A Russian Threat to Ukraine?

Let’s start with the alarming question many people are now asking and then consider other forms of possible Russian intervention in the ongoing Ukrainian Revolution. It was on January 31st that Vladimir Putin’s former adviser, the economist Andrei Illarionov, shocked Ukrainians with his claim that the Kremlin has already developed several scenarios ranging from “control over all of Ukraine” to “control” over several provinces. His views might have been dismissed as alarmist were it not for the fact that Ukrainians have been expecting a more forceful Russian response to the ongoing revolution for weeks.

Imagine two possible scenarios: (1) a full-scale invasion of all, most, or much of Ukraine and (2) a limited invasion of one or two provinces of Ukraine. In both instances, the point would presumably be annexation, occupation, or longer-term control.

Now let’s ask several sub-questions: (1) Does Russia have the military resources to pull off such operations? (2) Would they succeed? (3) Would they make sense strategically? (4) Would the external and internal consequences be acceptable? We’ll then ask whether Vladimir Putin would be likely to make such moves. Let me state at the outset that, while the answers to (1) and (2) are positive, the answers to (3) and (4) are not. The good news is that Putin would have to be deeply irrational to embark on the kind of full-scale or limited interventions Illarionov has in mind.

As stated, the answer to the first question is an unqualified yes. The Russian armed forces, at about three-quarters of a million troops, are several times larger than the Ukrainian army; their budget allocations are much larger, their weapons more modern, their training better. As their travails in Chechnya have shown, the Russian armed forces are not world-class, but they’re improving, while the Ukrainian army appears to be in terminal decline. Obviously, Russia couldn’t mobilize all its troops in some putative attack on Ukraine, but, whatever the number, they would be more than adequate to defeat Ukraine’s. Russia could also rely on Cossack and other “volunteers” to do some of its dirty work.

The answer to the second question—would such operations succeed?—is less obvious. The Ukrainian military consists of some 150,000 poorly armed, poorly trained soldiers. Would they even fight? Some would, some wouldn’t: those from Luhansk might welcome Russian troops; those from Lviv might shoot back. Chances are, though, that the Russian army would win hands down, especially in a limited invasion of one or two provinces. Would its losses be acceptable to Russians back home? Probably, though that, too, would depend on how protracted and widespread the fighting would be. A more complicated issue is whether the Russian military would have the stomach to deal with the guerrilla resistance that is sure to follow a Ukrainian defeat. A quick, grand, and glorious victory might just lead to cheering in the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg. A long slog in a huge country might turn into a disaster back home and undermine Putin’s rule. Clearly, a full-scale invasion bears significant risks. A limited invasion would be far more manageable for the Kremlin.

Would either a large-scale or limited invasion make sense strategically? Would either advance Russia’s geopolitical interests? If a large-scale invasion were successful, Russia would presumably come to control Ukraine’s ports, energy grid, and economic resources (as well as, quite possibly, a very disgruntled population). At most, that would be a very mixed blessing. Ukraine’s economy is a mess, its coal and gas reserves are nothing compared to Russia’s (though its potential shale-gas reserves might be large), and its ports need modernization. It’s not immediately clear just how Russian ownership of these resources would enhance Russia’s interests. Owning Ukraine’s aging gas pipeline would be nice—though bringing it up to snuff would cost billions—but it’s not quite as imperative now that Russia has poured, or is planning to pour, billions into constructing the North and South Stream pipelines that bypass Ukraine.

A more significant concern relates to Russia’s internal difficulties with terrorism in the North Caucasus, a region that has pretty much escaped Moscow’s control. Wouldn’t starting a major conflagration with Ukraine mean diverting security personnel from the volatile North Caucasus? Wouldn’t such a Ukrainian adventure encourage Islamic resistance movements to accelerate their campaigns within the Russian Federation? Does Russia really want to fight a two-front war? Here, as with the second point, the risks drop appreciably with a limited incursion into one or two provinces.

Finally, what would the international consequences of a large-scale invasion be? Remember: such a move would mean a crass and blatant violation of every single international norm regarding state behavior. Ukraine poses no threat to Russia. It possesses no weapons of mass destruction and houses no anti-Russian terrorists. An invasion would be just that—an invasion, a blatant aggression, an imperialist land-grab. In violating United Nations norms, the Helsinki Final Act, the standards of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and every other postwar accord, Russia would be declaring itself a rogue state. Its ability to play a great-power role as an international mediator would be shot. Its relations with China, Turkey, Europe, and the United States would go into nosedive. A cold war would be likely. North Korea might cheer, and the some on the American left might develop elaborate pro-imperialist justifications, but most of the world would condemn Russia. The rogue state would inevitably become a pariah state.

A limited invasion of one or two provinces—presumably those populated by Russian minorities “clamoring” for “salvation” from “cutthroat bands of Ukrainian fascists”—would have far fewer negative international consequences, and it would certainly be far more doable. But it could also have nasty consequences for the Kremlin’s plans to in-gather former Soviet republics. What would Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev say if Putin annexes Russian-populated Ukrainian territories? How would President Lukashenko of Belarus react? Northern Kazakhstan is inhabited by Russians and Russian speakers; most of Belarus consists of Russian and Russian speakers. If Putin can in-gather Ukraine’s Russians with impunity, why should he stop there? One thing’s for sure, under conditions such as these, Putin’s playthings—the Custom’s Union, the Eurasian Union, and the Russian World project—would die.

But let’s imagine Putin does opt for a limited intervention—perhaps by Russian Cossacks and irregulars pining to deal a mortal blow to the greatest threat to world peace, some non-existent Ukrainian fascism. Which provinces might he want to annex? Well, there’s the Crimea, of course, except that Russia de facto controls most of it anyway. Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based, is a Russian city that pretty much does what it likes. De jure control of the Crimea or Sevastopol might be nice, but would it be worth the bother and risk? Maybe, maybe not. The other two provinces with large Russian populations in need of potential liberation from cutthroat Ukrainian fascists are Luhansk and Donetsk. The Donbas is the unredeemable Ukrainian rust belt, a post-industrial economic cesspool that would require trillions in investment to bring it into the 21st century. Does Putin need such a drag on the stagnating Russian economy at precisely the time that his gas weapon has become blunted due to the shale gas revolution?

In sum, the strategic costs of any kind of invasion could be very high and the strategic benefits are at best uncertain. If Putin is a rational statesman motivated primarily by considerations of Realpolitiak and geopolitics, he would not invade. If Putin is a fascistoid leader who needs imperial talk to legitimate his rule, the outcome is somewhat less certain, but with one important qualification. Imperial talk and chest beating are one thing, and Putin is a master of both. Chest beating does not, however, necessarily translate into war making. It can—as we know from Hitler—but, more often than not, it just results in sabre-rattling, scowling, and an eventual return to one’s cave.

I conclude from the above that—if we assume that Putin is motivated by geopolitical rationality—a large-scale invasion of Ukraine is too risky and, thus, highly unlikely, while a small-scale intervention is unnecessary and, thus, highly unlikely. Not impossible, mind you, just highly unlikely. Dictators the world over, and especially machismo-inspired fascistoid dictators, are prone to strategic mistakes, and one cannot exclude the possibility that even the cold-blooded Putin might experience a frisson of excitement from imagining his troops planting the Russian tricolor in the smoking ruins of Lviv.

If not an invasion, then what? Far more in Putin’s interests is a weak and pliant Ukraine. If you can advance all your interests by kicking around a 99-pound weakling, why not do so? Why pummel him to death? Ukraine already is weak and pliant. The Ukrainian Revolution is unlikely to make it stronger anytime soon. (A democratic Ukraine may become an economic powerhouse sometime in the next decade, but that’s a very long time in the world of politics.) If the Yanukovych regime cracks down, initiates a bloodbath, and sparks a civil war, Russia could be “dragged into” a conflagration with all the risks mentioned above. A huge failed state on its southwestern border cannot be construed as stabilizing and security-enhancing by any rational Russian policymaker. A smashing victory for the democratic opposition would also be undesirable. It’s far better for Russia for the Ukrainian Revolution to result in some kind of negotiated solution, with or without Yanukovych.

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