Washington, November 17, 2021
by Askold Krushelnycky
Russia’s recent mass troop movements around Ukraine have raised fears that Moscow could be poised to invade Ukraine again – which could spark the continent’s largest conflict since World War II.
Ukraine has been fighting regular Russian troops and their “separatist” proxies in eastern Ukraine since intensive fighting in 2014 and 2015, when the conflict settled into low-key warfare along a 400 km front, with daily exchanges of fire and a steady flow of casualties.
Four of Ukraine’s immediate neighbours – Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania are EU and NATO members and a full-scale Russian invasion could swiftly bring fighting close to their borders with unpredictable results.
European leaders, including those of France, Germany, and Britain have reiterated strong support for Ukraine and warned Russian president Vladimir Putin that military aggression against the country would have serious consequences for Moscow. The EU and NATO have said they are studying ways to enhance Ukraine’s abilities to respond to further Russian escalation.
Putin no longer hides ambition to reforge a Russian empire
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been unusually strident in his support for Ukraine and in denouncing Putin’s threats to cut Russian gas supplies to countries supporting Ukraine.
Russia is Europe’s biggest source of gas. Until now much of it has come by a pipeline across Ukraine with transfer revenues aiding her economy. The pipeline enables Moscow’s largest single stream of income and thus provides a measure of protection against all-out Russian attack.Map
However, though the opening of the pipeline has now been delayed by Germany, gas could soon be pumped via the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which many warn will make the continent more vulnerable to Moscow’s political demands, and increase Ukraine’s vulnerability to attack.
“A choice is shortly coming between mainlining ever more Russian hydrocarbons in giant new pipelines or sticking up for Ukraine and championing the cause of peace and stability,” said Johnson.
The US has already sounded the alarm over the heightened threat to Ukraine. American Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned, in reference to the attack on Ukraine: “It would be a serious mistake for Russia to engage in a repeat of what it did in 2014.”
Moscow has throughout this year increased its military presence around Ukraine and in Crimea, which it has occupied for the past seven years. Russian and Belarusian forces have held large military exercises in Belarus, which borders Ukraine’s northwest frontier.
Kyiv estimates some 92,000 Russian troops are gathered close to Ukraine. Much of the Russian tanks and other military hardware used in massive manoeuvres in April were left close to Ukraine’s borders.
Satellite photographs show additional artillery, tanks, and other armoured forces and troops that are usually deep within Russia and close to Ukraine. Moscow has also transferred landing craft, planes and helicopters to Crimea.
In contrast to the previous, intentionally intimidating, unconcealed large-scale exercises, many of the recent deployments have been made under cover of darkness. Recent Russian exercises in Belarus coincided with the cynical humanitarian crisis manufactured by Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, along his country’s border with Poland.
He has dumped thousands of would-be illegal migrants from the Middle East in freezing conditions in the no-man’s land between the two east European countries in an attempt to punish the EU for imposing sanctions against his dictatorial regime. Some American and Ukrainian analysts believe the crisis could be used to distract attention from the invasion threat to Ukraine.
Ukraine has always fought her own battles and has never asked for foreign armies to help. However, some NATO countries – notably America and Britain – have assisted with considerable training, supplying mostly non-lethal equipment and naval vessels to Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odessa in a show of solidarity.
The U.S. has been Ukraine’s most important ally and the first to supply lethal weapons, portable Javelin “tank-killer” missiles, and has transferred some naval vessels with promises of more to come.
Since 2014 the Kremlin has kept up the fake narrative that its regular forces are not in Ukraine and the fighting is done by pro-Moscow “separatists.” But if Russia openly attacks Ukraine it will use its powerful air-force, so far largely unengaged. Ukraine would have to rely on missiles to counter Russian air and sea attacks.
The U.S. Congress has asked President Joseph Biden’s administration to compile a report on how best to beef up Ukraine’s defences. That could mean providing missiles as well as other lethal weaponry. Britain is building vessels to transfer to the Ukrainian Navy and is expected to announce shortly details about providing military equipment.
Moscow was infuriated last month when an armed drone, one of a batch supplied by NATO member Turkey, blasted a Russian artillery position that had been shelling Ukrainian positions. Turkey and Ukraine have agreed to manufacture military drones jointly. Putin has not hidden his ambition to reforge a Russian empire. That project is a non-starter without crushing Ukraine’s independence and incorporating it into the new imperial entity.
The weak and poorly-trained Ukrainian forces that faced Russia in 2014 nevertheless stemmed and severely limited Moscow’s invasion; they have vastly improved since. Russia’s army, the largest in Europe, still dwarfs that of Ukraine, but the disparity in forces is being whittled down.
Observers say the Kremlin may believe time is running out for an invasion on its terms. Putin’s growing economic and political problems at home mean that distracting his people with a war appealing to Russian chauvinism might seem a tempting option.
In parallel to the Russian military build-up Moscow has intensified propaganda about NATO expansion into Ukraine and threats posed to Russia by Ukraine, the country it itself invaded. The Kremlin’s reversal-of-reality claims are aimed at its own people to reinforce the narrative that they are encircled by enemies and that only Putin can save Russia.
Ukrainian and foreign observers say the propaganda campaign is preparing the Russian public for the possibility of war. During a visit to Washington this month Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the various Russian deployments made an attack on Ukraine easier. “It will not take Russia a lot of time to resort to an offensive action if it decides to do so,” he said.
Ruslan Demchenko, First Deputy Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) warned this month about ‘stepped up’ destabilisation by Russia as part of its hybrid war.
He also predicted that Russia will cause an energy crisis in Ukraine and further afield by hindering gas and coal supplies, try to provoke anti-vaccination protests, stir up political protests, force Ukrainians in occupied territories to take Russian passports, and fuel fears that Ukraine would undergo a coup next year.
“Constant military manoeuvres near Ukraine’s borders and the threat of offensive operations are gradually becoming a tool of maintaining a permanent atmosphere of nervousness in Ukraine,” he said.
An actual attack by Russia was “most likely possible only after a general picture of total destabilisation and fragmentation of Ukraine” was brought about, he thought. The NSDC says Moscow’s destabilisation efforts could peak in November-December 2021 or during February-April 2022 “when Ukrainians may reach a ‘boiling point’ under [because of] Russia’s hybrid actions.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “the movements of our armed forces on our soil shouldn’t be of anyone’s concern. Russia poses no threat to anyone.”