Is a Russia and Ukraine war imminent?

By Mathieu Boulègue Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme Chatham House

What does Russia want?

Fundamentally, the Russian leadership wants to subdue Ukraine once and for all. Russia is seeking to transform Ukraine into part of a buffer zone with limited sovereignty – as explicitly made clear by Vladimir Putin – to protect against the enlargement of NATO and perceived foreign encroachments.

The minimum strategic objective Moscow might settle for is the full and comprehensive implementation – under extreme coercion – of Russia’s interpretation of the Minsk 2 agreements from the creation of a ‘special status for Donbas’ to the federalization of the country, as well as a ’no membership pledge’ from NATO, whereby Russia obtains a guarantee Ukraine will never join.

These objectives have been cleverly concealed by the Kremlin. Under the pretext of seeking ‘strategic stability’ discussions with the US over wider European security and the expansion of NATO, Russia is really after forcing the US and NATO into making concessions over Ukraine. Demands of ‘mutual security guarantees’ with NATO shows the Kremlin is not only seeking to humiliate the West but is also creating ‘smoke and mirrors’ to deceive and distract.

Alternatively, when the moment is ripe, Moscow might use its position as leverage to push for more security concessions with the US and NATO, negatively impacting the security of Europe as a whole.

Ukraine will likely suffer Russian military operations in the coming days or weeks. The question now is no longer if but when, and how far it will go.

Timing matters, and many factors come into play, the most important being the perception the US has disengaged from the European theatre and turned towards the Asia-Pacific, leaving a void; the current absence of European leadership; and the ‘legacy moment’ for Putin himself – what history books will remember him for.

Russia has not achieved the implementation of the Minsk agreements – which favour Moscow and shackle Ukraine – and now wants to achieve that and get it rubber-stamped by Washington. The Kremlin simply believes it will never achieve security at its European borders without a subdued Ukraine.

Russia’s demands are not new but part of a wider set of grievances and self-constructed narratives feeding its foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. With Ukraine in particular, the Russian leadership exists in an irrational mental space fraught with emotions and gut feelings which are hard for Western policymakers to grasp.

Ukraine is now a hostage with the threat of renewed war against its territory. Russia already invaded Ukraine in 2014 and used that as leverage for the US and NATO to finally take Russian demands seriously.

What could happen if Russia chooses a military option against Ukraine?

Ukraine will likely suffer Russian military operations in the coming days or weeks. The question now is no longer if but when, and how far it will go.

Russia is willing to use military force to achieve political-strategic goals, as well as to conduct a blend of non-conventional warfare and false-flag operations to create surprise and achieve a fait accompli. The Kremlin plans for all contingencies from full-scale war to cyber and information warfare and other asymmetric tools.

In terms of tactical-operational warfighting, this would potentially occur at the ‘initial period of war’ by the intensive use for a few days of a mix of long-range precision-guided munitions (PGMs) and ground-based artillery strikes against key military (and likely civilian) targets in Ukraine.

The organization of military exercises in Belarus as well as naval drills in the Black Sea are all part of concealing the timing of actual operations.

The goal would be to quickly decapitate the Ukrainian command and control (C2) infrastructure, critically hampering its ability to communicate, move, and fight. This initial phase would be complemented with air strikes and air superiority missions notably from Belarus – in order to hold Kyiv at risk of destruction – as well as electronic warfare operations to further downgrade the ability of Ukrainian forces to act in a contested environment.

With the recent pre-positioning of troops close to Ukraine borders, Russia can now easily move in three broad directions – from the Western Military District (WMD) and occupied Donbas, from Belarus, and from illegally-annexed Crimea, with the support of naval operations in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

From there, follow-on ground forces could potentially cross the border from the WMD into eastern and north-eastern Ukraine and (re)invade the country. Territory would be quickly seized with an influx of troops and heavy artillery, as well as support and rear units fighting against Ukrainian Territorial Defence units, armed civil resistance, and counter-insurrection movements.

Depending on what Moscow’s war termination strategy is, the ground invasion could push to the Dnieper River, and potentially beyond into the southwest of Ukraine and down to the southern seaboard and Odessa.

Ukrainian soldier poised for Russian Invasion
Ukrainian soldier poised for Russian Invasion

Once Kyiv can no longer take the unacceptable cost of warfare operations, Russia would move to ‘diplomacy’ where it could potentially force a regime change in Ukraine, install a pro-Kremlin team – as outlined by the recent UK release of intelligence – and enable its own implementation of the Minsk agreements as well as achieve further strategic concessions.

But the Kremlin needs the US to sign off on this too. This could arguably be the only way for Washington and NATO to obtain the (partial) removal of Moscow’s ’shopping list’ of unachievable demands and deconflict a tense situation.

There would probably be no Russian force withdrawal until after the Minsk agreements have been fully implemented to Russia’s satisfaction. But what could then conceivably follow is a partition of Ukraine, with the creation of a ‘Union State’ as part of an enlarged Russia and a diminished Ukraine. From a broader security perspective, Russia could then seek to push for more ‘accommodations’ regarding European security and NATO’s role.

What is expected to happen in the short-term?

There are an increasing number of strong signals and red flags to show Russian military movements are imminent in the next month. But other crucial precursors to war – notably in terms of military logistics – have not yet been fully activated to start massive military operations.

These range from a likely surge in railway transit through critical Russian transportation points and in occupied Donbas, the activation of military support logistics such as medical facilities, modular bases, and ammunition storage sites, or placing National Guard units on full alert. The organization of military exercises in Belarus as well as naval drills in the Black Sea are all part of concealing the timing of actual operations.

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