Q. What are a few of the recent developments that have sparked a potential Russian invasion?
A. The unusual aspect of this crisis is that Russia appears to have manufactured it based on what Putin believes is a coincidence of geopolitical factors favoring Russia’s interests, as opposed to any single flashpoint.
NATO’s commitment to Ukrainian membership has not wavered since 2008, but neither has it moved forward toward that goal, and most observers believe Ukrainian membership is at least a decade or much longer away, if indeed it will happen at all. Russia has also bridled against U.S. and some European defensive military assistance to Ukraine and expanded NATO exercises on the territory of eastern NATO members since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. While it is difficult to see these activities as a threat to Russia’s security, Russia and its supporters like to point to the history of U.S. responses to Soviet or Russian influence in the Western Hemisphere such as in Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela or Chile as a parallel.
U.S. and European support for Ukraine’s Western aspirations is not particularly new, but I think a number of recent factors have encouraged Putin to raise tensions now. These include a perception that severe political polarization undermines U.S. resolve to act, and a general sense of growing U.S. disengagement from the world following our messy departure from Afghanistan in August. While Russia doesn’t have the alliance system that has been a historic strength of the U.S. for the last 75 years, Putin has deftly moved to exploit rising tensions between the U.S. and China to win China’s likely acquiescence in any moves he may make to strengthen Russia’s security position in Europe (and perhaps in exchange, Russian acquiescence in any move by Beijing to seize Taiwan).
Putin also likely perceives historic levels of disagreement between Europe and the United States after their fractious relationship during the Trump administration; continued U.S. concern about democratic backsliding in Turkey, Poland and Hungary; and rising populist forces throughout Europe sympathetic to Russia. Western preoccupation with the pandemic and its related economic and energy insecurity might also seem to mitigate any harsh reaction to renewed Russian aggression in its historic sphere of influence. This could particularly be the case with the recent assumption of power by the Social Democrats in Germany, who have traditionally pursued closer relations with Moscow.
Putin’s deployment of more than 100,000 battle-ready troops on Ukraine’s border in this context probably reflects a calculation that such a provocation could exacerbate the divides he already sees in the West and perhaps win concessions on Ukraine’s NATO aspirations and the NATO military presence on Russia’s borders without even having to go to war.
Q. How likely is a Russian invasion?
A. Answering that question requires a superpower I don’t have – reading Vladimir Putin’s mind!
Certainly, the massive deployment of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders, apparently with increasing combat support operations, such as blood supply and medical support teams; recent cyberattacks on Ukraine; and an assertive anti-Ukrainian tone in the domestic Russian press suggest that an invasion could be imminent.
But at the same time, it seems that Russia could achieve its objectives much more cheaply and effectively by using other tactics that it has already used to great effect in the past: the fear – as opposed to reality – of an armed invasion; financial and energy pressures; and the use of social media and cyberweapons to destabilize Ukrainian politics and inflame ethnic tensions. The Russians can, and do, employ all of these tactics without incurring the kind of severe penalties the Biden administration appears likely to impose in response to a full-scale invasion, even as they engage in diplomacy to address their concerns.
An invasion, on the other hand, would likely result in expensive and painful consequences for Russia, including the strong likelihood of being bogged down in a long-running and bloody insurgency, with likely heavy costs to Putin’s domestic political support, and a significantly enhanced NATO military posture in its neighborhood.