreement was signed under Soviet-imposed duress.