SURPRISE, often a key part of successful war planning, has been strangely absent in the Ukraine crisis. The Russian army has sat on the Ukrainian border since October with the alleged intent of invading its neighbour, but has made no aggressive move.
Moscow has denied it means to attack, Ukrainian President Vlodymyr Zelensky has told President Biden to calm down, and the West’s response has been limited to diplomatic manoeuvring and the deployment of small additional Nato forces in Poland and the Baltic states.
These pose no credible threat to Russia and none has been sent to Ukraine although military equipment has been rushed to the Kiev government.
There is no guarantee that Vladimir Putin will not launch 100,000 troops into Ukraine tomorrow. However, there are powerful reasons to believe he will not and never meant to, despite the example of his brutal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. He knows that his supposed prey is ready for him this time.
Ostensibly, Moscow objects to any prospect of Ukraine joining Nato, which it is nowhere close to doing anyway. The invasion threat is really meant as leverage to persuade the West to scale back its presence in central and eastern Europe by removing forward forces which reinforce national militaries.
In short, Putin’s target is Nato’s freedom of action in the region rather than Ukraine, as Zelensky grasped from the start. It’s not a coincidence that the Russians began their troop build-up only two months after Joe Biden’s international credibility was shattered by his panicked withdrawal from Afghanistan.
What we’ve been watching on the Ukrainian border is geopolitical shadow boxing, although its significance should not be minimised. If Putin gets away with bullying the western alliance while US leadership under Biden is weakened, its entire purpose will be put in question.
Meanwhile, Putin’s game plan and its prominence in the media has not been without advantages for the US and its allies, helping in part to distract attention from alliance governments’ persistent Covid difficulties and the return of serious inflation and attendant public discontents.
Why would Putin wish to avoid a conflict despite the appearances he has created? He might know that he could simply not afford to fight a conventional war with a forewarned and well-armed adversary. Russia has a limited economy based on energy exports which could be cut off by western sanctions. Its military is already stretched by Moscow’s interventions in Georgia and Kazakhstan.
Deploying and supplying an army of 100,000 on the Ukrainian border costs money but no more than routine military exercises do. These are nothing compared with the open-ended potential costs of attacking a country of 44million people which has expanded its armed forces and border defences in preparation for an invasion.
Flat Ukraine would be easier to attack than mountainous Afghanistan, but the memory of that humiliation for the Soviet Union is fresh in the minds of Putin and his generals. Anything less than a quick and decisive victory which cowed the Ukrainian people into submission would be a major problem for Moscow. How would Putin garrison a hostile country the size of France?
Because of Ukraine’s border readiness for the Russian army, even a ‘minor incursion’, which Biden said would be tolerable, would be an ugly and unpredictable business. Putin may calculate that a threatening presence on the border, together with disruptive cyber warfare, is enough to keep Ukraine and the West on the edge of their seats.
How will all this play out? Putin has made unacceptable demands to Nato but will probably be satisfied with a form of words which appear to guarantee Ukraine will not be admitted. This should not be difficult to concede. Ukraine can democratise and prosper without Nato.
Putin himself has a strategic interest not to push the West too far into a corner with provocations which might force Nato to keep its promise to defend the former Soviet satellites that have already joined it. This is how real wars start.
What he needs to do above all is to keep personal control and avoid getting into something unmanageable as a result of an unforeseen escalation. So far, he’s taken no irrevocable step and the US has agreed to discuss troop and missile deployments on its eastern flank.
Nato needs a deal that reassures the east Europeans it can be trusted, doesn’t allow Putin to appear to dictate to it and which repairs the damage Obama caused when he cancelled the missile defence system the US promised to Poland and then blinked over Putin’s annexation of Crimea.