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Andreas Umland, Yaroslav Chornohor, David Stulik, Illia Ponomarenko, Daniel Szeligowski: War or another manoeuvre? What threatens Ukraine?

Russian peacekeepers

What does the increase in Russian troops on the Ukrainian border indicate? What will war look like if it happens? What is behind the Polish border crisis and how ready is the West to help Ukraine? Can the EU support Ukraine in the face of an escalating energy crisis? The “Brussels Ukraine Review” journal asked these very difficult questions MEPs, politicians of Ukraine and Belarus, as well as Western and Ukrainian experts.

Andreas Umland, An Analyst at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs

The increase in Russian troops on the Ukrainian border is a form of political pressure so far. Whether this is a serious preparation for war, start of minor escalation, or a way to merely scare Ukraine and the West, we will come to know only later. The Kremlin might also not know yet what exactly it will do and may only decide as things develop.

The West is clearly not going to assist Ukraine directly, i.e. with troops. Yet that may also not be necessary. Ukraine has been preparing for such a scenario for more than seven years now. Thus, there is better preparedness than there was in 2014. The situation is also clearer than it was in 2014. How far the West will go in terms of imposing sanctions on Russia remains to be seen.

Rhetorically, the West is taking a sharper position today. When it comes to the policy choices, this will be clear once they happen. The impression in the West is that previous sanctions were a partial success. They did not solve the situation but they contained Russia. So, if escalation happens – there may be new sectoral and individual sanctions. On the other hand, there are also currently discussions in the West about new concessions concerning the Ukrainian implementation of the Minsk Agreements, in accordance with its Russian interpretation.

Concerning Nord Stream 2, there is a sense of solidarity in the West towards Ukraine. However, in Germany there are various groups that profit from the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and which are less interested in political consequences. The US, though, can still stop the project with sanctions.

Yaroslav Chornohor, Board Member of Ngo “Foreign Policy Council – Ukrainian Prism”

The build-up of Russian troops is a signal to NATO countries that the Russian Federation “ups the stakes” by threatening to start a full-scale war in the territory of Ukraine. In this way, Russia seeks the attention of the world’s leading powers, especially the United States. This is done to make others reckon with Russia in the “big” policy.

Russia uses the threat of war as a method of pressure on Ukraine and its partners.

In his speech, Boris Johnson outlined the problems in the international system and urged that they be confronted The United Kingdom is doing a lot to strengthen Ukraine’s defence and resilience. However, significant support from other European countries is highly questionable because: first, Britain withdrew from the EU, and, second, the EU itself has many serious problems of both an internal and external nature.

The EU has not learned any lessons from the past. This organisation strives for the lowest possible level of conflict intensity and internal stability, respectively. All efforts are aimed at this, hence the attempts to reach an agreement with the Russian aggressor.

Regarding the gaspipe, the level of dependence on Russian energy among European countries varies, so the willingness to support Ukraine and, at the same time, oppose Russia is different. We should not rely on the united front of support because each country will first and foremost defend its interests. The matter of defending Ukraine is a matter of the Ukrainians themselves, it is necessary to realise this and plan protection from this perspective. International support can only be an additional factor, although it is certainly important.

David Stulik, Senior Analyst at the European Values Center for Security Policy (Prague)

Indeed, all of these destabilising efforts made either by Russia (increase of its army at the borders with Ukraine, unstable deliveries of gas to Europe, engagement in Western Balkans, Central Africa, etc.) or by Belarus (artificially instigated migrants´ crisis), which under self-declared “president” Lukashenka turned to be the puppet in the hands of the Kremlin in its operations against the West, are part of one larger game: the Kremlin´s challenge of the West. However, one should overestimate the possibility that the West (or Poland) would be distracted by the situation at the border with Belarus and be less prepared for other aggressive behaviour and steps of the duo of Lukashenka/Putin.

I personally do not believe that Putin would be able to start a full-scale war in and against Ukraine. He will face a severe resistance, which would result in significant casualties also on the side of the Russian army. This could then backfire against him back home, in Russia. Instead, he might be determined to lead a short and fast military operation(s) against Ukraine, which could provide him with immediate gains. One could think about the entry of Russian troops on the territory of occupied parts of Donbas, where these troops could stay as “peacekeepers” (like in Transnistria). Of course, Putin would need a reason for that so he might instigate some provocations on these occupied territories and use them as a formal reason to step in.

Always when Russian media, which are under a strong control and scrutiny of the Kremlin, start these information campaigns, they are conducted with a concrete purpose. One can be sure that there nothing “sudden” in their timing. To the contrary, these information operations are a signal that the Kremlin has launched another hybrid operation against its “enemies” – the West and Ukraine.

I also cannot exclude the possibility that Putin, by taking all these destabilising steps, is just testing again the red lines of the Western defense and reactions. He might be also bluffing and rising stakes in his relations with the West/Ukraine and, thus, also preparing better negotiating positions using the hybrid and military threats.

Illia Ponomarenko, Ukrainian Journalist and Military Correspondent

In my opinion, the build-up of Russian troops near the Ukrainian borders indicates the intention of the Russian leadership to once again use military and political tensions in the region as a lever of political pressure on European countries, including Germany and France. Probably, this is related to Nord Stream 2 certification.

As the crisis of April 2021 showed, blackmail with very demonstrative military manoeuvres near the borders of Ukraine is an effective tool. At the same time, I believe that Russia is economically, militarily, and politically incapable of fulfilling such tasks as full-scale invasion, defeat of the Ukrainian army, destruction of resistance centres, and imposition of a peace agreement on Ukraine’s political leadership. The extremely high price and questionable results of such an operation make such a scenario unlikely.

I think that none of the parties, including the Russian Federation itself, is 100% politically, economically, or militarily ready for such a scenario. The EU cannot allow a major war of Vietnam scale to start and millions of Ukrainian refugees to flee from the attacked cities. NATO will also suffer devastating political losses due to the failure to contain Russia on its eastern flank. Ukraine, given the systemic problems of its defence sector, also does not have a 100% chance of repelling a full-scale, multi-layered operation. But the large territory, motivated army, and significant ability of the population to mobilise independently (as shown by 2014) make the cost of invasion and occupation certainly too high.

As for Boris Johnson’s statement, in my opinion, this is a combination of a declaration and a call for Western Europe to take up an appropriate position. The British elites have historically understood very well when there is a need for a tough approach to the containment of Russia, and the UK’s claim to political leadership in the Western world has recently strengthened seriously. Recent political steps, leaked to the media, such as reports of readiness to send 600 troops, show London’s willingness to at least take a tough and decisive stance, which is already a major factor for the Kremlin, which respects only the language of force.

As for levers of influence, I believe that the EU, despite its weak political will, still has serious levers – first of all, the ability to freeze billions of Russian elites, as well as other severe economic sanctions that serve as the most effective deterrent.

A full-scale invasion and attempted occupation of Ukraine with a population of 40 million, in any case, mean an operation on the scale of Iraq in 2003 and, consequently, unprecedented human losses and material damage. In case of a truly full-scale invasion, I believe that new challenges, such as the unprecedented migrant crisis on the EU’s western borders, will be far more dangerous than the energy crisis, so Europe is likely to do much more to prevent an invasion rather than to seek new reconciliation after Ukraine is captured.

Daniel Szeligowski, Head of Eastern Europe Program at Polish Institute of International Affairs

The basic scenario is that Russia is raising stakes and preparing the ground for negotiations with the United States on the future of security architecture in Europe. From a Russian perspective, such a new arrangement should provide for, on one hand, a Russian so-called sphere of privileged interests, part of which should be Ukraine. On the other it’s the creation of a buffer zone in Central Europe, where Russia would like to see limited NATO military presence.

There is also a scenario of possible military intervention in Ukraine – the threat is there. However, this will ultimately depend on the reaction of the West. If there is no response to the Russian military posturing, then a second scenario is also possible.

The EU is not a point of reference here. For Russia, it is all about NATO and the US. Therefore it depends primarily on the American readiness to support Ukraine and react firmly. In the US there has been a discussion between those ready to counteract Russia, and those ready to sacrifice Ukraine. The outcome of this discussion is still unclear. Normally, I would say that the US would not support a bargain with Russia to the detriment of Ukraine, but, by means of amassing its troops around Ukraine, the Kremlin makes it easier for Washington to make such a decision and justify it as being “for the sake of peace.”

The EU’s leverage towards Russia lies in the economic sphere: sanctions, energy policy and trade. Foreign and security policy are still in the hands of the member states, despite their coordination. There will be no joint military response from the EU side; this is up to NATO. What we have learned is that Russia does not shy away from using military force if the cost is relatively modest and the West is not ready to act decisively. Also, we should not rely on Russia’s good faith. Still, I believe not everyone in the EU understands that yet.

The key question is whether the gas transit would still be conducted through Ukraine. There should have been negotiations between the EU, Russia and Ukraine on that matter. Of course, it would be much easier if there was no alternative – such as Nord Stream 2. The gas that goes through Ukraine could soon be redirected to Nord Stream 2, and the Ukrainian gas infrastructure could become largely redundant. NS2 gives Russia huge leverage over Germany and the EU as a whole. In fact, NS2 proves that Germans were right and change could indeed come through trade. However, they believed it would work the other way since it allows for transfer of autocratic norms and corruption into democracies. Putin will use NS2 to make it harder for the EU to come up with strong response to his adventurism.

Speaking about the migrants on the border, the question is who is behind the crisis – Lukashenka or Putin? I would not go as far as to say that Putin orchestrated the whole crisis from the beginning. I guess it is Lukashenka’s revenge – to punish Poland and Lithuania for their support for Belarusian opposition and EU sanctions towards Belarus earlier this year. Besides, Lukashenka created a crisis to offer a solution, and would be ready to take a step back if he is rewarded with lifting of the sanctions. But the EU is not ready for such a solution at this point. If we assume that Putin is behind this, though, I think we can also consider that this conflict is a distraction from the Russian actions at the Ukrainian borders.

The threat of a military solution is the highest since 2015. There are several arguments towards this. On the one hand, COVID pandemic forces the West to focus internally, the Polish-Belarus crisis absorbs NATO attention, and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan makes Russia think that American power is in decline. On the other hand, Russia accumulated the highest international reserves in its history, so if Putin was to risk incurring additional costs, then it is now. All that taken together means that, from a Russian perspective, there is a window of opportunity to make a step ahead. Still, I do not think it would be a full-scale war, most likely an escalation in Donbas or a small-scale attack to see what would be the Western response. But again, if there is no response, then Russia could go further.

Information warfare could be part of Russian attempts to scare off the West – to create an impression that this time Russia really means business. It’s sort of encouragement for the US to sit behind the table with Russia. But if Russians seriously consider a military operation, they need an excuse – not necessarily for themselves, but for those in the West who are in constant search of a pretext to turn a blind eye to what Russia is doing, so that, after all, there were still those justifying Russian aggression and claiming that Russia was forced or provoked to do that.

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