Has Russia Just Started a Wider War With Ukraine?

In Brief

Has Russia Just Started a Wider War With Ukraine?

President Putin’s deployment of troops in two separatist Ukrainian regions has nearly shut the door on diplomacy and intensified a showdown over European security.

Were the moves initiated by Russia on February 21 the start of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine? 

Russia has gathered sufficient military force along Ukraine’s border to mount a full-scale invasion. But that force also provides Russian President Vladimir Putin with many lesser options to press his effort to reconfigure Europe’s security architecture.

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Russia’s recognition of two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine as independent states and the deployment of what Russia refers to as “peacekeepers” to them will test Western resolve and unity and the resilience of the Ukrainian government. Putin will likely wait to see if cracks in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) open up and disarray in Kyiv mounts, offering the chance that he can get what he wants through diplomacy or regime change rather than by running the risks of more aggressive military operations. If it does not, he can ratchet up the military assault, with the threat of a full-scale invasion always looming, in the hope that he will get the concessions that he is seeking.    

Will Germany’s suspension of Nord Stream 2 and planned sanctions by the United States and EU states have any impact? 

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Such steps are not likely to have the impact that Western allies are hoping for, at least in the short run. Since the first wave of Western sanctions for its annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia has taken steps to sanctions-proof its economy. It has amassed over $600 billion in foreign currency reserves and another $200 billion in a national wealth fund to help it ride out any sanctions. It has also cracked down hard on domestic dissent to guard against any destabilizing popular discontent at the hardships that sanctions might cause.

Meanwhile, a suspension of Nord Stream 2 is likely to have the perverse effect of spurring Russia to move further into Ukraine to seize the pipelines that currently carry Russian gas exports to European markets. With Europe still dependent on Russia for up to 40 percent of its imported gas, Moscow will retain a powerful lever no matter what happens to Nord Stream 2.

What diplomatic options remain for de-escalating the situation? 

The window for diplomacy is rapidly narrowing, but it has not closed completely. Breaking the impasse will almost certainly require Washington to agree to put the issue of NATO’s expansion on the table, something it has thus far categorically refused to do. The chances of it doing so are slim—that step would ignite a political storm in the United States and with some, if not all, NATO allies. More broadly speaking, the high-level diplomacy of recent weeks is unlikely to defuse the crisis. Politically difficult but necessary tradeoffs cannot be made in the public gaze. 

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What sort of threat does Russia pose to NATO countries on Ukraine’s border? 

NATO’s deployment of additional forces to Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and its strong public commitment to collective defense have reassured these vulnerable allies and probably deterred Russia from more aggressive actions against them.

The major challenge that these states face, along with Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, is the flow of refugees—which the Joe Biden administration has estimated could range up to five million people in the event of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This challenge would come at a time when these countries are already suffering from pandemic-induced strains and economic hardships. Russia could manipulate refugee flows toward those states, for example Hungary or Romania, that are least able to cope with them successfully.

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More broadly, a Russian invasion, an unjustifiable act of aggression, would upend the norms of European—and global—security that have been in place since at least the end of the Cold War. All European countries would be compelled to spend more on defense, and any future peace would be fragile as long as Russia saw war as an acceptable means to defend its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.   

People participate in a protest outside the Russian Embassy on February 22 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
People participate in a protest outside the Russian Embassy on February 22 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

What are the risks for Russia? 

Russian actions have unified and energized NATO, refocusing it on its original mission of containing Russia after a period of drift. More aggressive Russian behavior could lead both Finland and Sweden to join the alliance despite their long traditions of non-bloc status.

Russian conduct could also strain relations with China. After Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a declaration on February 4, in which China firmly backed Russia’s position on European security, the Chinese more recently have noticeably backtracked, underscoring their support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, including Ukraine. Moreover, Beijing will be wary of associating with Russian aggression at a time when it is seeking to expand its commercial and technological ties with western Europe.

Finally, prolonged military conflict in Ukraine could strain the Russian economy even absent the punishing sanctions the West would levy. Mounting casualties could sour elite and popular support for Putin, as occurred during the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. None of these risks, however, seem to have outweighed in Putin’s mind the benefits of restructuring European security and posturing as a great power on the global stage. 

Will Merrow and Michael Bricknell created the graphics for this In Brief.

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