by Aris Roussinos
Friday, 26
November 2021
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14:00

Vladimir Putin may roll the dice on Ukraine

America's commitment to defending the country is very uncertain
by Aris Roussinos
A Ukrainian soldier in the Donbass. Credit: Getty

Is Russia going to invade Ukraine this winter? And if so, what, if anything, should NATO do about it? Recent Russian troop movements are alarming Western analysts. While previous invasion scares fizzled out, even sober observers are noting that Russia’s most recent buildup of matériel along its western borders is qualitatively different in scale, and are puzzling over Putin’s intentions.

On the one hand, Britain’s eminent strategist Sir Lawrence Freedman notes that “these war scares are regular occurrences.” He assures anxious observers that “the troop buildups are substantial but could not sustain an invasion. The purpose appears to be largely deterrent, to dissuade Ukraine from taking the offensive against the Donbas separatists.”

Supposedly, the Ukrainian government isn’t particularly concerned. Despite warning that an invasion could take place in the New Year, Ukrainian troops haven’t been called up to deal with any anticipated assault and the country hasn’t been moved onto a general war footing.

But the American government seems to disagree. US intelligence officials are said to be briefing European allies that the Russian army has positioned around 100,000 troops in around 100 battalion tactical groups ready for what they describe as “an operation in rough terrain and freezing conditions,” ready to move in from the Crimea, western Russia and Belarus for an assault “covering extensive territory and prepared for a potentially prolonged occupation.”

For the Biden administration, this is all a tremendous headache. Despite often erroneously being described as an ally, there are no Western treaty obligations to defend Ukraine from a Russian assault, and Russia’s will to reincorporate the country within its sphere of influence is much likely greater than America’s desire or Europe’s capacity to fight a major European war. As the RAND corporation analyst and Russia expert Dara Massicot warns, for the US “the choices are now go all in, or find the off-ramp.”

The Biden administration is mulling sending Ukraine additional supplies of anti-tank guided missiles to blunt any attempted invasion, but as the analyst Rob Lee notes, the Russian superiority in numbers and equipment is so great that the Ukrainians will likely suffer a defeat as quick and catastrophic as that of Armenia in its recent war with Azerbaijan, with its most important matériel knocked out in the first few hours by Russian stand-off munitions. 

What does Putin want? The Western consensus is that he does not seem to have yet committed himself to an invasion, but is setting up the pieces on the chessboard to win a war swiftly should he decide to pull the trigger. The aim — probably — is to arrest Ukraine’s westward drift through intimidation rather than full-scale war, but the simple answer is that no-one knows for sure, perhaps not even Putin himself. 

But with America keen to disengage from Europe to concentrate attention on the Taiwan problem, and Europe dependent on Russian gas during what looks to be a cold winter, Putin may be gambling that the constellations have finally aligned in his favour. As with Taiwan, America’s commitment to defend Ukraine from invasion is very uncertain, and perhaps more bluff than reality: the great questions troubling NATO now are whether or not Putin feels like calling that bluff, and whether or not Ukraine is, ultimately, worth defending. For all that American planners are trying to concentrate on China, Biden’s riskiest foreign policy challenge yet may well be in a wintry Europe.

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George Glashan
George Glashan
10 months ago

“But the American government seems to disagree. US intelligence officials”

Are these the same US intelligence officials who thought they would be able to hold their Christmas party in Kabul?

James Joyce
James Joyce
10 months ago
Reply to  George Glashan

WHAT? Are you kidding, mate? Christmas party cancelled?
WOW! Another example of cancel culture.

James Joyce
James Joyce
10 months ago

If anyone thinks the US is in a position to defend its supposed interests far from North America, think again. The era of American hegemony, roughly from 1945 until maybe 1975 (end of Vietnam war), or 1992 or so (First Gulf War), is over. Some historians say that the beginning of the end of the British Empire was the Boer War, to strike a parallel. The US has continuously had extremely bad leadership in this period and beyond, and now the only real issue is managing American decline. Make America Great Again? Maybe. But this is recognition that America is no longer great. Build Back Better? Maybe, because the US was allowed to completely fall apart over decades. America should actively prepare for war, but it will be a civil war where it rips itself apart.
Now will Russia invade Ukraine? Maybe. There are 8mm ethnic Russians in Ukraine, and they are, broadly sympathetic to Russian greatness. There is actually a similar situation among Baltic Russians, who enjoy living in the EU, but watch Russian TV, speak Russian almost exclusively, and are certainly share a Russian mentality that is heavy on paranoia. They would be sympathetic, at least initially, if Russia made a move.
Another point that is mentioned, briefly, is China. It seems quite clear that China will move to re-take Hong Kong and Taiwan–a question of when, not if. HK now seems a real part of China, with the new saying being “One country, one system,” and Taiwan has been an irritant for decades. China is in a position of economic and military (almost) parity, and they are much, much closer to HK and Taiwan than the US. It’s only a matter of time, even though Sleepy Joe has moved the US position on Taiwan from a position of “strategic ambiguity” to a new position of “strategic stupidity,” vowing, w/o telling anyone else, that the US would defend Taiwan. Ha!
But clearly the timetable is subject to change. If Russia invades Ukraine, look for China to make a move against HK or Taiwan. If China invades HK or Taiwan, look for Russia to move on Ukraine. Any hope of serious US intervention–and I’m not even sure this would be a good thing–is false hope.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
10 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

I am sure China and Russia will coordinate their actions with perhaps Iran as well. If Hamas and Hezbolla attack Israel and Turkey moves on Greece, Biden could have a lot on his plate. Amateurs talk about tactics, professionals talk logistics. Spread the USA thinly across the globe and there is not the logistics to supply multiple locations.
The unknown quantity of all the armies is the combat effectiveness. How good are the offensive capabilities of Russia, Iran and China? Can officers at battalion level and lower think for themselves ?They are not Nazi Germany in 1940.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
10 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

The ethnic Russians in the BalticStates are relatively recent arrivals, and the EU insisted on preserving their political and linguistic rights before joining the EU. I find it unlikely that the ethnic Russians would prefer the hardship of Russian rule to the western European life they now have.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
10 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

Make no mistake about it. The US wants this war. If you haven’t noticed the US kleptocrats have used Ukraine as a money laundering operation including the Biden crime family!!! All that money they dumped in didn’t go to the Ukrainian people. If they can spark off a large Russian reaction they finally kill Nordstream 2 and can isolate Europe from Russian economic trade. Europe stays under the US thumb. They don’t care one iota about Ukraine… other than they need it to be an expoitable basket case since they lost Afghanistan and are close to losing Iraq.

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
10 months ago
Reply to  Dennis Boylon

Whether they care or not, it is not the US but Russia which has marched into parts of easter Ukraine – the first time a sovereign European nation has been invaded since WWII.
And it is Russia which is massing troops on the Ukraine border.
Yet, bizarrely, you accuse the States of suing for war.

Last edited 10 months ago by Eddie Johnson
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
10 months ago

I’m also extremely unsure what the strategy behind Russia’s recent actions are and I’m sure that is the aim of the game for Putin: to keep us guessing.
He could secure Ukraine in the blink of an eye. The USA isn’t fully committed to its defence and Europe is, quite simply, a useless bystander. However, I don’t think the ease or prospective success of a military operation is the dominant consideration for Putin.
He, like the USA is wondering what the Ukraine is really worth to him. Whatever happens, the message to Ukraine is: you are not an autonomous, self-determining nation. You are at the mercy of what the higher powers decide you mean to them. Maybe they are not “unconcerned” – but just realistic.

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
10 months ago

The real issue, I would think, is whether Putin considers the Ukraine to be part of greater Russia, just as the English consider Scotland to be part of the U.K. After all wasn’t part of Ukraine absorbed into Greater Russia in the 17th century, and then the rest of Ukraine, following the breakup of Poland, in the late 18th century?
In other words, the US has absolutely no business interfering in the Ukraine as it poses no security concern for either the European Nato countries or the US. Indeed, I would argue, that had the US not tried to interfere in Ukraine and help overthrow the previous regime, and had the US not tried to incorporate the Ukraine into Nato, there wouldn’t be an issue with Ukraine. In other words, the Russians, paranoid as they are and have always been, don’t wont a hostile forward position right at their southwestern border.
As for the Baltic states who have joined Nato, good luck to them if they expect article 5 to actually be invoked, given that most Americans (and I would wager most western europeans as well) couldn’t even point to Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia on a map.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
10 months ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

Russia conquered Crimea in the 18th Century to prevent Muslim Tatars enslaving Russians which had taken place for centuries. Kruschev who had Ukrainian connections transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in the 1950s. Most of the Donbas region in the Ukraine was very lowly populated until the mid 19th Century when Russians migrated to work in coal mines and steel works. The USA and Europe is in danger of getting involved in a conflict about which we are clueless.
A few years ago I suggested to a retired diplomat and he agreed that The West should have insisted on the Finlandisation of former USSR territories. Finland post 1945 was free market democratic country but not politicaly or militarily aligned to communism or the West. Ukraine could have developed it’s agriculture and become a major food producer for the Middle East/North Africa.
The reality is that we have a opinion /ruling class who are basically ignorant of history, geography, religion, language, culture , etc and have never had leadership experience in foreign countries which is why conflicts spread. There is an Indian saying ” What could have been stopped by 300 men in the morning could not be stopped by 3000 in the afternoon”.
The conflcts post 1989 collapse of communism are due to the ruling classes ignorance; whether Conservative, Liberal or Labour, American, British or European. What is needed is to understand the divides between peoples and when they were created; if these go back 5,000 years then people need to know the history of the last 5,000 years. An example is Egypt whose borders have changed little in the last 5,000 years.

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
10 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Spot on.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
10 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

The port in Sevastopol was established under Catherine the Great in the late 1700s. The Charge of the Light brigade and the Nazi Crimea campaign make the Alamo look like a Sunday picnic. Westerners are propagandized to the point of complete stupidity

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
10 months ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

Still, one third of today’s Ukraine was Polish and Hungarian before 1945.

David Bowker
David Bowker
10 months ago

When Russia looks westwards, it sees a threat. You can dismiss this as “paranoia” but after Napoleon and Hitler, maybe they have a point. The EU empire has been trying to expand eastwards for many years, gobbling up Russia’s buffer states until it has reached its borders in Georgia and the Ukraine. It has hid behind NATO.
You could argue that Russia has nothing to fear because the EU is democratic and peaceful. But why does the EU need an army? And who will it potentially be used against? Maybe internally against Greeks who rebel against Brussels poverty-causing diktats? Or against foreign foes who are “undemocratic” and “abuse human rights”? (There is always the reason that sounds good behind the real reason.)
Russia could not conquer and hold down the Ukraine. But it could annex the eastern Russian-speaking bit. It could then pull the same trick and neutralise former possessions like Lithuania. Meanwhile the US has a much bigger threat in the Pacific with China so will not intervene. With Nordstream and continuing German war-guilt it looks like Russia has the EU where he wants them.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
10 months ago
Reply to  David Bowker

Russia is the largest European country, and hardly needs buffer states.

Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
10 months ago
Reply to  David Bowker

Why does the EU need army? Are you aware of how Russia’s former empire the Soviet Union acquired “Russia’s buffer states” in the first place?

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
10 months ago

Everyone seems to have forgotten that the large Russian troop movements started after Zelensky passed a law authorising him to take back Crimea. A week later Russian troops had flocked to the land border with Crimea. Sad to think of the millions paid to the defense bodies, the think tanks and the influencers in the media who have never connected the two things. And apart from the famous US Defence Dept brightly coloured map showing Russian troops massed in Belarus and NW Russia,, there is no evidence yet of any otherRussian plan but to defend their annexed Crimea.

Iris C
Iris C
10 months ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

And the population of Crimea want them to do so. 80% of the Crimean population speak Russian as their first language and voted to return to Russia rather than continue to be part of Ukraine, a failing state.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
10 months ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

Russia is involved in supporting the people of the Donbass. They want Kiev to follow the Minsk agreement. They will protect them if the US backed Kiev regime builds up a large enough force to break through rebel lines. Russia is committed to this. Invading Crimea? Don’t make me laugh. Not going to happen. Kiev knows this too. They need Russia to react so in the aftermath they will get a flood of more Western money and support. The corrupt Kiev regime is near collapse. That is what is driving this. The US and Nato want it too so they can demonize Russia and end Nordstream 2 and any future economic cooperation. Russia wants the status quo but will defend the Donbass if the Kiev regime attacks.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
10 months ago

Incredibly poor analysis. Western writers should at least try and understand the Russian point of view and Nato’s involvement in the crisis before trying to analyze current events. Nato and the USA want to use Ukraine as a flash point to demonize Russia and prevent any Russian peace and trade with European countries such as Nord Stream 2. More conflict is good for military budgets as an added bonus. Ukaine is desperate for more money and support and is disregarding the Minsk agreement and trying to spark a Russian reaction. They want Russia to invade but only the Donbass region. They know Russia is committed to defending them and if they can get a full scale invasion they can get more money and support. Russia wants to maintain the status quo but Ukraine, Nato, and the USA are making this impossible. I do believe Ukraine will build up enough to threaten a breakthrough with Nato supplied wespons. Russia will strike back with overwhelming force. They will have targeted strikes in Kiev. Russia will make Kiev pay a heavy price. They will take more land but only the areas with large Russian speaking populations in the East. They will leave the rest of the country broken and cometely dependent on Nato and the US. Russua will have to bite the bullet and deal with the negative reaction in Europe. In other words expect another playout of Crimea where Russia was forced to protect Crimea after a US bavked coup in Kiev put anti Russian leadership in charge threatening to kick the Russian Navy out of Sevastopol. Anybody with the slightest knowledge of Crimea was not surprised at Russia taking Crimea back. Not even Kiev. Kiev and the US have used it for propaganda to support their anti Russian positions. Kiev is not going to like the outcome but they are so desperate for more support this is probably the only way to get more Western money

George Knight
George Knight
10 months ago

The US has bigger fish to fry in the East. Why on earth would it commit time and resource to the Ukraine, especially given that the EU relies on soft power rather than being able to defend with military force the territories it has absorbed.
Should Putin invade it will be a well thought out surgical strike, akin to the Crimea. There will be talk and gesturing from the EU but I fail to see how they can realistically respond forcefully.
Game, set and match to Russia, at a moment of its choosing.

Douglas Proudfoot
Douglas Proudfoot
10 months ago

The Ukrainian Army is more than a speed bump. Although they might ultimately lose, Ukraine can inflict significant casualties on any conventional Russian invasion. Putin can’t afford a lot of casualties, politically.

The Crimea had a high percentage of ethnic Russians to help out when the Russians came. The Donbass similarly has a lot of Russian speakers. Invading the rest of Ukraine runs into an indigestible percentage of Ukrainians who will fight, and have fought in the past.

The Union of Mothers of Soldiers of Russia will protest vigorously any mass casualty event. The Russian Army has a lot of draftees, and comparatively few professional soldiers. Putin would have significant political unrest if he started a high casualty war in Ukraine.

The purpose of the buildup is probably to put more pressure on Ukraine’s government to spend money it doesn’t have on weapons. It will weaken the government. It will also show the US and the EU to be impotent. The EU will insist on the Nordstream Pipeline, particularly because the US is no longer producing enough natural gas for export. Everybody will want to appease the Russians. No invasion required.

David Lawrence
David Lawrence
10 months ago

I question the assertion that Russian stand-off munitions won the war for Azerbaijan. Most observers assert that it was cheap Turkish/Israeli drones which went through Armenia’s Russian-supplied tanks like a hot knife through butter.

Ronnie Bradford
Ronnie Bradford
10 months ago

I think Putin is waiting and preparing for the USA to be engaged with China/Taiwan and/or Iran. Then he will be poised to take Ukraine, by force or threat, and then press Russian influence on other countries in the “near abroad”. He doesn’t have to win, just causing trouble for the West is sufficient.