Russia must face real consequences if it directs its forces against Ukraine
Concentration of the Russian army on the border is a very strong cause for deep concern for the international community and NATO. This is the second time this year that Russia has carried out a large and unusual concentration of troops in the region. We observe Russian tanks, artillery armed units, drones and electronic armament systems, as well as combat-ready units. The current concentration of Russian troops is similar to that experienced in April, when Russia concentrated around 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border.
Ukraine is not a member of NATO and is not covered by the Collective Defense arrangements, but the Alliance should send a clear message to Russia that NATO is here to defend and protect its partners. There are also some strong messages that Ukraine can send to Russia.
In February 2014, Russia occupied the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula. Since April 2014, Moscow-backed and armed militants, saboteurs and soldiers of Russia’s regular units have occupied large areas in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in eastern Ukraine. In the war in eastern Ukraine, already more than 13,000 people have been killed and almost three million have fled.
Punishing Russia for annexing Crimea and destabilising Eastern Ukraine, the EU, the US and other Western countries have imposed sanctions on many of Russia’s top officials, people of the Kremlin’s immediate circle, and Russia’s financial, defence, energy and other sectors.
Already in the first months of the conflict, when the Russian invasion of the Crimean peninsula spread to mainland Ukraine, the international community was convinced enough of the Kremlin’s engagement and they imposed sanctions on Moscow. Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court in The Hague recognized Russia’s involvement in hostilities in eastern Ukraine in 2016. Consequently, Russia withdrew from the International Criminal Court. As D. Peskov has pointed out, even a simple dialogue between Russian and Ukrainian officials is problematic when the positions of the two sides on the nature of the conflict are so different. It seems that Putin is not at all interested in finding a compromise and a settlement with Ukraine, but is wholeheartedly committed to subjugating it. This is clearly confirmed by Putin himself and other leading Russian officials.
How does Ukraine defend itself from someone who refuses to reach peace? Many commentators and analysts say that with the current escalation of the conflict, Putin wants to secure all the options available in his confrontation games with the West. These options, among others, must include a major conventional war in Europe. What are the options for Ukraine and Europe? Eventual responses include “do nothing”, respecting “Russia’s rights” to prevail in its “back yard”; demonstrate “severe consequences” for Russia; and strengthen the regime of the sanctions against Moscow. Lately, the potential usage of the NATO’s Response Force is also mentioned, if Russia would launch a military attack against Ukraine.
All these opportunities basically mean sitting down and doing nothing or waiting calmly for Russia’s future behaviour. Is it not too much of a luxury when Ukraine’s statehood and regional security and peace in Europe are at stake? Let us not talk now about the revolutionary new plan of action, but let us imagine the theoretical possibilities, which, at least conceptually and strategically, would allow Ukraine to keep up with “options” for Russia.
Let’s be honest about the fact that the Russian leader counts with the only and most credible actor that has serious warfighting capability in Europe – the United States. It must be a great temptation to challenge this power on the current grounds, especially taking into account all the relative successes in the conflict with Georgia (2008) and everything that has been “accomplished” so far in Ukraine since 2014. All the steps that would require “imminent” response and “devastating” consequences to Russia from the European and Transatlantic body, actually, are already being conducted by Russia brilliantly. In return, Russia has received only “peanuts” being thrown at Putin’s face with some economic sanctions and “hard talk” by major western leaders, who at the same time proceed with abundant gas arrangements and other contracts for Western Europe. It pushes Putin to think that in real life there will be no consequences, no real and forcible push-back, no real action that would stop the aggression. The European and NATO’s military is much stronger and more capable than Russia’s army. Yet, the weakness of the European and American collectivity comes in the form of political disagreement, weakly centralised and rather fragmented command and control, economic interests that prevail over ideological values. These are just some of the evidence, which would let Putin through the second or the third stages of his aggressive policies in Eastern Europe. It would be really hard to say when and where his appetite would stop. Major war in Ukraine would be something that Russian army generals would be extremely interested in, in order to boost their combat experience, considering that the Ukrainian army is a very equal opponent, taking into account operations in Eastern Ukraine.
Let us ask ourselves whether it is possible to pass something to Russia, an idea that would make it seriously rethink or completely abandon the threat of military intrusion into Ukraine. One such proactive option is to show the nation’s ability to be ready on everything to defend its country. It should show a credible readiness, cohesiveness and capability to act not only in a reaction mode, but to be more proactive in thinking and doing more than anyone could expect. In this respect, one of the best examples in recent history is the state of Israel, whose nation’s heroism and leadership in the Six Day War of 1967 laid a solid ground for Israeli statehood. In international relations, a pre-emptive strike is a military action taken by a country in response to a threat from another country – the purpose of this is to stop the threatening country from carrying out its threat. Before this military attack by Israel, Egypt announced a policy of hostility towards Israel. It put its military forces on maximum alert, expelled the UN Emergency force from the Sinai border area, strengthened its forces on the border with Israel, announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships, and formed mutual support treaties with Iraq, Jordan and Syria.
Theoretically, and in practice, we may observe many parallels, which may be attributed to the situation of the Russian and Ukrainian conflict. Not as a plan of an action in the first place, but as a switch in the mindset. That is foremost how the concept and the meaning of the “preemptive war” can be utilised in the case of Ukraine. It should be said, if not really done in terms of military operation, something should be really done in terms of strengthening Ukraine’s ability to resist.
The ongoing situation of Russia’s pressure on Ukraine reminded me of a conversation in Washington, D.C., a few years ago. I discussed with a representative of the think tank community, what the options for the Baltic countries and Latvia would be in case of Russia’s military buildup and imminent threat to Latvia’s national security, considering that all the Russia troops are stationed in Pskov, the Russian Western military district. “Why not strike the units in Pskov preemptively if you see that they are about to come?” – I was asked. My reaction to this question was a little giggle. This is, so to say, a very extreme approach, especially, considering the size of the Latvian army, or all of the Baltic armies combined. Let’s say that from the perspective of the military operation that would sound like a “little unrealistic” option for now, but there is something compelling about the concept and the way of thinking that this strategy would require. It makes you think differently, and somehow you find yourself out of the “trap” set by the adversary when you begin to take it proactively. And this is how the small and young state of Israel did it in 1967. It came up with a rather “absurd” idea of a military operation against Egypt at that time, considering how imminent the threat to Israeli national security was, based on the evidence available, As a result Israel struck first against a much stronger adversary and all of its allies. It was not to show that they would certainly succeed, but it was a clear message to the world that this nation is going to do everything to survive.
In modern Ukraine, and in the present situation that Ukraine is facing, the concept of “preemptiveness” should be considered as a broader concept. Ukrainian military strategy, planning and operations, command and control, political leadership and societal resilience should “preempt” anything that Russian planners would consider as weak links of the chain. Europe and the United states are there to help to fulfil this mission with advice and necessary resources. If it comes to a military operation – Russia should consider the war on its territory as a real option if it launches a full-scale, conventional military invasion of Ukraine.