Global Threat Analyst – Europe & CIS
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As international concerns over Russia’s buildup of troops near the Ukrainian border continues to grow, we examine what might be driving the Russian government’s actions and assess the likelihood of the conflict escalating further.
Ukraine military forces have fought against a combination of Russian troops and pro-Russian separatists since 2014, when a mixture of unidentifiable military personnel (widely accepted to be Russian forces) and pro-Russian separatists seized a number of government buildings across towns in the eastern territories of Donetsk and Luhansk. At least 15,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
Recent weeks have seen an escalation in tensions between Ukrainian military forces and pro-Russian separatists, with sporadic clashes between the two bringing the total Ukrainian military personnel fatality count to 29 for 2021 alone.
Extensive social media footage has documented a significant movement of Russian military personnel, equipment and armour towards the Ukrainian-Russian border. The movement is raising fears of a new offensive as the build-up of troops and hardware is the largest since the initial invasion.
US President Joe Biden and other Western leaders have urged President Vladimir Putin to explain recent developments, but the Russian government has claimed the movements are part of ongoing military drills and dismissed Western concerns.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict zone, known as Donbass, is mainly Russian speaking and many residents hold Russian passports. The deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff, Dmitry Kozak, has stated that Russia will defend Russian-speaking citizens in Donetsk and Luhansk if they are seen to be at risk, suggesting that non-intervention risked a massacre similar to the Srebrenica genocide. Over 8,000 Muslim men and women were killed by Bosnian Serb forces in the town of Srebrenica during the 1992-1995 war.
What are the drivers behind the escalation?
The Russian intention behind intensified fighting is likely to be cementing the de facto annexation of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. By ramping up the conflict, Russian separatists can attract reprisal attacks and provide the Russian government with a justification for bolstering its military presence in the region through so-called ‘peacekeepers’.
The Kremlin’s framing of intensified hostilities in humanitarian terms concurs with this scenario, as ‘peacekeepers’ can be deployed under the notion of protecting the Russian diaspora. This changes future negotiations with the Ukrainian government by forcing it to accept the inevitability of some form of Russian presence on Ukrainian soil. Under pressure from domestic ultranationalists, the issue has previously been a ‘red line’ for the former in any negotiations. The Ukrainian government remains adamant that any settlement must provide for the withdrawal of Russian forces.
This scenario also holds a number of domestic benefits for the Russian government, given the upcoming State Duma elections in September. Putin’s approval ratings have consistently worsened since 2017, owing to economic stagnation, the federal government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and poor living standards. However, an escalation in Donbass provides the government with an opportunity to improve its domestic standing through nationalistic, post-imperial nostalgia overshadowing an otherwise bleak socio-economic picture. This was a significant part of the Russian government’s calculation in the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and a similar calculation is likely at play this time around.
Is a larger-scale war between Russia and Ukraine likely?
Commentators have suggested that the Russian military could mount a large-scale offensive from Crimea, seizing the North Crimean Canal and forming a ‘land bridge’ with Russia-proper via Mariupol. After the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, the Ukrainian military dammed the North Crimean Canal, upon which the territory was heavily dependent on freshwater. While the seizure of this dam would be a significant benefit for the Russian military, recent developments appear less connected to fluctuations in water supply and more to the breakdown of the July 2020 ceasefire and the general stasis that has accompanied diplomatic efforts to resolve the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
We assess that a full-scale war between Ukraine and Russia – one which spills out of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions – is unlikely. A full-scale war risks draining a Russian economy already badly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, and Russian forces would face a Ukrainian army significantly better equipped than in the initial outbreak of war in 2014. It is equally difficult to discern any strategic value to seizing vast swathes of Ukrainian territory, and such large-scale interventions always incur the risk of unintended consequences and so-called ‘mission creep’. In contrast, a planned escalation with narrow strategic objectives – the purported protection of Russian speakers in the conflict zone – provides a straightforward definition of success. A localised escalation would preserve existing territorial arrangements, while cementing a ‘new reality in the region’ – one in which the presence of Russian forces on Ukrainian sovereign soil becomes borderline irreversible. In this context, the Ukrainian government may have to either accept something it vowed not, which in turn would likely inflame ultranationalist sentiment. In any scenario, the Russia-Ukraine conflict appears as intractable as ever, and Ukraine’s relationship with Russia will likely remain a polarising factor at the domestic and international level for years to come.
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