Russia – Ukraine Crisis: As West race to prevent war, why Putin will not allow Kiev to join NATO

Ukraine is a quintessential borderland state and sits on the Northern European Plain, that has historically served as an invasion superhighway, going East and West.

russia ukraine conflict
Geography demands that Russia cannot allow Ukraine to be a part of NATO. (Photo source: AP)

By Maj Gen PK Mallick, VSM (Retd)

Drumbeats of war were being sounded for some time in Ukraine Russian border with an estimated 150,000 Russian troops massed on three sides of Ukraine. Hectic diplomatic parleys were going on. There were speculations that action may start after the end of Winter Olympic games. Saturday’s statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin ordering forces into separatist regions of eastern Ukraine may well have been a beginning of some military action. Putin said,“I consider it necessary to take a long-overdue decision: To immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.” Putin’s recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk rebel regions’ independence paves the way for the long-feared Russian invasion and effectively shatters the Minsk peace agreements.

Predictably the U.N. Security Council held a rare night time emergency meeting on Monday. The White House issued an executive order to prohibit U.S. investment and trade in the separatist regions. Additional sanctions are to be announced on Tuesday.

Ukraine is a quintessential borderland state and sits on the Northern European Plain, that has historically served as an invasion superhighway, going East and West. Ukrainian geography only facilitated such invasion.

Geography demands that Russia cannot allow Ukraine to be a part of NATO. It would open up Russian hinterland to any Western invasion.Strategic depth is vital for Russia.George Friedman put it clearly: “Russia has been invaded in the 17th century by the Swedes, in the 19th century by the French and in the 20th century twice by the Germans. In each case, they won the war or survived it by strategic depth.” Russia has clearly demarcated its red line: incorporating Ukraine into the NATO Alliance.

Russia’s neighbours also have a reasonable historical fear of Russian aggression. The expansion of NATO to the East has not materialised since 2009 because of fervent opposition from leading European NATO powers of Germany, France and Italy.  This is not likely to change. Germany is dependent on Russian gas. They have a long-term interest in developing Russian markets and natural resources.

Russia has been part of a great civilisation. Today it has only hydrocarbon and nuclear weapons to show as its resources to be a great power. But one has to appreciate how adroitly it is using its diplomatic skills, information and cyber powers to become a near peer rival of U.S. We should have noted how Russia pulled off a spectacular geopolitical coup in successfully reasserting its influence in the South Caucasus, independent of Western powers. Under the cease fire agreement, Russian peacekeepers would be deployed for at least five years to guard the Line of Contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. Moscow has kept the major actors of the U.S. and France out of the equation. Moscow shut out the West from South Caucasus, put boots on the ground in Azerbaijan, showed Turkey its place and asserted its dominant power in the South Caucasus. Peace keeping operations without the involvement of UN is a phenomenon Russia is replicating now in Ukraine. This shows its diplomatic skills.

The US has threatened the “high-impact” measures against Russia which may include:

Ban on lending to and business with Russian energy and metallurgical companies and state-controlled banks.

Cutting Russia off from the SWIFT banking network.

Limiting Russian access to Western financing through prohibitions on the purchase of Russian sovereign debt on the secondary market.

Secondary sanctions are measures through which the sanctioning country punishes third-party violators by enabling the Combating America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA)and enforcing strictly.

The shutdown of the near-complete Nord Stream II pipeline, if Germany agrees.

Russia would be aware of the critical effect of the sanctions. Russia may be banking on that stepping up enforcement of CAATSA sanctions would hit European firms hard that do business with Russia. Russia could also use the gas market as leverage, as Europe would be severely affected. Germany is dependent critically on Russian gas. They have a long-term interest in developing Russian markets and natural resources.

Russia has these advantages: USD630 billion in international reserves, favourable energy market, augmented indigenization of critical industries, Chinese Cross-Border Interbank Payment System and alternatives to SWIFT in the form of the domestic Russian System for Transfer of Financial Messages.

Russia has been a past master in information warfare and has stepped up the war against Ukraine in the information domain. There has been a marked shift in the focus of Russia’s propaganda.

However, for a change, the U.S. has developed an effective technique for waging an information war. The U.S. is releasing intelligence reports about Russia’s attempts to create a justification for an invasion of Ukraine and not allowing Russia to freely broadcast conspiracy theories about anti-Russia plots involving the West and Ukraine. The UK in collaboration with the US announced on January 23, 2022, the details of an alleged Russian plot to install a pro-Moscow regime in Kyiv. On February 3, the U.S. released information about a Russian arrangement to film a fake attack on Russian territory or Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine to create a justification for an invasion.

Russia has been using cyber warfare against Ukraine for a long time. In the third week of January 2022, there was a barrage of hacking that crippled and defaced more than a dozen Ukrainian government websites. Experts consider this activity by Russia as cyber preparation of the battlefield. The targets were precisely the ones one would expect to be targeted for intelligence collection and battlefield preparation ahead of an invasion.

The US and the UK sent cyberwarfare experts to assist Ukraine. It is not clear whether US will carry out cyber operations against Russia.

There is a school of thought which feels Russia has been winning in Ukraine. Ukraine is nowhere near joining NATO. Russia’s annexation of Crimea is a geopolitical fact now. Putin is a master in using military force in ways that don’t progress to hot war. Western powers have been signalling that they won’t allow a new invasion of Ukraine to go unpunished. But judging when to act, and how, is crucial. Hew Strachan writes, the pompous, yet vacuous rhetoric used by the west risks pushing the conflict over the line into a military one, for which there is no strategy or exit plan.

The hard reality of global geopolitics is: Is Ukraine really so important to global security that the United States should be defending it? The U.S. actions say no. If it was so important, they would have defended it in 2014. The U.S. has already stated that it would not send troops to defend Ukraine.

Russia knows that the West will not fight for Ukraine as it is not a NATO ally. The traditional military deterrence will not work. The West has threatened massive economic sanctions. But there is no historical evidence to suggest that sanctions alone can provide enough punishment to deter a major power from taking decisive military action. Putin has prepared his country to weather that storm.

For Russia the decision to attack Ukraine is risky. There are political, geopolitical, logistical, financial and material difficulties to such an invasion. Even if military victory is achieved easily, maintaining power and keeping a regime favourable to Russia will be difficult. There is every chance that Russia may get embroiled in a prolonged counter-insurgency operation where neighbours of Ukraine will be more than willing to provide all possible help to insurgents. Russia will not forget its experience in Afghanistan in a hurry.

Approximately eight million ethnic Russians live in Ukraine mostly in the south and east of Ukraine. Moscow has not lost its leverage over Ukraine in the Donbas region. Recognising the separatist regions’ independence is likely to be popular in Russia, where many share Putin’s worldview. Russian state media released images of people in Donetsk setting off fireworks, waving large Russian flags and playing Russia’s national anthem.

The large military presence along the border is doing enough damage to Ukraine by severely undermining its economy. The build-up of troops along the Russia-Ukraine border is not targeting Ukraine, but the West. Russia wants to force Western countries to sit down for negotiations on issues of European security.

A Russian invasion of Ukraine would be a disaster for Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of Europe. It would disrupt the European security order and the global geopolitical situation. It is crucial to shaping the strategic environment in which diplomatic efforts take place. 

There is another political question in Russia itself.  Is the Russian population ready and in favour of a war against Ukraine?

Military Aspects

Dr Seth Jones, Senior Vice President, Center for Strategic and International Studies, has given out an anticipated Russian military plan.

There will be irregular operations, cyber operations and various aspects of subversion and sabotage by Russia’s intelligence services viz, the main intelligence Directorate GRU, the foreign intelligence agency SVR and various Russian Special Operations Forces.

Six types of military options that the Russians could undertake.

Decision not to invade but to continue to use irregular means in Ukraine, a combination of offensive cyber operations and then proxies and partners and some Russian forces operating probably out of uniform in Ukraine, including in Donetsk and Luhansk. 

Focus on formally seizing Donetsk and Luhansk.

A conventional push up to the Dnieper River, which would be a reasonable geographic barrier.

Seizing of the Dnieper River as well as an additional belt of land around the Black Sea, which would connect Russia, including Crimea, to Transnistria.

Take the belt of land from Crimea along the Black Sea.

Seizure of all of Ukraine involving all conventional forces and then irregular units operating, in the west.

Russia will start with heavy offensive cyber operations against command-and-control structures, critical infrastructure, airstrikes from Russian fixed-wing aircraft and strategic bombers against key locations in Ukraine, command-and-control centres, air defence systems, Ukrainian air systems, some conventional units on the ground to facilitate a ground advance. There will be movements of main battle tanks, towed artillery, self-propelled howitzers, multiple-launch rocket systems, short-range ballistic missiles, surface-to-air missile systems and a variety of other support vehicles and equipment that has been pushed to Yelnya and various other locations.

Some of the irregular activities can be:

Several Russian and Belarusian cyber perpetrators, the UNC2452, Turla, the very advanced persistent threats including 28, APT28, UNC530, UNC1151. These actors have been tied to intelligence services in Russia, Belarus and other countries

There are paramilitary actors in Ukraine that could conduct escalated sabotage and subversion if the Russians decided to do that.

Russian maritime vessels are operating around the fibre optic networks off the coast of Ireland. There are reports of some of the fibre optic cables going dark.  Russian vessels, including submarines, potentially could cut those critical underwater communications cables.

It would not be easy for Russia if there were weapons systems like cyber defence systems, electronic warfare provided to the Ukrainians.

(The author is an Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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First published on: 23-02-2022 at 12:47 IST