Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is backfiring
Western intelligence agencies have warned that Russia is considering invading Ukraine, possibly with around 175,000 soldiers. Vladimir Putin’s government has already deployed more than 100,000 soldiers along the Ukrainian borders, including to Belarus. Russian officials have made outrageously paranoid and false allegations. For example, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently blamed NATO for the return of the “nightmare scenario of military confrontation”. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the United States is smuggling “tanks with unidentified chemical components” into Donetsk, Ukraine. And Putin himself has also been derogatory to NATO and threatened military action if it does not agree to his terms. “You have pushed us to a limit that we cannot cross,” he said on Sunday. “They have come so far that we just have to tell them: ‘Stop!'”
However, a recent report concludes that despite its massive efforts and threatening rhetoric, Russia has no plans to invade Ukraine. The report, produced by the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, of which I am director of Foreign and Defense Studies with the Institute for the Study of War, states that the political and economic costs of an actual invasion are on Russia too high to hold up. “Putin may be attempting a strategic misdirection that impales the West in a diplomatic process and military planning cycle that keeps him unprepared,” the report argues. Instead of directly raiding Ukraine again, Russia is instead trying to further destabilize Ukraine in the run-up to its elections, station troops in Belarus, split NATO and obtain Western concessions to de-escalate the crisis.
Even without an invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s military moves pose a serious threat to America’s allies, including the Baltic states. Russia, as the price of even considering its military armament, demands that NATO accept a different security framework for Europe , gives up all future NATO accession and renounces military cooperation with any non-NATO state.
The CTP / ISW’s assessment of Russia’s intentions is in line with the country’s preference for hybrid or threshold warfare: the amalgamation of disinformation and political, economic, and military actions aimed at immobilizing or weakening opponents without triggering an effective response. The terms are fashionable, as if the practice were a new addition to the inventory of warfare. Indeed, the simplified definition of warfare as purely military operations was new after the Cold War, and that narrow notion has now evaporated along with American military domination.
Strategic failure is almost always a failure of the imagination, like the Trojans who don’t wonder what’s inside that giant wooden horse. We are now trying to think as creatively as our opponents. But the US has a number of advantages: time, allies, transparency and law.
Although Russia’s military operations were swift, the US and its allies recognized them early enough to warn each other and agree on how to react. The storm of Russian revanchism since Putin came to power called for a quick reaction; Defense spending by European NATO members has increased since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. Bilateral consultations and NATO meetings resulted in a number of potential political and economic sanctions, in particular Russia’s expulsion from the SWIFT financial network, designed to give Putin and his businessmen a break. Turkey is supplying drones to Ukraine, the US has sent military advisors and Javelin missiles, and Germany is rethinking Nord Stream 2
Pipeline. Democratic societies are slow to approximate, but once committed, permanent, and the US and its allies have had time to organize.
In order to de-escalate the crisis caused by Putin, the Biden government has ruled out the use of American troops to defend Ukraine. Joe Biden apparently hoped to prevent war through misjudgment – one side misinterpreted the actions of the other and the violence resulted in a nuclear apocalypse. And while the textbook military strategy contemplates telling an opponent what not to do, in circumstances where the asymmetry of interest is so pronounced, putting a cap on possible escalation is likely to make American politics more credible . In the immediate aftermath of the US surrender in Afghanistan, it is simply not credible to argue that the Biden government will “fight every struggle and bear every burden” to achieve the independence of a still corrupt post-Soviet government.
Biden agreed to Russia’s call for discussions on a new European security framework. That approval was undoubtedly a concession that gave some weight to Russian concerns, and it has worried frontline NATO allies who have long (and legitimately) been afraid of leaving. However, if we had refused to even speak of Russian concerns, it is difficult to imagine maintaining the solidarity of the Western alliance or American public support for the risks and sacrifices any response to a Russian attack on Ukraine could bring . And agreeing to discuss Russia’s version of post Cold War history or its demands for a sphere of influence that would surrender countries to Russian rule does not mean accepting it.
If the discussions take place in a NATO forum, as Russia has now agreed, the West can demonstrate its increased solidarity. Russia’s threats have united the alliance. The discussions will also contrast America’s preferred power model, based on our ability to convince others to share the burden of our efforts, against the model pursued by Russia and China, based on threatening nations with submission.
The United States and its allies have the simpler side of this argument. As Ronald Reagan said, “There is a profound moral difference between using force to liberate and using force to conquer.” Russia may mobilize some support from countries that feel threatened by governments held accountable by their citizens but the US has the moral and mathematical advantage of arguing against strong states that impose their will on those unable to protect themselves.
Not that Ukraine really isn’t in a position to protect itself. Another thing that could hold back a Russian invasion of Ukraine is the fact that even in Donbass the powerful Russian military has failed to contain the Ukrainian resistance. On the contrary: Russia has strengthened the Ukrainian national identity. A Russian occupation would encounter the kind of insurrection that the Russian military, despite its brutality in Afghanistan and Chechnya, could not suppress. Half a million Ukrainians have military experience; In a recent survey, 24 percent of those questioned said they would oppose the Russian occupation “with a weapon in hand”. Russia might manage to conquer Ukraine, but it is unlikely to hold it.
NATO countries may not fight for Ukraine, but they will likely arm and train Ukrainians to fight for themselves. A Russian invasion would open the floodgates of Western support for Ukraine and activate similar civil society mobilizations among NATO frontline states. Putin’s threats have already convinced the Germans that Nord Stream 2 is not just a business, but a geopolitical leverage. The EU can use its regulatory tools more aggressively against Gazprom and other Russian companies seeking access to European markets to review their practices and enforce compliance with the law.
Transparency is a potentially devastating tool against authoritarians, as corruption is delegitimized. The governments of free societies already face public scrutiny, which enables them to demand the same of others. Russia’s leaders fear that they are responsible for their wealth; the corruption revelations in the Panama Papers appear to have led Putin to unleash cybervigilants against the US
Russia’s past attempts to intimidate Ukraine into avoiding a westward path have failed. 58 percent of Ukrainians now say they would vote for NATO membership, and the nation has developed a greater awareness of national identity and a more resilient society. Sweden and Finland seek closer alignment with NATO as Russia illustrates the dangers of staying outside the Western Pact for Mutual Defense. NATO has united and refused to allow Russia to veto its membership or actions. The United States, while averting military engagement, has developed a credible set of penalties and has received international support for them. Putin lacks the imagination to realize that starting successful military operations is not the same as winning a war, a lesson the US recently learned again in Afghanistan. That Russia is now repeating the exact same mistake the US made and slowly recovering is an ironic twist.