Since mid-November 2021, the U.S. intelligence community and media have been warning of a Russian military buildup along the country’s western border. As the military activities are widely interpreted as a sign of Russia’s upcoming invasion of Ukraine, NATO needs to carefully analyze Russia’s motivations and previous behaviors, as well as hammer out policy options in case the existing fears prove to be correct.
Although Russia’s record of deception and recent statements about red lines make current tensions particularly worrisome, there is no hard evidence that an invasion is indeed being planned. The present situation is one of ambiguity (which is probably deliberate), and the West should treat it as such. Washington and its allies should be prepared for the worst without assuming that the negative scenario will inevitably come true. In particular, NATO should consider continuing its policy of tailored deterrence while refraining from steps that can lead to escalation themselves.
What Makes the Invasion Possible
Putin’s modern Ukraine policy originates from two basic assumptions about Russia’s relations with the West after the end of the Cold War. The first assumption is based on the broken promise narrative. According to Mary Sarotte, the Soviet Union did expect that NATO would not move eastward, whereas German Foreign Minister Genscher did promise that NATO “would not expand itself to the East.” The assurances have never been codified. However, NATO’s close military cooperation with Ukraine is viewed by Russia as violating the spirit of the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany of 1990. The historical fear of an attack from the West makes this perception even more vivid. The second assumption is that protests, revolutions, and major political shifts in the post-Soviet space can usually be attributed to Western malicious intentions. The 2014 pro-European revolution in Ukraine is therefore referred to by Moscow as a coup d’état. As unpleasant as they are, the two preconceived notions have a substantial impact on Russian foreign policy, leading the Kremlin to take radical military and diplomatic steps.
Further, Russia’s previous behaviors indicate that Moscow can actually use force against its neighbors, which means that military scenarios should be given serious consideration. It is known that Russia used military force to take control of Crimea in 2014, as President Putin admitted Russia’s involvement and disclosed secrets of the “takeover plot” quite a while ago. It is also known that Russia occupied large swaths of Georgia in 2008, even though Russia’s sovereignty was not directly threatened by skirmishes in South Ossetia. It is presumed, yet denied by Russia, that Moscow has been directly engaged in the Donbas War, which began in mid-2014.
More importantly, Russia has a record of denying its role in crises where Russia’s involvement was suspected by others from the outset. It is only in April 2014 that Putin admitted responsibility for the takeover of Crimea that had taken place between late February and early March. A more recent example of deception is Russia’s anti-satellite test in November 2021. Initially, the Vice-Chair of the Defense Committee in Russia’s Parliament said that “[t]here is no limit to the fantasies of the State Department. Russia is not engaged in the militarization of space.” Foreign Minister Lavrov speculated that “there is no evidence.” Later that day, Russia’s Defense Ministry admitted that the test had been conducted. There are even more cases of Moscow’s presumed malicious activities where Russia has never admitted its role. Those include the Donbas War, the downing of MH17 in July 2014, and the poisoning of Skripal and Navalny.
Given this record, Russia’s assurances that no invasion is being planned cannot be taken at face value. Moreover, Russian officials have made a number of worrisome statements recently. Since late November, President Putin has been calling for “security guarantees” from the West to prevent further NATO enlargement. On November 22, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service released a statement on the tensions over Ukraine, saying that “[w]e observed a similar situation in Georgia on the eve of the events of 2008.”
Rationality, Restraint, and History Lessons
Yet, it may seem that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would be contrary to Russia’s interests, which is in fact true. A fait accompli along the lines of the 2014 takeover of Crimea is no longer possible, as Ukraine’s Army has been forged in the combats of Donbas. The covert war scenario for an entire country does not seem feasible either. Not only would an invasion result in numerous casualties for both sides, but it would also constitute a drain on Russia’s budget for years to come. A brutal war against Ukraine would literally destroy Moscow’s “fraternal peoples” narrative underlying much of Russian foreign policy.
The irrationality of attacking Ukraine is not the only reason why risks for NATO in the current situation may be exaggerated. Although Russia has used military force in a few notable cases, there have been even more examples of Russia’s restraint. In 2018, Russia refrained from attempting to keep in power Armenia’s Serzh Sargsyan in a revolution that was framed by many as inherently pro-Western. Russia did not take sides in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, even though Azerbaijan was explicitly supported by NATO member Turkey. Russia was sticking to a “wait and see” approach during much of the attempted revolution in Belarus in 2020. Finally, Russia has tolerated coups and revolutions in Central Asia, including most recently the Kyrgyz Revolution of 2020. In other words, understanding what Russia could have done but chose not to do is no less important than the awareness of what has indeed occurred. Russia is not inherently expansionist, and the domino logic does not apply.
However, this in no way means that an invasion of Ukraine is impossible. Irrational, previously unknown, and even “impossible” events tend to occur from time to time, as the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor demonstrated 80 years ago. Even crazier twists and turns have probably been averted thanks to diplomacy and deterrence. This is why contingency planning is an integral part of any foreign and defense policy. NATO’s goal is to preempt, prevent, and be prepared for an invasion rather than predict whether it will happen or not.
While a full-scale invasion of Ukraine has not been launched, Western policy can rely on traditional deterrence instruments tailored to the crisis in question. In doing so, the United States and its allies should not act as though an invasion were inevitable, which it is not. NATO’s response to the current tensions should be very limited and focused, yet commensurate with the Western interest in countering Russian adventurism and short of upending the status quo for no apparent reason. First, the U.S. and its allies may continue providing military aid to Ukraine and even increase it, which is in line with previous policies. That said, troop deployments in Ukraine and enhanced military presence in the Black Sea would not be helpful, as such measures could alienate Russia without providing any benefits to the West. Second, NATO should dissuade Ukraine from attacking first, as Georgia did in 2008. Russia should be put in a position where any attack it might undertake would be unprovoked and very explicit. However, NATO should find it in its interest to refrain from providing any specific guarantees to Ukraine. The nature of Ukraine-Russia tensions makes provocations on both sides highly likely; assurances and alliances would only heighten risks, boosting Ukraine’s and Russia’s self-confidence.
A full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine is possible. Still, it is neither inevitable nor likely. When everyone takes war for granted, the question arises whether the United States still has a foreign policy capable of fostering a positive environment for the prosperity of the American people.