The media reports are pretty uniform, Russia intends to invade Ukraine. This analysis or lack thereof seems to help Russia in its goals more than hurt it but we remain skeptical of the imminent invasion alarms for several reasons.
First, the demands made by Russia are not ultimatums with compliance demanded by a certain day or else hostilities will commence, Russia is making several demands including a legal guarantee that Ukraine will never be admitted to NATO, that intermediate-range nuclear missiles be withdrawn from Easter Europe outside the range of Russian territory, that all NATO troops be withdrawn from Eastern NATO countries like Poland and that NATO halt any expansion of its membership in Eastern Europe.
Russia explains these demands by claiming that they are only calculated to assure their own defense against aggression from NATO. The obvious rebuttal is to ask what exactly does Russia have to fear from Western Europe? Russia has the largest conventional army and the largest nuclear arsenal on the continent right now. Russia’s active duty army is greater than one million which is huge by comparison to the combined armies of Germany, France, and the UK, which are two-thirds the size in terms of active-duty troops. In terms of aircraft, ships, tanks, and artillery, the Russians overwhelm every other country in Europe in terms of military strength. In Europe, the United States only has about 70,000 troops on the entire continent spread between Germany, Turkey, the UK, Poland, and other NATO countries. It is hardly a massed formation ready to go into combat. So this is not a real issue for Russia, but a contrivance.
As for guarantees that NATO will not admit new member countries in Eastern Europe or Ukraine specifically, that too is a non-negotiable item for the U.S. and Western Europe. That Russia would even demand something like this is an indication of what Putin is really after here.
Nor will the U.S. agree to draw down its deployed forces in Europe to zero.
Believe it or not, there is actually a lot of room for negotiation in those demands; not all the troops out but some, not all the missiles pulled back, but some, a ten-year hold on any new NATO members among Eastern European countries, etc, etc. In these terms, there are ways both sides could(and probably want) to pull back without an armed conflict.
If you want to know what a real ultimatum looks like, go back to the first Gulf War in 1991. President George Bush told Iraq that it must begin evacuation of all its forces from Kuwait by noon on February 23rd, 1991, and complete that evacuation in seven days, or we would attack them and drive them out by force. Bush issued this ultimatum just one day earlier on February 22nd. Saddam should have known that there was no wriggle room in that for the U.S. A smarter man(not Saddam) would have realized that an ultimatum issued with 24 hours notice with a day and exact time was not open to negotiation. There was no way President Bush could change the date and time without the loss of all credibility.
You will note that Russia’s demands are entirely open-ended in terms of time, they are not saying, “Unless we get what we want by January 30th, we invade.” That should be taken very seriously.
So what is Russia actually trying to accomplish by massing a hundred thousand plus troops on Ukraine’s border and exercising its naval vessels in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Black Sea?
Influence and Dominance in Europe
Russia is seeking to be the dominant power in Europe right now, controlling energy markets, commercial sea lanes, and relations between nations. It wants the U.S. out of Europe and it wants to be the Hegemon of the continent. Lacking the ability to exert the same kind of economic pressures that the U.S. possesses, or the diplomatic influence that goes with it, Putin is using the one area of power that it possesses, the threat of military force.
It has used that power to grab territory in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, not to take these countries over outright, but to exert influence over them. To make them economically and militarily subservient to Russian interests in the same manner as when the Soviet Union existed. Putin has watched the countries of Eastern Europe pull away from Russia and move towards the West for better trade and the collective security of joining the NATO alliance, and that is the actual threat to Russia, being economically and diplomatically isolated in Europe.
Russia may have had some success in trying to peal Germany away from the U.S/NATO sphere of influence. Last week the head of the German Navy had to resign from his position. On an official visit to India, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach stated that Ukraine would never get Crimea back and that Putin was seeking respect from Europe that was probably due to him.
Germany has offered moral support and 5,000 helmets to Ukraine but has gone as far as blocking Estonia transfering artilliery to Ukraine that it had previously bought from Germany. The German government has offered the excuse that it is sensitive about selling arms to foreign nations, forgetting that last year Germany had a record sales year of nearly ten billion Euros in arms sold to middle eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and Qatar.
How Seriously Does NATO take the Threat Of A Russian Invasion?
The short answer to the question above is, “Not very.” In the last few days here is how NATO has responded,
Denmark is sending a frigate to the Baltic Sea and is prepared to deploy four F-16 fighter jets to Lithuania.
Spain is sending ships to join NATO naval forces and is considering sending fighter jets to Bulgaria.
France has expressed its readiness to send troops to Romania under NATO command.
The Netherlands is sending two F-35 fighter aircraft to Bulgaria from April to support NATO’s air-policing activities in the region and is putting a ship and land-based units on standby for NATO’s Response Force.
The United States has put units assigned to the NATO Response Force on standby. Which amounts to telling your family you may be deployed, but it is not 8,500 paratroopers sitting on runways ready to board transport planes with their gear.
This is the response to a hundred thousand troops on the border with Ukraine poised for invasion? Denmark is sending four jets to Lithuania? France might send some troops to Romania? Are either of these countries under threat by Russia right now? The media hype over an imminent invasion is not being met by an appropriate response by NATO,
This is an indication that NATO does not take the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine as serious or at all imminent. If it did, they would be calling up their reservists, moving tanks, artillery, and planes to the East and the United States would be sending whole divisions of armor, infantry, and paratroopers to Europe. We would also be pouring vast amounts of arms and munitions into Ukraine to defend itself. The 90 tons of aid we sent last week to Ukraine would fit in just two C-17 Globemasters with plenty of room to spare. It’s maybe a few hours worth of ammunition in a fight.
Putin May See President Biden As A Figurehead In His Own Administration
For our own part in this, the Biden administration is tanking in the polls and has not won on any significant legislative actions, other than a hugely bloated budget bill that sank his numbers even further. The White House may hope to bolster the President’s popularity by grossly inflating the Russian threat of invasion in order to later claim that his deft diplomatic maneuvers saved us all from WWIII.
The things that Putin wants are not new foreign policy objectives for his country, but he did nothing to press them while President Trump was in office because in situations where Russia could come into conflict, like Syria, Trump seemed to have no reservations about confronting Russia directly. From 2016 to 2019 the Brookings Insitute compiled fifty-two official acts by the Trump administration against Russia including sanctions, trade embargoes and even direct indictments of Russian nationals for actions related to Ukraine, Syria, cyber crimes, chemical weapons and election interference, none of which seemed seemed to deter Putin much. A fair question to ask at this point is what further sanctions could President Biden impose?
If Putin was watching U.S. media reports he may be thinking that President Biden is the right guy to win against in pressing his objectives. Biden won a closely contested election, his popularity is in the mid-thirties with the American public and his own staff have repeatedly contradicted him in remarks he has made to the press about defending Taiwan, Americans left behind in Afghanistan and most recently his remark that the U.S. would not respond to a minor incursion into Ukraine by Russia. In that case the administration had to correct the President saying even a minor incursion would be considered a renewed invasion provoking a full allied response. To even the casual observer, it appears as if President Biden is being led by his staff and serving a figurehead role in his own administration.
We have doubts that Russia will invade Ukraine in the next week or month for reasons related to sound military doctrine as well, and we continue to have them until at least Spring and larger troop deployments. It is winter in Ukraine, a very harsh one, which favors the defender very much. Putin would have frost bite casualties equal to or greater than his combat casualties, foilage gone from trees means an adversary can be seen from much greater distances. as well. Tanks and trucks leave the main roads at the peril of snow filled ditches and gullies that can immobilize them. The forces amassed on the border thus far are not sufficient to invade and hold a country about the size of Texas. At best, about 20% of the troops on that border would do the actual fighting on the ground, the rest are rear echelon units of support, supply and logistics. Troop strength above 300,000 in warmer spring or summer weather would be more concerning.