How did we reach this point in the Russia-Ukraine crisis – and what’s next?

Politicians in the West are scrambling to use the crisis for their own agenda, while experts suggest Russia is not yet on a full war footing.

Russia’s President Putin speaks at a joint press conference with Germany’s Chancellor Scholz, 15 February | Kay Nietfeld/dpa/Alamy Live News
Russia’s President Putin speaks at a joint press conference with Germany’s Chancellor Scholz, 15 February | Kay Nietfeld/dpa/Alamy Live News

In the past week, the situation in Ukraine has veered from a position of imminent war to a ‘war/no war’ pendulum, producing one of the most complex crises of recent years. One thing is clear though, the certain winners will be the arms industries.

In the United States, President Joe Biden has been playing it unexpectedly tough given his previous long-term caution over US involvement in foreign wars. A desire to move beyond last year’s utter disaster in Afghanistan, as well as a look towards this year’s forthcoming mid-term elections, plays to the domestic requirement to be upfront in this crisis, as does the need to counter his ’sleepy Joe’ image.

One tactic has been for the US to provide unusually detailed intelligence of what Russia is doing, in hope of being the first to say that the Russian military really is all ready to go. This reached its peak with a warning that war could start on Wednesday 16 February – which proved to be incorrect. In doing so, the US wants, presumably, to pre-empt possible Russian tactical surprises, to convince audiences that the White House is on top of things and to counter any Trumpian opposition to US action overseas.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Chancellor Scholz heads a coalition government that has only recently been elected, which, combined with his personal expertise being in finance rather than foreign affairs, adds a degree of caution to his approach. For Emmanuel Macron, it isFrance’s forthcoming presidential election that counts and even though the country is not hugely influential on the international stage, playing the mediator makes sense to him and his advisers.

Then, in the UK, Boris Johnson is still facing huge political difficulties, so Ukraine is a timely diversion. Moreover, he and others in his cabinet are really going to town on Britain’s role in the crisis, the sub-plot being the country’s transformed post-Brexit freedom; Britain is at last free to exercise its true global leadership role, ably endorsed by The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Express, The Telegraph and the rest. Around the world, this may be viewed with amusement but that hardly matters to Johnson.

When it comes to Russia, the safest assumption must be that the crisis stems from President Putin’s determination to put the country back in the superpower bracket, but this does not mean that Putin wants a full-scale war over Ukraine. To people of Putin’s generation, the way Russia was treated with near contempt after the collapse of the Soviet system 30 years ago still rankles, and it is surprising how few Western commentators factor this in.

Adding to the resentment is NATO’s slow encroachment into countries that much of Russia’s political elite still considers its ‘near abroad’ – with Ukraine being the main focus but also Poland and Romania. For example, one of the key elements currently sparking discontent is the US decision to establish anti-ballistic missile batteries at Redzikowo in Poland and Deveselu in Romania, using the Aegis Ashore system. Currently under construction, this combines advanced radar systems with interceptor rockets and has the stated purpose of protecting the West from ballistic missiles launched by ‘rogue states’ such as Iran. Moscow fears, though, that the Aegis system’s MK 41 launcher can readily be used for the Tomahawk cruise missile, the successor to the missiles of Greenham Common fame, for attacks on Russia itself.

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But why now?

From Moscow’s perspective, the decision to up the ante over Ukraine at this particular time is down to several factors. Russia’s relations with China are relatively good and it is successfully increasing its influence across the world; in addition to its established security presence in Syria, the work of the shadowy Russian Wagner Group mercenaries in Libya and the Sahel is proving valuable in terms of foreign influence. Furthermore, one of the most interesting, if little noticed, elements of Russia’s recent outreach has been its joint naval exercises with China and Iran in the north Indian Ocean.

Then, above all, there is Russia’s presumed weakness of the US and the issue of whether the White House is so consumed with domestic issues and the rise of China that it will be unwilling to focus on NATO unity. So far, that has not worked, NATO remains united and Putin’s policy plans now appear to lean towards making this a long-term crisis that will slowly wear down NATO resolve.

If superpower status is Russia’s longer-term aim, then the only area where that is currently plausible is in strategic nuclear arsenals, where Russia is matched only by the US. In all other respects, Russia is simply not there – it is simply not that powerful.

In terms of economic power, for example, Russia certainly has valuable energy resources and has also succeeded in amassing substantial foreign exchange reserves. Its overall GDP, though, places it way down the list of world economies, placed 12th by the International Monetary Fund in 2019. That puts Russia just behind South Korea, Canada, Brazil and Italy, and well behind France, the UK, India, Germany and Japan, while China has close to ten times its GDP and the US is well ahead of them all.

Even less appreciated is that while Russia spends a relatively high proportion of its GDP per capita on the military, its total defence budget is still only the fifth highest in the world, after India and the UK and far behind China and the US.

Understanding the threat

This raises questions over how far Putin intends to take the current crisis and whether there is actually a risk of a major war in Europe. One of the problems with Biden’s emphasis on releasing US intelligence about Russia’s military build-up is that it is relatively raw data, with the White House offering little interpretation from its own intelligence analysts. A relevant perspective on this is offered by the usually well-informed Jane’s Defence Weekly magazine. This reported on Tuesday, the day before the US predicted war, that:

“There appears to be little indication that Russian armed forces are mobilising en masse for a major war against Ukraine. A limited operation to support pro-Russian forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions appears more likely. […]

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“A significant Russian incursion against Ukraine would risk escalating into a major conventional conflict in which Russian troops would require substantial logistic support consisting of huge quantities of ammunition and fuel, as well as the activation of medical support facilities to deal with largescale casualties.”

Jane’s points out that there has been little indication of national mobilisation in Russia. There haven’t been calls for blood donors, civil defence organisations haven’t been activated, internal security hasn’t been tightened and the considerable resources of Russian Railways do not appear to have been called upon.

While there is talk of Russia having a million troops under arms at any given time, its peacetime establishment actually varies from 350,000 to 400,000, so reservists would need to be deployed in large numbers. The Russian Army depends heavily on conscripts, who make up about a third of troops, but they serve only a year and their end-of-conscription military capabilities are not great. A sudden requirement for far more troops would mean that many would need to be kept in uniform at the end of their year, which, Jane’s points out, “would be difficult to conceal and does not appear to have occurred”.

In summary, any state that is acting in a manner that might lead it into a major war must be fully prepared, with the entire country going on a war footing. If the Jane’s analysis is correct, and Russia is not in that state then Putin will avoid anything that makes a major war likely. While incursions into eastern Ukraine may well happen, the crisis has already given NATO a new lease of life after its disastrous involvements in Afghanistan and Libya. NATO states are pouring arms into Ukraine and talking of forming additional battle groups in states close to Russia, all in addition to the new bases in Poland and Romania.

In a sense, the two belligerents, Russia and NATO, are now locked into a thoroughly unstable embrace, always with the risk of unplanned escalations. It is a classic case of that annoying acronym AIM – accidents, incidents or mavericks – that can turn a crisis into something much worse. Mavericks in this case could be renegade pro-Russian militias in Donbas but could just as easily be some of Ukraine’s far-Right militias.

At least the recent invitation from Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to his US opposite number, Anthony Blinken, to meet next week is a good step. Unfortunately, it comes when Putin cannot afford to lose face and too many politicians in the West are welcoming the chance to talk tough.

Given where we are, a bold move such as a proposed week of organised high-level talks in a neutral venue and bringing on some of the world’s leading mediators could do much to ease tensions and provide space for longer-term progress. That, though, must acknowledge that appeasement and a willingness to compromise are two very different phenomena. Failure to recognise that would be a diplomatic disaster, especially as this crisis involves the world’s two most heavily armed nuclear powers.

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