ERIN DRAKE considers Russia’s motivations and next steps amid a recent escalation in tensions with Ukraine and NATO.
Russia’s reactions to geopolitical developments are often unpredictable. In 2021, in a notably less militaristic foreign policy strategy than previous years, Russia brokered a peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh and maintained a rather apathetic stance regarding Belarus and Kyrgyzstan’s episodes of mass anti-regime unrest. But Ukraine’s overtures to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) drew Russia’s ire in late-2021, prompting a deployment of around 90,000 troops to Russia’s border with Ukraine. This has evoked an anxious response from the US, NATO and various intelligence agencies, some of which are almost certain that Russia will attempt an invasion of Ukraine by February or March 2022.
"Russia’s military posturing is simply a warning, both to Ukraine and NATO, that it will not accept Ukraine’s military alignment with the West."
Russia has explicitly indicated that it has no plans to invade Ukraine, whilst also moving troops, military equipment and machinery to the Ukrainian border, and staging suspected cyberattacks that have incapacitated Ukrainian government agencies, leaving ominous cyber warnings to ‘expect the worst.’ But despite this posturing – and considering the alternative options available to Russia, like cyberattacks and negotiations – there is nothing obvious for Russia to gain from engaging in a sustained, widespread war with Ukraine.
RUSSIAN MILITARY PRESENCE IN AND AROUND UKRAINE
CONSIDERING RUSSIA’S MOTIVATIONS
There are several theories attempting to explain Russia’s behaviour. Some, like US President Joe Biden, have alluded to President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to establish Russia’s relevance and influence – and perhaps his own legacy – on the world stage among the US and China. Others point to Russia’s internal politics, in which Kremlin leadership is trying to retain power and legitimacy domestically among declining popular support by stoking nationalism in the form of an external threat.
The most likely explanation stems from Russia’s perceived need to protect its borders. To this effect, it has demanded “legally binding security guarantees” in exchange for decreasing its troop presence amassed on the border, that Ukraine be banned from NATO membership, and that all NATO troops and missiles are withdrawn from Eastern Europe. In this light, Russia’s military posturing is simply a warning, both to Ukraine and NATO, that it will not accept Ukraine’s military alignment with the West.
WHAT WILL RUSSIA DO NEXT? THREE SCENARIOS FOR THE COMING YEAR
Russia is unlikely to back down on Ukraine’s NATO status, and it is equally implausible that the US and NATO would accept such a demand. But what will Ukraine do? Ukraine remains economically dependent on Russia and it would detriment Ukraine to veer too far from its Russian ally. Even President Biden admits that Ukraine’s NATO membership is ‘not very likely’ in the near term. With that particular trigger removed, there are three feasible eventualities that could play out in the next year.
SCENARIO 1: A STALEMATE
Tensions remain heightened in this scenario, with continued threatening rhetoric from all parties. Russia maintains its military presence along the Ukrainian border, and doubles down on cyberattacks while negotiations with NATO and European Union members are drawn out with little substantial commitment from any side.
We might also see Russian efforts to flex its muscles in outlying areas, like the Baltic Sea, where it has recently increased its Landing Ship Tank vessels from four to six, prompting Sweden to deploy rapid reaction military personnel to Gotland island. Upcoming joint drills between Belarus and Russia near Belarus's western border with Poland and Lithuania (both NATO members), and its southern border with Ukraine, also point to the likelihood of the stalemate lasting for at least some weeks into February.
SCENARIO 2: AN ESCALATION
Even in such a scenario, a sustained, widespread military escalation is unlikely. At most, Russia might jostle for support among pro-Russian separatist enclaves in eastern parts of Ukraine where Russian forces are already unofficially present, and demonstrate its ability to destabilise Ukraine by advertising efforts to arm and train separatist forces. This will likely drive an escalation in sporadic clashes with Ukrainian forces along the border, prompting localised states of emergency and border closures. Russia will also certainly face increased economic sanctions.
Cyberattacks will also continue to feature as part of Russia’s main strategy, and may escalate in frequency and intensity, targeting Ukrainian and US government agencies. The 2021 suspected state-sponsored attack on SolarWinds software demonstrated the impact of such a strategy, compromising data from US government agencies as well as several Fortune 500 companies who use the same software.
SCENARIO 3: A COMPROMISE
Biden has indicated the potential for a partial compromise on Russia’s second demand – removing NATO weapons from Ukraine – and with Ukraine’s NATO membership unlikely in the near term, there is a strong case for Putin to accept this outcome. In this scenario, we see signs (however minimal) of de-escalation and a return to a normal level of US-Russia tensions. While a comprehensive compromise on these two demands is unlikely, we may instead see a nod to reducing tensions in other areas, like the US’s recent praise for Russia’s arrest of REvil ransomware hackers as a result of cooperation by a joint Russia-US anti-ransomware taskforce established in June 2021.