Illustration by Ben Beechener

It is happening again. Russian troops mass on Ukraine’s borders. This happened earlier in April last year, and it essentially amounted to nothing. In December 2021, Ukraine’s official Twitter account joked about the affair, posting a meme about the regularity of Russian provocations on the border. Some commentators have swept the latest movements aside as Moscow’s latest ‘temper tantrum’.

This is complacency. In November 2021, one hundred battalion tactical groups (warfighting formations) began moving into positions near and facing the Ukrainian border. Major formations, including entire manoeuvre armies, have relocated to Yelnya, a city closer to Russia’s border with Belarus. Any move from here would arch through Poland and northern Europe, rather than Ukraine’s embattled southeast. This suggests a more strategic intent: they are not signalling to Kyiv, but to NATO. Armour, artillery, and electronic warfare systems have begun moving into positions bordering Donbas and in Crimea. These movements have been far more guarded than those earlier in 2021. Many movements have been detectable only by satellite imagery and spy planes. The Russian Ministry of Defence is concurrently building up its professional reserves. This short-term expansion could serve to replace expected casualties or, as one analyst suggests, even to occupy territory. The primary motive right now is not just to frighten.

This has been going on for months. The most worrying revelation is more recent. US intelligence-sharing has revealed that the Kremlin has developed plans for a complex offensive against Ukraine, involving 175,000 troops, armoured and airborne assaults, amphibious attacks from Crimea, and multiple prongs from Donbas and further north. US intelligence already suspected as much: last month, the director of the CIA was dispatched to Moscow on a rare visit to warn Russian security officials that the Agency knew what they were doing. In all likelihood, the Russian military will be in a position to carry out such an operation by early next year. In December 2021, President Putin began to decry the Donbas conflict as a “genocide”. This is a step-up in rhetoric: as he well knows, there is only one way to halt a genocide.

Russian threats are not empty. Moscow takes Ukrainian affairs extremely seriously. Much of the discourse around Russian activity there has focused on Western “threats” and NATO’s relationship with Kyiv. Russian attitudes on this, though we might see them as overly paranoid, are sincere and deeply held. Even in 1993, the director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Agency (SVR) warned – euphemistically – that any eastward expansion of NATO would necessitate a ‘fundamental reappraisal of all defence concepts’. Virtually since the creation of the Russian Federation, its leaders have viewed the eastward expansion of NATO as an existential threat to Russian sovereignty and strategic independence. It is a serious and long-term concern for the Russian state. There is no guarantee it will recede when Putin (theoretically) is gone in 2024. The siloviki – the Russian “security class” (military, law enforcement, and intelligence services) – feel just as strongly. The siloviki are powerful in Russian politics. There are plenty of them, including many more hard-line, that could replace Putin.

Putin has acted on NATO expansion before. Before Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, there were, admittedly, other issues at stake. Within Georgia, a separatist war between the state and Russian-aligned South Ossetia and Abkhazia preceded the invasion. What actually triggered the invasion in 2008 was the issue of NATO. At NATO’s Bucharest summit in April 2008, NATO stated that the organisation would support Georgia and Ukraine’s membership of NATO. That same month, military confrontation began in Abkhazia which gave the Russians the demonstrably flimsy “pretext” they used to invade Georgia. Internal separatism was exploited for Russian gain first in Georgia and Crimea, and to this day in the Donbas.

The Russian military has been transformed into a capable warfighting force. It is now better equipped, more professional, and more highly trained than at any point in its post-Soviet history. It is no longer the corrupt, conscript-staffed instrument of the Chechnya years. Russian remilitarisation is unlikely to halt or wither out immediately. On the contrary: one expert judges that, considering the success of military modernisation compared to the Kremlin’s economic or parliamentary activities, Putin is unwittingly creating a ‘modern-day Sparta’. The Russian Army is by no means invincible, especially against American firepower. But now more than ever, it is a force to be reckoned with.

The current escalation is not a problem that can be swept under the rug. It is not just a ‘temper tantrum’. Agreeing with one Russian analyst, recent events show that Moscow can now place itself high on Western agendas at will. Admittedly, this has been a long-time project of Putin’s. But a desire to spite Moscow should not blind us to a now basic geopolitical reality.

Force matters, and in this respect NATO and Moscow keep talking past each other. In 2014, Putin occupied the Crimea and pushed into the Donbas, and was met with sanctions from the US without a substantial physical response. Since then, force numbers have been augmented in Poland and the Baltics as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence. However, support for Ukraine mainly consists of arms sales and military advisors, rather than combat troops. Earlier this year, there was hard talk, but little materialised. Over the most recent escalation, Biden initially ruled out deterrent combat deployments over Russian war-plans, saying the US will send troops only if Russia invades. The US has said it would increase deployments to Poland and the Baltic states, and the UK looks set to do the same. We are, again, missing Moscow’s cues. The decision to prepare the Russian army for war is the latest step in diplomatic signalling that the West has hitherto failed to recognise.

The most powerful of the democratic militaries, those of the US and the UK, should deploy combat formations to Ukraine. American and British forces have been stationed in western Ukraine training its army and providing equipment since 2015 anyway. This would signal Western resolve to Russia that negotiations would be carried out with the backing of force to match. Admittedly, Ukraine is not yet part of NATO. However, the Russians have demanded that no NATO troops or weapons should be deployed in any areas deemed a threat to Russia, including the Baltic states and Poland – both NATO members. This is not just about Ukraine, but designs on the former Eastern Bloc. NATO must signal its determination to defend its members. To hold any water, NATO’s Forward Presence must be both forward and present

During the Cold War, military confrontations prevented the strategic imbalances that would incentivise action by an opportunistic aggressor on numerous occasions. Think of Checkpoint Charlie, or the Cuban Missile Crisis (which has already been referenced by Russian Foreign Minister Ryabkov). This might draw complaints about a return to a “Cold War mentality”. However, as Putin laments the demise of “historical Russia” in the USSR, that backslide may be a fait accompli.

As pundits frequently aver, Putin is a judoka, not a chess player. His military record smacks of opportunism, not intricate plans carefully formulated and micromanaged decades in advance. Lessons were learnt in Chechnya, and applied to Georgia, Crimea and the Donbas. The presence of foreign troops in Ukraine to resist Russian aggression on its border is a political as well as military deterrent. The strains of war against the world’s best-equipped modern armies would be unimaginable – fatal, perhaps, considering Russia’s demography.

Military deployment would also somewhat – ironically – benefit Putin. It would afford him the international recognition (or fear) that he has sought for Russia for decades.

Instead, Biden and State Secretary Blinken have promised ‘significant and severe’ sanctions should Russia attack Ukraine. It is now clear that these would be multilateral. Sanctions have worked before, to an extent. Anders Åslund, an expert on the Russian economy, points out that the Russian economy has been in stagnation since 2014. On the economic effects of sanctions, Åslund is absolutely correct. He also points out that the 2014 sanctions put the brakes on Putin’s ideas about re-establishing old Novorossiya. The initiative petered out 3% into Ukraine’s Eastern territories. Yet the political effects of sanctions were not as direct. Firstly, we do not know that Putin was planning on a grand sweep of the entire country, instead of, as the last seven years have shown, boiling the Ukrainian frog. Putin just as likely intended on destabilising the Ukrainian political system, or coercing more compliance from Kyiv – we cannot know for sure. Secondly, fighting in crucial spots like Donetsk Airport and Debaltseve continued after the sanctions were applied. 

Of course, the sanctions are damaging; Putin has on numerous occasions indicated his wishes that current sanctions be lifted. But there are other costs of acquiescence. Putin might consider backing down in Eastern Europe – in the Kremlin’s reading, opening itself to national security threats – as more unthinkable. 

The economic consequences of sanctions are clear; their influence on political choices, not so much. It would seem Putin made the choice for the Russian people last year, outlining a bare-minimum and essentially zero-growth rate future in a July 2020 executive order. The Russian economy has adapted to sanctions since 2014. The Kremlin, indeed, has begun turning to trade with China, Africa, and the Middle East. Even the US cutting Russia off from the SWIFT financial messaging system, designed to allow rapid communication between international financial institutions – an option dubbed the ‘Nuclear Option’ – would not be guaranteed to affect the desired geopolitical change. Since 2014, Russia has begun constructing an alternative to SWIFT, whose growth, while not meteoric, would undoubtedly be accelerated by Western sanctions without any physical deterrent.

Negotiation and dialogue will be vital. Of paramount importance will be reassuring Putin of the absence of Western designs to encroach upon Eastern Europe. This author would recommend, among other things, emphasizing reluctance to immediately incorporate Ukraine into NATO; Bush’s enthusiasm around the matter in 2008 was a needless mistake that has cost Russo-Western relations decades. However, the main concessions Putin wants – written guarantees that Ukraine will not join NATO, enforcement of Minsk II, and the departure of foreign troops and materiel from Ukrainian soil – cannot be guaranteed by current administrations. Moreover, Ukraine does satisfy all three main criteria for NATO membership: it is a European nation, it would be contributing to NATO’s borders upon entry, and it is a democracy.

It is not immediately clear that diplomacy is de-escalating matters, even in the short term. The Kremlin is still ramping up the rhetoric. Putin’s “genocide” warnings have been augmented by Foreign Minister Ryabkov’s threats of nuclear confrontation and another Cuban missile crisis.

The most painful admission is that diplomacy is only a temporary fix. The issue of Ukraine’s membership of NATO has continued for thirteen years and despite little progress on the matter, the Kremlin’s activity has only intensified. The issue goes deeper than NATO and is a matter of history as much as geopolitics. In July, for example, Putin penned an essay denying that Ukrainians were a real people. Ukrainian statehood and autonomy are at stake. This is not negotiated away; it is fought over – and has been for seven years already. A full-scale invasion might not occur this month, or even this year. But the divisions are there, and, it looks like, are there to stay

No-one wins from a European war. Ukrainians would suffer in their hundreds of thousands if not millions. So would Russians, both the soldiers killed or injured (physically or psychologically), and their family and friends, unable to speak out since 2015 when all Russian military deaths became state secrets. Indeed, both sides have already suffered, the war in Donbas having already claimed an estimated 13,000 lives to date. Britain would not be spared the immense human suffering of a European conflict either. The new Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, has warned that the scale of slaughter would be akin to World War Two. Alongside robust negotiations and economic sanctions, deployments should be proportionate, and designed to warn Putin that we are taking him absolutely as seriously as befits his status as President of the Russian Federation. The US is now considering backing a Ukrainian insurgency should Russia invade further. Since this deterrent is predicated on Russia already having attacked, it is psychological rather than physical. An insurgency would draw in special forces, as the Syrian Civil War has shown, putting British lives at risk anyway. Most importantly, an insurgency would be devastating for the Ukrainian people and infrastructure. The best use of a military response should be to minimise the opportunity for war in the first place.

The threat of war is serious. There is no express reason why Europe should be immune to war. Those who assume this reveal the privileged complacency of generations politically and culturally insulated from it. Throughout European history, various – and erroneous – reasons have been offered to explain why Europe would enjoy a uniquely peaceful future. Before the First World War, financiers and governments assumed that the ‘delicate interdependence of international finance’ would preclude any general conflict from breaking out. It did not, either in 1914 or 1939. Europe’s last genocide ended not in 1945, but 1995 – and through hard-nosed NATO intervention. The primary mechanisms of peace in post-war Europe were borne of NATO and American superpower hegemony: defence against the Warsaw Pact, in action in countries like Bosnia lying outside European Union jurisdiction. In Europe, peace is still enforced before it is enjoyed.

By immediately ruling out a military response, Biden has hamstrung his negotiating position. This is quickly becoming apparent. On the 10th December 2021, it became clear that Biden had requested that Kyiv cede autonomy to the Russian-occupied Donbas regions. One may argue Biden is merely encouraging President Zelenskyy to enforce what was agreed in Minsk II; but is this not the leader of the free world pressuring the leader of a smaller nation to act on a truce it signed while held at gunpoint by its larger neighbour? This shows firstly that NATO cracks under threats, and secondly, that in Eastern Europe, might is right. It encourages the Kremlin that aggression in Ukraine reaps political benefits.

It is unlikely, as others have hinted, that the current events are part of some broader pre-planned conspiracy to enable simultaneous invasions of Ukraine and Taiwan by Russia and China respectively. However, the current measures may prove grist to the mill of Chinese war hawks. When it comes down to it, how sincere are American statements of support for the defence of Taiwan? If the People’s Liberation Army calculates the risk is worth taking, and the US proves as unreliable as it has been in Ukraine, then the process repeats ad infinitum until war. If the US comes good on its promises, then there is war anyway.

We have returned to an era of great power competition; in many areas, the ‘rules-based international order’ recedes before our very eyes. It is heartening that the CDS recognises this. Though war is cresting the horizon, it is by no means inevitable, and preparing for it is the best way to guard against it. It has been said that ‘people sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men [and women!] stand ready to do violence on their behalf.’ It is this author’s hope that the present article provides a convincing case by which to keep those “rough people” at the ‘stand ready’, before they are gone, and the duty falls to ourselves and others of our age. Inaction and ambiguity on Ukraine have global ramifications. The path we currently tread is the surest road to war.

Chris Conway

Chris is a Junior Editor in Global Affairs and a second-year historian at Magdalen College. He has his own blog (https://thearrow2021.blogspot.com/) focusing on defence, technology, and foreign affairs. His special interest is Russian history and politics, on which he has published articles in both The Blue and his own blog.