by Aris Roussinos
Friday, 26
November 2021

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.

Join the discussion

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

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