Why Vladimir Putin Might Opt for A Limited War in Ukraine

Abstract: For some observers, the situation in Ukraine looks dire: Russia is ready to invade the country, and the risk of nuclear war looms above any attempts of direct Western involvement in a military escalation. While acknowledging Russia’s capacity to grab land in Ukraine, this essay attempts to highlight the limits of Moscow’s intentions and capabilities of invasion.

Bottom-line-up-front: Russia could undertake military action as Vladimir Putin might seek to boost his popularity with a foreign adventure, owing to the fact that he cannot deliver economic prosperity. However, the invasion would most likely be limited in scope because Western Ukraine would prove prohibitively expensive to conquer and control.


Problem statement: What can Russia achieve militarily in Ukraine? What are the aims behind a potential invasion? What would be the scale of military operations?


So what?: Kyiv and its Western allies should base their calculations on the worst-case scenario of a limited invasion in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. This could transform Ukraine into a landlocked country. How to support Ukraine in this situation is the real question. There is little that can be done militarily in the short-term to prevent Moscow from expanding its control in areas where it enjoys a degree of popular support.

Vladimir Putin
Source: www.shutterstock.com/Sodel Vladyslav

The recent build-up of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border[1], the second one to occur in 2021[2], has alarmed observers, as Europe prepares for a Russian invasion of Ukraine and officials in Kyiv are trying to secure Western support by making gloomy references to “World War Three”[3]. While realistically speaking that is not one of the possible outcomes of this crisis, the situation has certainly changed from the first 2021 build-up, which occurred in the context of decreasing levels of violence compared to 2020 and was assumed to be the Kremlin’s response to sanctions placed by the Ukrainian government upon a pro-Russian oligarch[4]. This time, it might be different. While there have been suggestions that the status quo will hold because it serves both sides of the conflict[5] and that the OSCE-brokered restoration of a 2020 ceasefire deal in Eastern Ukraine has the potential to ease tensions[6], it is still possible for President Putin to go to war.


While realistically speaking that is not one of the possible outcomes of this crisis, the situation has certainly changed from the first 2021 build-up, which occurred in the context of decreasing levels of violence compared to 2020 and was assumed to be the Kremlin’s response to sanctions placed by the Ukrainian government upon a pro-Russian oligarch.

One reason why Vladimir Putin might want a war in Ukraine right now, besides his long-standing refusal to acquiesce to the existing regional status-quo[7], is that he is haemorrhaging popularity at home. His regime has become more repressive during the last two years, as exemplified by the attempt to assassinate Navalny and the constitutional amendments allowing him to rule until 2036[8]. Russia’s economy is in poor shape: under the combined effect of Covid-19 and pre-existing economic dysfunctionalities, ordinary Russians have seen their incomes reach their lowest levels in a decade[9]. At the same time, the oligarchs find it harder and harder to park their wealth in the Western financial system because of sanctions[10]. This is troubling for Vladimir Putin, whose popularity fell to a historic low of 59% in April 2020 and was hovering at around 66% in June 2021[11]. Since undertaking the type of reforms needed to improve Russia’s economic performance would undermine the corrupt system built around the Kremlin[12], the Russian President is faced with a dead-end scenario: “Absent another highly successful foreign adventure, neither mass nor elite sentiment can be significantly improved without an uptick in the economy”[13]. Unable to deliver any tangible economic boost, Vladimir Putin could be tempted to go to war in Ukraine.


From this perspective, the demands published by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in two separate draft documents, one for a Russia-NATO Agreement[14] and one for a US-Russia Treaty[15], are meant for “domestic consumption” by the Russian public[16]. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu’s claims that “American private military companies are preparing a chemical weapons provocation in Ukraine’s Donbas”[17], coupled with the guaranteed Western refusal of the unacceptable package of demands that would place the future of Ukraine and Eastern Europe in the Kremlin’s hands[18], constitute a “classically contrived casus belli”[19].


The West’s reaction to all these developments has so far been sober and pragmatic. On the one hand, US President Joe Biden has threatened unprecedented economic sanctions in the event of a Russian invasion[20], and American small arms and ammunition, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, have already started flowing into Ukraine[21]. What is more, after public pressure from the United Kingdom[22], Germany has threatened that it will halt the Nord Stream 2 pipeline if Russia invades[23]. On the other hand, the US has made it clear that deploying American soldiers to Ukraine is “off the table”[24], and the UK has adopted the same stance[25]. This response is based on the acknowledgement of the fact that the reason why the West cannot defend Ukraine is not just that the latter is not a NATO member; Ukraine’s NATO membership bid has stalled precisely because the West lacks the resources necessary to credibly defend Kyiv from Moscow[26].


What is more, after public pressure from the United Kingdom, Germany has threatened that it will halt the Nord Stream 2 pipeline if Russia invades.

Nevertheless, there are limits to what Vladimir Putin can achieve militarily in Ukraine. Since one of the main drivers for an invasion is the President’s dissatisfaction with his popularity ratings, any military action would have to be a success: the last thing the Kremlin would want is a failed foreign adventure coupled with the already severe economic hardships facing Russia. The pro-Moscow feelings harboured the Russian minority living in Southern and Eastern Ukraine[27] and the country’s flat geography (which makes the movement of armed forces relatively easy)[28] are two factors that facilitate invasion. However, Western Ukraine would be difficult to conquer and even more difficult to control, as the local population manifests a “decisive rejection of Russia’s embrace” and “a stronger sense of nationhood than at any time in its history”[29]. Richard Haass correctly points out that Russian forces in Western Ukraine would face a heavy urban resistance like that encountered by American troops in Iraq and that “large numbers of Russian soldiers would return home in body bags as they did from Afghanistan following the 1979 Soviet intervention”[30]. While Russian counter-insurgency tactics have improved significantly since the days of the Chechen Wars[31], a Ukrainian insurgency would make Chechnya look like a walk in the park.


Vladimir Putin is probably aware of this, so one should rather expect “a limited military incursion with the aim of achieving the decentralisation of Ukraine”[32] in the east and the south, possibly to revive “Novorossiya” by “finishing the job” in Mariupol[33]. If Odesa is also taken, Ukraine would become a landlocked country, while Russia would expand its population and industrial base[34], not to mention its power in the contested Black Sea[35]. Such a move would send Vladimir Putin’s popularity through the roof, given that an overwhelming majority of Russians believed as of 2019 that separatist Ukrainian regions should not be a part of Ukraine: 29% of those polled believe they should be annexed by Russia, while 46% believe they should become independent states[36]. There would be economic costs, indeed, particularly if Russia is cut off from the SWIFT system[37], or if the approval of Nord Stream 2 is denied indefinitely, but the Russian economy has shown resilience to sanctions[38], and President Putin might think that limited war could pay off politically overall.


If Odesa is also taken, Ukraine would become a landlocked country, while Russia would expand its population and industrial base, not to mention its power in the contested Black Sea.

Therefore, the worst-case scenario described above is the one for which Kyiv and its allies should prepare. There is little that the West can do militarily to prevent thissince direct confrontation with Russia is not an option: the current course of threatening the maximum possible sanctions and arming Ukraine is the only viable one. Deterrence could still very well prevail, but Europe and America should also set up resilience mechanisms to support Ukraine in the event of another Russian land grab.


 

Nicolae-Alexandru Andronic, National Security Studies MA student at King’s College London. Interested in national security, great power competition, information warfare and counterterrorism, with a focus on Europe, Russia and Eurasia, and the Middle East. Previously wrote for the KCL International Relations Today blog and interned at the Center for Conflict Prevention & Early Warning in Bucharest. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of King’s College London or of “The Defence Horizon Journal”.

 

[1] Joe Barnes, Nataliya Vasilyeva and Nick Allen, “Prepare for Russian invasion of Ukraine, US warns European allies,” The Telegraph, November 11, 2021, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2021/11/11/prepare-russian-invasion-ukraine-us-warns-european-allies/.

[2] Roland Oliphant, Justin Huggler and Nataliya Vasilyeva, “Exclusive: Ukrainian president warns Russian build-up 'threatens entire democratic order',” The Telegraph, April 16, 2021, https://preview.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/04/16/exclusive-ukrainian-president-warns-russian-build-up-threatens/.

[3] James Crisp and Joe Barnes, “EU ready for 'Russian surprises' amid fears of Kremlin plot to invade Ukraine,” The Telegraph, December 16, 2021, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2021/12/16/eu-ready-russian-surprises-amid-fears-kremlin-plot-invade-ukraine/.

[4] Sarah Lain, “Rising Tensions in Ukraine Are Not Necessarily a Prelude to Renewed ‘Hot’ War,” Royal United Services Institute, March 29, 2021, https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/rising-tensions-ukraine-are-not-necessarily-prelude-renewed-hot-war.

[5] Katharine Quinn-Judge, “Why the Stalemate in Eastern Ukraine Will Likely Hold,” Foreign Affairs, December 15, 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/ukraine/2021-12-15/why-stalemate-eastern-ukraine-will-likely-hold.

[6] BBC News, “Russia-Ukraine crisis: Kyiv hopes truce will ease military tensions,” December 23, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-59766810.

[7] Emil Avdaliani, “Ukraine is Back on Russia’s Agenda,” Royal United Services Institute, November 23, 2021, https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/ukraine-back-russias-agenda.

[8] The International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Strategic Survey 2021: The Annual Assessment of Geopolitics,” (Oxford: Routledge, October 2021), 222-224.

[9] Ibid., 222.

[10] Nigel Gould-Davies, “Russia, the West and Sanctions,” Survival 62, No. 1 (February-March 2020): 20-22.

[11] The International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Strategic Survey 2021: The Annual Assessment of Geopolitics” (Oxford: Routledge, October 2021), 224.

[12] The International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Strategic Survey 2019: The Annual Assessment of Geopolitics” (Oxford: Routledge, October 2019), 251-252.

[13] Ibid., 250.

[14] “Agreement on measures to ensure the security of The Russian Federation and member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 17, 2021, https://mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/rso/nato/1790803/?lang=en&clear_cache=Y.

[15] “Treaty between The United States of America and the Russian Federation on security guarantees,” Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 17, 2021, https://mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/rso/nato/1790818/?lang=en.

[16] BBC News, “Russia Ukraine: Moscow lists demands for defusing Ukraine tensions,” December 18, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-59696450.

[17] Melinda Haring, “Not a Drill: Putin’s Going into Ukraine This Time,” The National Interest, December 21, 2021, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/not-drill-putin%E2%80%99s-going-ukraine-time-198365.

[18] Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Tom Balmforth, “Russia demands NATO roll back from East Europe and stay out of Ukraine,” Reuters, December 17, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/russia-unveils-security-guarantees-says-western-response-not-encouraging-2021-12-17/.

[19] Melinda Haring, “Not a Drill: Putin’s Going into Ukraine This Time,” The National Interest, December 21, 2021, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/not-drill-putin%E2%80%99s-going-ukraine-time-198365.

[20] BBC News, “Biden warns Putin of 'strong measures' amid Ukraine invasion fears,” December 8, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-59567377.

[21] Oren Liebermann, “US small arms and ammo arrive in Ukraine as Pentagon details troops to train country's military,” CNN, December 11, 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/12/08/politics/us-ukraine-security-assistance-military-training/index.html.

[22] Ben Riley-Smith, “Either mainline Russian gas or stick up for Ukraine, Boris Johnson tells Europe,” The Telegraph, December 15, 2021, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/11/15/europe-must-choose-mainlining-russian-gas-defending-peace-ukraine/.

[23] Deutsche Welle, “Nord Stream 2: German minister warns Russia over Ukraine,” December 18, 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/nord-stream-2-german-minister-warns-russia-over-ukraine/a-60181833#:~:text=Nord%20Stream%202%3A%20German%20minister%20warns%20Russia%20over,2%20pipeline%20has%20garnered%20criticism%20from%20Germany%27s%20allies.

[24] Kevin Liptak, “Biden says US troops in Ukraine are off the table but promises withering sanctions if Russia invades,” CNN, December 8, 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/12/08/politics/biden-putin-us-troops/index.html.

[25] The Guardian, “UK unlikely to send troops if Russia invades Ukraine, says defence secretary,” December 18, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/dec/18/uk-unlikely-to-send-troops-if-russia-invades-ukraine-says-defence-secretary.

[26] Henrik Larsen, “Ukraine’s Unrealistic NATO Bid,” Royal United Services Institute, August 27, 2021, https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/ukraines-unrealistic-nato-bid.

[27] The International Institute for Strategic Studies, “The Armed Conflict Survey 2019: The worldwide review of political, military and humanitarian trends in current conflicts” (Oxford: Routledge, May 2019), 151.

[28] Emil Avdaliani, “Ukraine is Back on Russia’s Agenda,” Royal United Services Institute, November 23, 2021, https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/ukraine-back-russias-agenda.

[29] The International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Strategic Survey 2019: The Annual Assessment of Geopolitics” (Oxford: Routledge, October 2019), 258.

[30] Richard Haass, “Defusing the Russia-Ukraine Crisis,” Council on Foreign Relations, December 14, 2021, https://www.cfr.org/article/defusing-russia-ukraine-crisis.

[31] Benjamin Arbitter and Kurt Carlson, “The Changing Face of Russian Counter-Irregular Warfare,” War on The Rocks, December 21, 2021, https://warontherocks.com/2021/12/the-changing-face-of-russian-counter-irregular-warfare/.

[32] Emil Avdaliani, “Ukraine is Back on Russia’s Agenda,” Royal United Services Institute, November 23, 2021, https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/ukraine-back-russias-agenda.

[33] Nigel Gould-Davies, “Russia, the West and Sanctions,” Survival 62, No. 1 (February-March 2020): 19-20.

[34] Melinda Haring, “Not a Drill: Putin’s Going into Ukraine This Time,” The National Interest, December 21, 2021, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/not-drill-putin%E2%80%99s-going-ukraine-time-198365.

[35] Angela Stent, “Russia’s Battle for the Black Sea: Why Moscow’s Moves Could Determine the Future of Navigation,” Foreign Affairs, August 16, 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/turkey/2021-08-16/russias-battle-black-sea.

[36] Mike Eckel, “Poll: Majority Of Russians Support Crimea Annexation, But Worry About Economic Effects”, Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, April 3, 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/poll-majority-of-russians-support-crimea-annexation-but-worry-about-economic-effects/29859570.html.

[37] Patricia Cohen, “U.S. Threat to Squeeze Russia’s Economy Is a Tactic With a Mixed Record”, The New York Times, December 8, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/08/business/economy/us-russia-sanctions-ukraine.html.

[38] Michael Kofman and Andrea Kendall-Taylor, “The Myth of Russian Decline: Why Moscow Will Be a Persistent Power”, Foreign Affairs 100, No. 6 (November-December 2021): 143-145.

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