From the outset of the current crisis in Ukraine, Moscow’s policies have been driven primarily by geopolitical considerations, not by developments inside Ukraine itself. Despite its rhetoric, the Kremlin cares little if at all about the design of Ukrainian federalism, the rights of Russian speakers, or alleged “fascists” in Kyiv, except insofar as they affect Ukraine’s external orientation and Russia’s geopolitical interests. Ukraine was, and doubtless to a certain extent still is, a central element in the Kremlin’s ambitions to establish a Russian-dominated “Eurasian” pole in what it sees as an increasingly multi-polar world. But more importantly, it has been and remains critical to the Kremlin’s goal of keeping the United States, the European Union, and above all NATO from becoming politically, economically, and militarily preeminent in post-Soviet space.
Accordingly, anyone interested in forecasting the Kremlin’s next moves in Ukraine should keep his/her eye on the geopolitical ball. That in turn means assessing how Russian decision-makers are likely to see the evolving geopolitical context, as well as how they are likely to think Ukraine can, or cannot, be used to influence that context.
My take on this key question at the moment is as follows. The Kremlin has probably concluded that (1) the Ukraine crisis has made Russia’s already serious security problems with NATO much worse; (2) the repositioning of NATO hard power assets to the east, along with NATO’s growing military cooperation with Sweden, Finland, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, constitute an acute threat to Russian national security; (3) although Russia may emerge from its current recession by the end of the year, its economy will very likely grow slowly for at least several years, and as a result it is going to be increasingly difficult to fulfill the Kremlin’s ambitious military spending plans; (4) a long period of weak economic performance may lead to domestic unrest at some point, which the West will seek to exploit; (5) a “pivot to China,” greater cooperation with the other BRICS countries, or alliances with anti-Western governments around the globe may help Russia’s geopolitical position in the long run, but they won’t solve the immediate security challenge from NATO; and (6) the Kremlin is nevertheless duty bound to ensure that the balance of hard power along its western borders does not shift decisively in NATO’s favor.
To put the problem bluntly, Russia has what it considers an acute problem with NATO, not with Ukraine, and it is not going to solve that problem by improved relations with China or the other BRICS countries. Neither it is easy, for reasons elaborated below, to see how Russia can use Ukraine to solve the problem.
What strategies, then, are available to the Kremlin to meet this challenge, and in particular what role can Ukraine play in its response?
It strikes me that there are at least five possibilities, as follows (moving from more to less likely).
An obvious initial point about these five strategies is that they are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, any approach is going to include at least some “hunker down” measures initially. Prioritizing one over others will nonetheless impact Kremlin decision-making. For example, if the primary strategy is to hunker down, not military intimidation, the Kremlin would spend less on brinkmanship and information war and more on hard power defenses and internal security. It might also influence its disposition of forces as well as the nature of its arms buildup. Likewise, trying to divide Europe through political and economic means might lead the Kremlin to back off on military intimidation, the assumption being that military intimidation is likely to unify, not divide, the Western alliance.
A second and related point is that the Kremlin might well adopt a sequenced strategy – that is, it might plan to emphasize a particular approach now but a different one later. For example, it might decide to hunker down initially but position itself for détente down the road.
Third, it is possible that the Kremlin has yet to settle on a clear strategy. Even if it has, it may be relatively flexible about changing course should circumstances change. For example, it might plan on a hunker down plus military intimidation policy for now, but wait and see if we get a disorderly Grexit, financial contagion, another recession in Europe, and growing political and economic divisions between major Western powers, at which point it might decide that the time had come to use political/economic means to encourage pro-Russian forces or to negotiate a new security architecture for Europe.
Fourth, while a preemptive attack on the Baltic republics was always unlikely, it is even less likely now (although still possible) than it was a year ago. NATO now has significant rotational forces in the Baltic republics, a presence that is almost certain to prove permanent (and eventually may be supplemented by permanent bases there or in Poland). This means that a Russian invasion of the Baltic states would entail killing American and West European servicemen. That in turn makes a robust U.S./NATO response – and possibly an all-out NATO-Russia war – much more likely should Russia introduce troops into the Baltic states. In addition, countless Western officials, including President Obama, have affirmed the “inviolability” of NATO’s Article 5 commitments over the past year, and a U.S. president that did not live up to that commitment would be in enormous political trouble. It is also difficult at this point to see how a pro-Russian uprising in the Baltic republics (which Moscow views as the equivalent of Western-instigated “colored revolutions”) could succeed if the Kremlin were unable to introduce troops to support it, even assuming the Kremlin were in a position to engineer such an uprising, which I think is highly unlikely. As a result, a Russian invasion or “hybrid war” campaign in the Baltic republics is in my view highly unlikely – the bigger risk in the Baltics is a direct clash between Russian and NATO naval or air forces resulting from brinkmanship gone awry.
Fifth, a détente strategy is also unlikely, at least for now, because the Kremlin must realize that it is very unlikely to succeed. Even if the Kremlin were willing to make meaningful compromises on force dispositions and/or neutrality for Ukraine, Belarus, and so on (which is far from clear), Western governments are not going to want to appear to reward Russia for using force to change internationally recognized borders. Nor are they, as a matter of principle, going to put a permanent halt to NATO or EU expansion or the movement of more hard power assets toward Russia’s borders, let alone withdraw those that have already moved in over the past year. At some point well down the road – perhaps in five or ten years – a Grand Security Bargain with Russia may be possible, but not now.
Finally, and importantly, Russia’s problems with NATO are not going to be solved in Ukraine no matter what strategy it adopts. In particular, ordering or endorsing another major offensive by the “combined Russian-separatists forces” will only make the NATO problem worse. Even a hunker down/intimidate the West strategy would be undermined by having to spend more money, and use up more military assets, in a pointless effort to seize significant cities like Mariupol, Slavyansk, or Kramatorsk, which if successful would leave the separatists, and their Kremlin patrons, with more governance costs and challenges. Already Russian analysts have been arguing that the West is trying to get Russia bogged down militarily in Ukraine, and that it is using the Ukraine crisis to distract Russia as it moves more military assets east. Moreover, the Kremlin has probably concluded – correctly in my view – that another significant offensive in eastern Ukraine would further unify the West; make it less likely that the EU might lift at least some sanctions at the end of the year; further undermine Russian sympathizers in the West; increase the speed and scale of NATO’s reinforcement of its eastern flank; and provoke increased Western military assistance to Ukraine, including provision of lethal weapons.
Additionally, the Kremlin probably has concluded, again correctly, that it can’t really scare the West by ramping up the violence in eastern Ukraine because doing so does not risk a direct clash between Russian and NATO forces. That is also true of Russian pressure on Georgia. More land grabs in Ukraine, or for that matter in Georgia or Finland, will provoke outrage, not fear, in Western publics, and they would unify, not divide, the Western Alliance. Much the most effective way to put a real scare into the West is to provoke some kind of a military crisis in the eastern Baltic Sea, where the risks of a NATO-Russia military clash are greatest.
There is another consideration that must enter into the Kremlin’s calculations. Ukraine’s armed forces, including its many volunteer units, have been fighting hard in eastern Ukraine for well over a year now, and as a result they have acquired considerable combat experience. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and role in eastern Ukraine have also helped unite the country, at least with respect to defending itself against further Russian aggression. The Russian military also appears to be experiencing difficulties keeping up its current tempo of operations in Ukraine and elsewhere. As a result, its military advantages over Ukraine have decreased, while the costs of a significant increase in its level of military involvement have increased, over the past year. A Russian invasion directed at establishing a land corridor to Crimea would likely have encountered very little resistance a year ago, but that is no longer the case. And it is quite unlikely that an offensive directed at taking significant territory would work at this point unless Russia intervened openly and with considerably more force that it has been willing to apply so far.
For all these reasons, I doubt that the Kremlin will order or endorse a major Russian/separatist offensive in Ukraine. The costs would outweigh the benefits by a considerable margin. This of course does not mean that the Kremlin will allow Kyiv to retake control of the separatist zone. Nor does it mean that it wants to, or is even in a position to, oversee the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. It isn’t. It is also possible that “combined Russian-separatists forces” might try to drive the Ukrainians back from Donetsk and Horlivka in an effort to make those cities less vulnerable to Ukrainian military pressure. But the real choice for Moscow now is whether to allow a ceasefire to come into effect by force of arms, or to keep the conflict at a low boil long enough to use it as leverage in negotiations with the West over what really matters to it, which is the growing presence of NATO troops near its western borders. A major offensive that includes trying to take a significant city will only make Russia’s NATO problem worse.