31 January 2022

As the Crisis Between Russia and Ukraine Deepens, Is War on the Horizon?

For the past several weeks, more than 100,000 Russian troops have been amassed across the Ukrainian border. As it continues to move troops westwards from as far away as its eastern border with North Korea, runs naval exercises and conducts joint military drills with Belarus, Russia denies it is planning an invasion. However, that has failed to convince those in Western security circles who believe that Russia’s actions are at best an act of reckless brinkmanship, and at worst a prelude to a war that could have devastating global consequences. 

In reality, such a move would be an escalation of a conflict that has been ongoing since 2014. That was triggered by protests in Kyiv that toppled a pro-Russian government, to which the Kremlin responded by illegally annexing Crimea, justifying this action by pointing to the peninsula’s ethnic Russian majority. This was followed by the outbreak of a separatist conflict in the Donbas region along Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia, which the new government in Kyiv argued was instigated by Russian-armed proxies. The war in the Donbas has already claimed 14,000 Ukrainian lives, a figure that is certain to rise if the current standoff leads to an invasion. 

Ostensibly, Russia’s reason for threatening war is that under the current government led by Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine has been moving closer to Nato membership, which Russia sees a major security threat, whilst also furthering its ties with Europe. Under Vladimir Putin, Moscow is seeking to restore much of its former power, and losing a former ally to the West that was once a cornerstone of the Soviet Union would be hugely damaging to the Russian project. 

However, the truth may lie more with the personal and ideological concerns of Russia’s president than its strategic interests. In the past year, Putin has struggled to contain soaring COVID-19 case numbers and deaths, and has faced the largest anti-government protests Russia has seen in the past decade, in response to the botched poisoning and later detention of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Putin and his strongman image have not recovered from the Navalny protests, and he considers a sovereign, independent and democratic Ukrainian nation-state to be a further challenge to the authoritarian model that espouses and views as essential to restoring Russia as a great power on the global stage. 

As diplomatic efforts between the Western nations and Russia have produced no results, tensions have intensified. Unsuccessful meetings between the US and Russia in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna were followed by a sabotage of Ukrainian government websites on 14th January. 

Tepid optimism followed last week’s talks in Geneva, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. Russia issued a list of security proposals to the US, including demands to bar Ukraine from joining Nato and halt the alliance’s expansion, however, the US rejected Russia’s demands on 26th January, but left the door open for continued diplomatic negotiations. Concurrent talks have taken place between French, German and Russian diplomats, most recently in Paris and led by French President Emmanuel Macron, but have also yielded no results. 

A lack of diplomatic progress resulted in 8,500 US troops being placed on standby and ready to deploy to Nato’s Eastern European border in the event of an attack. However, as it is not a member of the alliance, US troops will not be deployed directly to Ukraine. Meanwhile, EU nation states including France and Spain have sent military supplies to Nato’s Eastern European members, whilst the UK has sent anti-tank missiles directly to Ukraine. 

A number of options regarding economic sanctions in the event of a Russian invasion are being considered, and the purpose of openly discussing such measures is to act as a deterrent to increased aggression. Possible sanctions include cutting Russia out of the Swift global payments system, which would prevent Russia from receiving payments for the sale of goods such as oil and gas, sanctions on tech-based products, and personal sanctions against Vladimir Putin and his political circle of oligarchs. However, any sanctions would likely lead to Russia withholding its supplies of natural gas to Europe. With gas market prices already at a record high, Europe could see its cost of living crisis spiral out of control.  

Despite this, the feeling amongst many in Ukraine and Russia is that an invasion is not imminent, and that the West has become overly fixated on Putin’s intentions in Ukraine. Some analysts also believe the drawbacks of a land invasion for Russia are too great, and that Putin is employing a strategic deception to trick the West into considering his demands relating to Nato’s expansion. The UK’s government’s recent claims that Russian spies have already inflitrtated Kyiv and are plotting to install a pro-Russian government was met with derision in both Russia and Ukraine. 

However, as diplomatic talks continue to falter with both sides sticking firmly to red lines on Nato expansion, the prospect of conflict increases. With Ukrainian delegations largely sidelined by Russia from major crisis talks, many people in Ukraine’s eastern region will be watching with helpless anticipation as the West works on every possible diplomatic avenue to avoid a disastrous new war in Europe. 

By Jack Seal

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