Russia has amassed in the region of 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border and equivalent armour. The intention is therefore clearly for a ground war. For various reasons, Russia is going to invade up to the River Dnieper and then she is going to stop.
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By Matthew Parish
The first thing to say about this subject is that it is describing events that have not yet taken place (it is written in mid-January 2022) and its purpose is to explain why events will play out as they will. What is so remarkable about this subject is how predictable it is.
At the time of writing, Russia has amassed in the region of 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border and equivalent armour. The intention is therefore clearly for a ground war. Although Ukraine does possess an Air Force, it is mostly elderly and decrepit and poorly maintained. Ukraine will not dare use its Air Force to any significant degree in the forthcoming invasion, because if it does then it will be challenged and destroyed by the far superior Russian Air Force and in particular Russia’s extremely sophisticated surface-to-air-missile system the S-400. Hence Russia is preparing for a ground war. And she is going to win. Ukraine currently only has 60,000 deployed personnel across the entire country.
Why is Russia threatening to invade her neighbour, and what tangible benefits does she see from an invasion, with all the costs that entails? There are several reasons. The first has been the principal driver of Russian foreign policy since time immemorial: that invasions come from the west, and therefore one should maximise the size of one’s buffer zone. This explains why Russia has been insisting as precondition of a peaceful resolution to the impending conflict an undertaking from NATO not to seek Ukraine’s membership of the organisation and for all foreign troops currently situated in Ukraine, particularly its south, to leave. The second reason is that the Kyiv government has become increasingly hostile in its rhetoric and actions towards Moscow; and in this it has been supported by the United States. The view from Moscow is that the Biden administration is highly pro-Ukraine by reason of President Biden’s son’s political and commercial connections with Ukraine. In the eyes of Moscow, this will increase the number of foreign (specifically US) troops and armour in Ukraine. The United States is perceived as an enemy of Moscow at the current time, financing pro-democracy movements in Russia and amassing troops on the NATO borders of Belarus, Moscow’s ally. So the Russian opinion is that the United States has territorial ambitions to the detriment of Russia, in both Belarus and Ukraine. These ambitions must be hobbled.
How can the Russian military hobble the US military, which is so much larger? The answer is that the US military does not actually have much of a strategic interest in Ukraine; it’s not as though Russia was threatening to invade Mexico. Ukraine is a long way away, and it doesn’t create any commercial value. There is very little in the way of legitimate productive business in Ukraine, and it has always been so. Ukraine is a sink hole for foreign aid money. Because the country is close to an anarchy, power being divided up approximately territorially between a handful of oligarchs, the central government has scant funding (taxes are not collected or are diverted) save for that the international community may provide it with. It also has scant power. However one thing the central government in Kyiv can do is to make trade with Ukraine’s eastern nation Russia harder; and to make Russia’s trading with the west harder as goods for the most part need to go overland and Ukraine is in the way.
Then there is the issue of Ukraine’s gas debts to Russia. Russia traditionally sold gas to Ukraine at below-market prices. But as the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has proceeded with its anti-Russian rhetoric and policies, Russia has pulled the plug on the subsidies with the result that Ukraine now owes Russia colossal amounts of money being the difference between the subsidised price for gas used by Ukraine and the market price. Nobody wants to pay Ukraine’s debts to Russia on her behalf, and therefore the Russian mindset in substantial part is that if we are going to have to subsidise them because they will never pay us, then we had might as well incorporate them into our federation.
Then there is the matter of the two People’s Republics in Donbas, Donetsk and Luhansk respectively. These regions have their own quasi-autonomous government structures but in practice the writ of two of Ukraine’s oligarchs is what counts in these places. The People’s Republics are the source of steel manufacture, which Russia needs and which she is not getting in sufficient quantities by reason mostly of poor governance in the Donbas. So the Russian view is that to get what they need from the Donbas, they had might as well just run it themselves. Finally there is the issue of Igor Kolomoisky, one of those two oligarchs who also claims Dniepropetrovsk and the Dniepr region of eastern Ukraine for his own. Indeed he has his own private army, and at various times has owned or controlled Ukraine’s largest bank and Ukraine’s civil aviation fleet. Kolomoisky has been a notorious waverer over allegiance to Moscow over the years since Ukrainian independence in 1991, but at the last Presidential elections in Ukraine in 2019 he used his money and influence to instal as Ukraine’s new President a comedian (literally – he was the star of a TV show in which he was the fictional President, and then overnight he became the actual President). That comedian has not proven himself funny to Moscow, having made relentless visceral comments against Russia and pursuing anti-Russian policies. Behind him is Kolomoisky. So in the Russian perspective, Kolomoisky has to go.
Why is all this happening now? There are two principal reasons. The first is that oil prices are up (Brent crude is now USD83 a barrel), permitting Moscow to finance a war; the second is that the Trump administration, with whom Moscow had tolerable relations, has been replaced by the Biden administration, that is perceived as being hawks on Ukraine and supporting the comedian installed as President using Kolomoisky’s dirty money to the detriment of Moscow – and hence something must be done. Absent either of these two catalysts, war would be unlikely. Moscow is now seizing the opportunity while it can, knowing that the United States will not come to Ukraine’s defence. The United States is not going to put its troops in the way of the Red Army in the freezing month of February 2022.
The other thing one needs to understand in order to predict the outcome of the forthcoming Russian invasion of Ukraine is that Ukrainian patriotism is a flimsy construction that approximately follows the geography of the Ukrainian language. Ukrainian sounds like a dialect of Polish, albeit it written in the Cyrillic script. It is spoken as a first language predominantly by people west of the Dnieper River, that traverses Ukraine cutting it somewhat in two. Russian, by contrast, is the first language of people to the east of the Dnieper River and in the south of the country. In those parts of Ukraine, Russian (and Soviet) culture is more pronounced, as people watch Russian television, read Russian newspapers and surf Russian internet sites. In the west of the country, Ukrainian nationalism prevails more strongly, with Ukrainian-only television stations and media. This is a real difference. With the recent schism between Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, and policies emphasising teaching in one language or the other to the exclusion of one of the two languages, Ukraine has been becoming ever more culturally divided. With the current nationalist government in power in Kyiv, with a relentless stream of anti-Russian rhetoric emerging from its President, this division is being concentrated.
Commentators have asserted that while Russia will be able easily to take Ukraine when she invades, she will nevertheless then be subject to a perpetual guerilla war as the nationalistic Ukrainians fight against their Russian invaders. The problem with this theory is that for the reasons of cultural division explained above, this will apply only to the territories to the west of the Dnieper, in which Ukrainian is the dominant language. The territories of south and east Ukraine (including the regions in which Mr Kolomoisky is so influential) are habituated to Russian culture and in many cases their mastery of the Ukrainian language is imperfect. Moreover those regions have suffered atrociously since Russian / Ukrainian tensions exploded into warfare in 2014. Kyiv does not trust the eastern and southern regions, deprives them of funds, and the towns and cities east of the Dnieper are impoverished in comparison with Kyiv and the west. A little Russian financial exuberance in the east and south of Ukraine may well be enough to reconcile the Russian-speaking Ukrainians to their fate as a part of the Russian Federation.
Ukraine’s long-ailing currency, the Gryvna, has brought nothing but inflation; the Russian-speaking Ukrainians might be pleased to get rid of it. The other burden they may anticipate ridding themselves of is Ukraine’s enormous international public debt, as western countries have loaned money in grossly unwise quantities to keep the government in Kyiv afloat. Most of that money has been stolen, and most of the stolen money went to the capital and to western Ukraine. The people of east and southern Ukraine have seen little in the way of benefit. Southern Ukraine must count as one of, if not the most, poor and benighted corners of Europe: travel there is difficult, there are little in the way of motorways, the cities feel hollowed out and there is no work. The youth of those regions may well be of the view that under Russian government, things simply can’t get worse.
For all these reasons, Russia is going to invade up to the River Dnieper and then she is going to stop. Thereby she will have cut Ukraine in two, making a decent buffer zone for herself from NATO expansionism; she will have secured Belarus’s southeastern border (Moscow palpably intends to absorb Belarus into Russia at some convenient moment); and her army will be on the outskirts of Kyiv. The Dnieper River cuts Kyiv in two, and if Russia were to go to the edge of the river then she would take Kyiv’s principal airport Boryspil while leaving much of the government, downtown and commercial districts to the rump Ukrainian state. Because eastern Ukraine is flat, this will be a tank invasion and then Russia will have sufficient deterrence to prevent NATO growing further because Kyiv will be in the sights of Russian tanks who can demolish the city if they see fit.
In the south of Ukraine, Russia will certainly push at least as far as Odessa, thereby controlling the entirety of the Black Sea and cutting Ukraine off from a major Black Sea port, also joining up the Crimean peninsula (annexed by Russia in 2014) with mainland Russia. Indeed so little extra effort is required that the Red Army will probably push through to Transdniestr, the breakaway Soviet-cultish part of eastern Moldova, where Russian troops have been located to keep the peace between the two parts of Moldova since the early 1990’s. What remains of Ukraine will be landlocked. Gas can be run through southern Ukraine without the need to supply any gas at subsidised prices to the rump Ukrainian state. The Ukrainian army will be decimated because it cannot fight tank battles against the Russian Federation. What is left of Ukraine will become even more dependent upon western largesse, whereas the West will have ever less incentive to maintain that largesse. Europe needs Russian gas, and Russia will have eliminated Ukraine as a stumbling block in the transit of Russian gas to Western Europe. Because Western Europe is so dependent upon Russian hydrocarbons, there is very little that can be done by way of sanctions: Western Europe cannot afford to impose them. To the extent that this is attempted, Russia can squeeze the rump Ukraine dry by applying her own sanctions against Kyiv and the western territories still nominally controlled from the capital. The net result is that the Russian bargaining position will be vastly strengthened. At that stage, Russia will pause and survey her work.
From a close reading of reports of recent geopolitical negotiations between Russia and the West over Ukraine, none of the foregoing events can realistically be prevented. The military outcome is impossible to prevent unless western countries place their own troops in uniform on the Russia-Ukrainian border: something of course they will not do. The West will then be forced to negotiate a humiliating breathing bubble for rump Ukraine, in which sanctions against Russia are foregone in favour of Russia maintaining civilian supplies to rump Ukraine. Kolomoisky will have been evicted from his Dniepropetrovsk duchy. The oligarchs will be evicted from Donbas, and Russia will get the steel industry back up and running in some sense. The war will be wildly popular with the Russian public, reinforcing support for the Russian President Vladimir Putin after some recent years in which his support had to an extent crumbled. The Russians will be the dominant force in the Black Sea. The regime in Transdniestr will be perpetuated. The Ukrainian nation state then risks dissolving into nearly nothing, as has happened on a number of prior occasions in her history.
This is the grim prophecy for events of the next month or two. Moscow will move quickly and hard, as it assesses that it has an increased comparative advantage while the weather remains cold. The whole thing may be over by April. The next article in this series will ask what foreign policy choices are available to the West in light of the scenarios this article has described; and how to decide which one to pursue. But before we turn to those questions, let us see whether this author is right about the course of February and March in eastern and southern Ukraine.
Matthew Parish is the Managing Partner of The Paladins, www.the-paladins.com, a private firm of legal, security and intelligence consultants. He is the author of three books and over four hundred articles on international law, international relations and geopolitics. www.matthew-parish.com. Follow the author on Twitter @parish_matthew.
This article was originally published by The Paladins and is available by clicking here.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.