Russia has recently increased its military presence on the border with Ukraine, sparking alarmist suggestions by Western officials and think tanks that Russia is about to invade its neighbour. Last week US officials suggested a high probability of Russian military intervention and briefed their European colleagues about a potential military assault.
While such claims make for sensationalist headlines, a deeper examination of the situation leads to the conclusion that Russia will not invade Ukraine. From military, economic and diplomatic standpoints, Russia has nothing to gain and much to lose from attacking its neighbour.
Since 2014, the United States has provided Ukraine $2 billion in security assistance, including two tranches of Javelin missiles as well as other military equipment. Just this week Britain and Ukraine finalised a treaty that will enable Kiev to seek loans from London to buy British warships and missiles. While Russia’s military remains significantly superior to Ukraine’s, an invasion would incur substantial military costs and deaths of Russian soldiers. It is also likely that the European Union and the United States would step in to protect its ally, at least by supplying it with more weapons and intelligence, thus taking the world closer to a major international conflict. Russia has nothing to gain by starting a bloody hybrid war with the EU and the U.S. on its doorstep.
From an economic perspective, occupying Ukraine would sustain massive economic costs. Russia continues to spend a notable amount of its government budget on Crimea, channelling around $1.5 billion this year to support 68 percent of the budget of the territory it acquired in 2014. Holding a tight grip on newly conquered Ukrainian territory, where public support for Russia is significantly less compared to the genuine approval of Russia among Crimeans, would cost much more. This is most likely why Russia was not interested in seizing eastern Ukraine, particularly the Donbas region, even though the opportunity to do so was present in 2014 when the separatists in Donbas urged Russia to take over the region. It is also inevitable that the EU and the U.S. would slap severe sanctions on Russia, which would further damage an already sluggish economy. This would lead to a deterioration of living standards of Russians, resulting in a drop in President Putin’s approval ratings. Despite the genuine feeling of patriotism that Russians felt when Crimea returned to Russia in 2014, it is unlikely that the majority of the public would support a costly war and additional economic sanctions, when livings standards in Russia have already fallen, while poverty has risen.
Finally, diplomatically, President Putin has no interest in completely severing ties with Europe, the United States and its current allies in Asia. While relations with Europe and the United States have been frosty for some time, a full invasion of a sovereign state would shock Russia’s remaining allies, particularly countries in Central Asia. Any military attack on Ukraine would signify that Russia is intent on destabilising countries and the European continent through military force. This would make Russia a pariah state resulting in significant reluctance from other countries to cooperate with it. It would also make Russia severely isolated from the global comunity. There is also the issue of Putin’s personal reputation. An attack on Ukraine would damage Putin’s political standing at home and abroad. Regardless of what is said about him in the West, the Russian president has remained pragmatic and level-headed during his leadership. There is no indication that this has changed.
Ultimately, invading Ukraine would damage Russia on all fronts – militarily, economically, and diplomatically. It would also decrease Putin’s popularity at home due to the inevitable economic hardship that would be caused by a major war. The Russian president has no interest in provoking domestic political instability, especially when his approval ratings are already lower compared to several years ago.
There are numerous other reasons why Russia has decided to up the ante on the Ukrainian border. Most likely is to gain concessions from Ukraine and NATO through the threat of force. Russia could be sending a message to Ukraine to drop its plans to join NATO, after Ukraine’s president called on the western military alliance and key member states to hasten his country’s membership of the organisation. Russia may also be unhappy about the Ukrainian-led, American-assisted military training exercises that took place in September. Perhaps, Russia is also aiming to take the international community’s attention away from Belarus, a Russian ally that has come under severe pressure from the EU following the country’s presidential elections last year and subsequent protests.
Regardless of the rationale for Russia’s recent actions, Putin is not about to give the green light for the Russian army to invade Ukraine. Suggestions to the contrary from Western officials are unhelpful and only deteriorate the already tense relations.