In recent weeks, it has become increasingly possible that Russia could invade Ukraine. But why is this threat unfolding now, and what is likely to happen? An online panel of experts convened by MIT last Friday warned of a significant cause for concern, while looking for factors that could prevent military action or limit its consequences.
In general, the academics on the panel considered that Russia was moving towards re-establishing a sphere of control similar to that held by the former Soviet Union and was determined to take any unilateral action it wished, outside the limits international conventions and standards.
These factors were also evident in Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian-held region of Crimea, among other actions Russia has taken on former Soviet territory; such a precedent now means that “the risks of war, another invasion, another annexation are extremely high,” said Serhii Plokhii, Mykhailo S. Hrushevs’kyi Professor of Ukrainian History and Director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University.
“Today’s plans of [the] Kremlin to restore control of the post-Soviet space would not be successful without Ukraine somehow being part of the Russian sphere of influence,” Plokhii explained. “And historically speaking, that’s what’s at stake.”
Elizabeth Wood, professor of history at MIT and co-director of the MIT-Russia program, observed that Russia’s current military buildup is partly a case of “saber-firing to show Russia’s status as a great Powerful”. But it may be more than that, Wood noted, because over the past two decades Russia has generally taken an alternative approach, engaging in a series of ongoing “frozen conflicts” in the wider region. – strengthening political and military influence in the region of Transnistria. of Moldova, the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine and other regions.
Thus, Russia’s current relocation of military equipment and troops to locations close to Ukraine’s borders – in this context, a unique open display of potential force – is a new form of potential armed escalation.
“No one knows exactly what Russia’s goals are,” said Wood, who is also the author of “Roots of Russia’s War in Ukraine,” a 2016 book on the subject. “Do they just want the annexation of Donbass? Do they want all of Ukraine? Are they threatening war to rethink the international security system in Europe? Are they planning something completely different and ready to surprise us all? »
Not just NATO
The panel, titled “The Russian-Ukrainian Conflict: A Prologue to World War III or Another Frozen Conflict?” was part of MIT’s Starr Forum, a series of public debates organized by the Center for International Studies on vital foreign policy issues.
Friday’s forum consisted of Plokhii; Drink; Carol Saivetz, Senior Advisor to MIT’s Security Studies Program and Research Associate at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute; Olga Oliker PhD ’16, program director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank; and Dmitry Gorenburg, senior fellow at CNA, a center for military research and analysis in Arlington, Va., and associate at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.
Saivetz noted that the long-term expansion of NATO — which includes the Baltic states of the former Soviet Union and has sparked speculation about Ukraine’s admission — has been a driving factor in Russian actions. However, she hinted that current tensions would persist even if NATO enlargement had not taken place.
“I think that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s obsession with NATO expansion is one of many [reasons], but not the only driver,” Saivetz said. Referring to pro-democracy protests in Ukraine over the past two decades, she added: “I think another driver is really the fear of democratization and… people power.”
Ukraine’s substantial economy is also a problem, Saivetz noted, as increased control would help Russia materially. And Saivetz agreed that Russia wanted to signal that it could influence the region unchecked.
“Putin wants to take the reins,” Saivetz said, “and I think that’s part of the point of all this buildup on the Ukrainian border. … He also wants to be the decision maker outside of what we might call the liberal international order, because it [order] does not serve its purposes.
Room for an answer?
That Russia might consider an invasion of a large neighboring state only underscores the military advantages Russia retains over Ukraine. Gorenburg, a military analyst, noted that Russia has around 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders (that number appears to have increased in recent days) and possibly 15,000 separatist troops in the Donbass region. About 40% of Russian forces are within 200 km of the border, and at least half of them have been moved there in the past year. Russia also has superior naval and air power.
“The situation is not pretty,” Gorenburg said, laying out a few possible military scenarios, from a limited incursion of the type seen in the Donbass to larger operations. And although Ukraine’s military has grown stronger in recent years, he added, Ukraine’s air defenses are quite weak.
“It would make it very difficult for Ukrainian forces to resist a full-scale invasion,” Gorenburg said. Yet, he added, “It is unlikely that Russia’s primary goal is occupation. The goal is to use a military victory to achieve political goals,” ranging from limiting NATO to potentially installing a government in Ukraine more sympathetic to Russian goals.
But if Ukraine cannot match Russia militarily, what options are left to prevent war? The least likely option, Oliker suggested, would be for Western states to give Russia exactly what it wants – bringing NATO troops back to pre-1997 expansion borders, for example, which in itself would not necessarily prevent new applications. An equally unlikely scenario, Oliker offered, is Western military action.
“If it doesn’t work, the results are disastrous, and not just for Europe, but for the whole world,” Oliker said. As a result, Oliker noted, Western countries are threatening Russia with sanctions, which could have some impact, as well as further security border negotiations.
One idea being floated that won’t work, Oliker said, is the idea that Ukraine could declare security neutrality, thereby persuading Russia that Ukraine won’t end up aligning itself with the countries of the EU. NATO.
Among other reasons why this won’t work, Oliker said, is that “Russia is not looking for a neutral Ukraine. That’s not what he’s asking. Russia doesn’t want Ukraine to be neutral, Russia wants Ukraine to be friendly. You could say that Russia wants Ukraine to behave like Poland did during the Cold War, when it was occupied militarily and politically.
Beyond specific tactical offers, Plokhii suggested that “unity” in the broad political sense would be needed to ward off the threat and effects of occupation. In this scenario, the unit would encompass “Ukrainian citizens and…Ukrainian allies and friends [and] whoever does not want war in Central Europe, and whoever wants legal borders to remain and the international order to be preserved, what is needed is unity.
Whether that can be summoned is another question. As Wood noted, solidarity in the region could be on the decline, with consequences visible today.
“Throughout the Soviet period, Russians and Ukrainians of all classes and interests had a phrase they used as a toast to drink with each other, ‘Let there be no war’ “Wood said. “’As long as there is no war.’ They remembered World War II as a time of terrible suffering and immense loss. But this sentence, this fundamentally anti-war position, has faded. Soviet and now Putin-era propaganda has consistently beaten the drums of war as a glorious, participatory, unifying and redeeming value.