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What’s Putin really up to with Ukraine?

Adeline van Houtte is the Economist Intelligence Unit’s lead analyst on Russia.

It looks like Russia is at it again, after the unusual movement of more than 100,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine. Or so we are told by the United States and other NATO countries, which have been warning that Russia could be about to stage a repeat of its 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea — only this time in eastern Ukraine. Yet worrying as these maneuvers may be, we need to ask what’s really going on here.

Is Russia truly about to invade Ukraine?

There are multiple reasons to question the narrative that has arisen in the West in recent weeks. Firstly, if Russia’s show of force was the prelude to an offensive, it would require far more troops and air defense — not to mention discretion, if the intention were to catch Ukraine by surprise, as was the case with Crimea.

There are other reasons to more closely evaluate the invasion narrative as well. For one, the Ukrainian army is far stronger than it was in 2014, and an invasion would be extremely costly for Russia, both economically and in manpower. It could also be politically risky for Russian President Vladimir Putin who isn’t as popular as he used to be at home.

Occupations are also unpredictable — and would especially be so this go around. In 2014, Russia invaded a part of Ukraine where a majority of citizens were ethnic Russians, and its military support for separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region similarly took place in mostly friendly territory. The story would not be the same with the rest of the country, where Russia would have to fight on more hostile terrain.

An invasion would also yield few benefits. Russia’s immediate priority is securing the approval from German regulators for Nord Stream 2, a politically controversial natural gas pipeline that bypasses Ukraine. Invading Ukraine now would surely put a stop to that. And in the long term, the current stalemate achieves the Kremlin’s key objective of preventing Ukraine’s closer integration with NATO and the EU, and to keep the West guessing about its intentions. An invasion would simply be pointless and hazardous.

So what is Russia really up to?

There could be several reasons why Russia is making a show of force along its border with Ukraine, and they are in great part related to what the Western powers have been up to as of late.

From Russia’s perspective, the NATO powers have been crossing its red lines in the region with unsettling regularity. In July 2021, for example, the U.S. Navy and several partners wrapped up military exercises in the Black Sea region, and just last week, Russia claimed that Western bomber flights carried nuclear weapons just 20 kilometers from its border. The recent reactivation of a U.S. artillery unit in Mainz-Kastel, Germany is likely to have been viewed with alarm by the Kremlin as well. This development is particularly crucial, as the unit will carry a U.S. hypersonic missile — the Dark Eagle weapon — that Russia considers a threat. Furthermore, the U.S. has been busy arming Ukraine, which has become one of the leading recipients of U.S. military aid in the world.

Further increasing tensions, Turkey, a supposed ally of Russia, and also a NATO member, has sold armed drones to Ukraine, which were recently used to take out artillery equipment stationed in the separatist-controlled area in the Donbas.

It takes two to tango, of course. Since 2014, Russia has engaged in a series of provocative actions against Ukraine and others — including NATO countries — ranging from political meddling to cyberwarfare. Russian incursions into NATO airspace are now a regular occurrence as well, with Russian bombers and fighters flying over the North Atlantic, North Sea, Black Sea and Baltic Sea in March.

Given the current situation, there is little prospect of improvement in relations between Russia and the West. In the short term, what Putin may have wanted the most was a meeting with the U.S. President Joe Biden, and the military buildup has paved the way for this diplomatic bargaining. Putin and Biden are now due to hold talks, where Putin will demand guarantees that NATO will limit its support to Ukraine and stop any potential expansion further east.

Those demands are unacceptable to the West. Putin knows it, but with his military build-up Moscow has now managed to send a clear message about its red lines and the fact that the bloc will not be allowed to call all the shots.

The real danger now is that this sort of brinkmanship could result in an accident or miscalculation by either side, resulting in a military clash. The best that can be expected is that both sides understand each other’s limits and strive to keep channels of communication that have fallen into abeyance open. Unless that happens, the specter of an accidental war on Europe’s doorstep will loom large.

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