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Putin is playing a strong hand in the Russia Ukraine crisis, as long as he doesn’t invade


Doomsday predictions by the US and UK that Russia is about to invade Ukraine are rejected by military experts in Kyiv, who deny that the Russian army has the numbers or the equipment to stage such an attack.

“What we currently have,” writes Andriy Zagorodnyuk, the former Ukrainian defence minister, and military specialists, in a report by the Centre for Defence Studies in Kyiv, “is the military threat posed by about 127,000 Russian servicemen along Ukraine’s borders, in the occupied territories of eastern Ukraine, and in Crimea. This number has not increased since April [2021], and is not enough for a full-scale offensive.”

The report states categorically that Russian forces are not in a position to invade in the next two or three weeks and are unlikely to be able to do so in 2022. It points to the absence of ammunition and fuel along with field hospitals and trained up-to-strength military units essential to a modern army going to war. This negative judgement about the prospect of a Russian offensive is confirmed by Ukrainian ministers and defence officials who politely downplay the war hysteria in Washington and London.

Nor are the Ukrainian military experts alone in saying that Russia has not taken the practical military measures necessary for an invasion. Senior French officials express similar doubts: “We see the same number of lorries, tanks and people [as before],” one official told Le Monde. “We observed the same manoeuvres, but we cannot conclude an offensive is imminent.”

Contrast this view that nothing much is happening with what British and American officials are telling the world. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said on Wednesday that the United States sees “every indication that he [Russian President Vladimir Putin] is going to use military force sometime perhaps [between] now and the middle of February”.

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An anonymous senior British intelligence official speaking three days later was even more specific, being quoted as saying that six Russian amphibious warfare ships could seize the Black Sea port of Odessa as part of a multi-front offensive aimed at occupying the whole of Ukraine. “It’s not just a negotiating tactic or an idle threat when you deploy this many troops with this capability,” he said.

On the contrary, this is precisely what Russia would do in order to give their unspoken threat of invasion substance so that it can be a powerful lever in any negotiations. Going by reports from Kyiv, the Russians have in reality done surprisingly little to make the prospect of their launching a multipronged blitzkrieg more credible.

But then they do not have to because the US and Britain are doing the Kremlin’s work for it. They compare the deployment of 127,000 troops – far too few to occupy Ukraine, which is larger than France – with the 11 million strong Red Army at the end of the Second World War. The intelligence official cited above sought to drive home the analogy by pointing to the transfer of Russian forces from the Far East, saying that this had not happened since 1941 and was “unprecedented in the modern era”.

If a grand Russian offensive is not in the offing, could they not stage a more economical attack, perhaps confining it to seizing big cities like Kyiv, Kharkov and Odessa? In practice, this would be a recipe for disaster since it would leave great tracts of Ukrainian territory unconquered, and capable of resistance, in the rear of Russian tank columns.

The only Russian advance that has military credibility would be in the far south-east of Ukraine between the Russian separatist self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and Russian-annexed Crimea. It would be possible for Russian troops to seize Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, a city with a population of 565,000 and two of Europe’s largest steel mills, which is only 15 miles from the separatist republics.

But analysts with good sources in Moscow tell me that the Russians would not do this, even if the crisis escalates dramatically. Seizing even a sliver of Ukraine would precipitate an avalanche of Western sanctions, halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, and drive Ukraine closer to Nato – things which are the opposite of what the Kremlin wants to get.

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Looked at from Russia’s point of view, the threat of an invasion is a strong card – but only if it is never played. To play it would be to start an unwinnable war which would be political suicide for Putin and his government. Western media may suggest that he is isolated in the Kremlin, his judgement eroded by two decades in power. But this should probably be dismissed as crude propaganda. Verifiable evidence, going by previous military interventions from Chechnya in 1999 to Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015, is that Putin is cautious in using force. Had he wanted to take Mariupol and a chunk of Russian-speaking south-east Ukraine, he could have done so far more easily in 2014.

Assuming that Putin has not gone mad, he will avoid an invasion but seek to use the threat of one to secure a neutral Ukraine in which the Russian enclaves will have federal status. He may not obtain anything like his maximalist demands, but this will not damage him much with Russian public opinion so long as he avoids fighting a war.

More mysterious than Russian objectives is the war hysteria gripping political, defence and intelligence elites in the US and UK. Probably one should take the crisis mood at face value, and assume that the panic is real, even if the explanation for it is less than clear.

One conspiratorial explanation for the American and British overreaction to a not-atypical bit of Russian sabre-rattling may have something in it. This holds that Western intelligence services are neither stupid nor ill-informed enough as to not know that Russia is not going to invade Ukraine. But they are cunningly pretending to believe in the threat to provide an excuse for the West to expand its military presence in Eastern Europe.

This sounds too subtle, though America would dearly like to sink the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project between Germany and Russia.

Domestic political advantages clearly play a role in deepening the crisis. Security and foreign policy elites in Washington and London enjoy waging cold wars and Britain always wants to secure its status as the closest US ally.
Democratic Party politicians detest Putin for having supposedly helped Donald Trump to win the presidential election in 2016 and have long portrayed him as Putin’s puppet, sparse though the evidence is for this. Biden wants to wipe away the memory of the final debacle in Afghanistan by displaying statesmanlike determination in the Ukraine crisis.

Though Putin may never have intended to invade, his failure to do so can easily be presented as proof of him quailing before the iron wills of Biden and Johnson.

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