Russia and Ukraine, a path to conflict.

by Philip INGRAM MBE

You don’t deploy over 100,000 troops for months in winter on the borders of another country which you have already annexed elements of in 2014, unless you intend to use them.  Troops deployed into areas preparing for potential combat operations can sustain themselves for a certain amount of time and then boredom and lack of access to fixed facilities, becomes an issue.  The worst ever type of deployment is an open ended one, the very type all the service personnel from Russia are experiencing as they sit within striking distance of the Ukrainian border.

So, what is likely to happen? That is anyone’s guess at this point, but there are certain factors that come to bear. Putin won’t want the full might of the international community to come to put pressure on his fragile economy, but he must be seen to do something for his domestic audience and for the massive deployment to seem ‘legitimate.’

He has sold the threat of NATO expansionism into Ukraine and Georgia to his domestic audience and whipped up a level of threat that NATO isn’t capable of, even if it were politically coherent.

The last few NATO deployments to the Balkans and Afghanistan have shown the very real difficulties NATO has in generating a sustainable, coherent military approach to operations with very real differences between EU members, the US and UK with the UK aligning itself more often with the US and France participating where it can see potential economic advantage.

However, Russia and Putin in particular, have a collective deep-down belief in NATO expansionism for the sole purpose of threatening Russia.  Putin also hankers after the ‘good old days’ of the USSR and would love its re-birth (under his control of course).

Putin loves the ability to grandstand, he loves the feeling of power on the international stage, so will happily participate in any and all international ‘de-escalation,’ conferences and meetings. He has one advantage; he owns the information space like no other leader. He is a master of manipulation, disinformation and obfuscation so our participation will just serve not just to embolden him, but provide a stage for him to set the conditions to ‘prove’ to the Russian people and to others that he has tried everything, but it is the West that are being intransigent and not budging, it is others who are forcing Russia’s hands into having to protect itself.

This is the start, the foundation for action, the first Indicator and Warning ticked, and we must now watch for the language to become more accusative and aggressive.  This will be the second indicator and warning of impending action.  However, Putin knows that winning the war of words won’t be enough for the West to accept him marching into Ukraine or even part of Ukraine, so more has to happen.

He seems to like the NATO Kosovo scenario of going to protect an element of the local population, but to do that he needs to escalate the crisis to the international community before he can think of going, else he needs to de-escalate his preparations in the eyes of the Russian public.  In his eyes it is justifiable to the international community as it is just doing what NATO did in Kosovo, so to achieve this he has things that need to happen.

Alongside increasing domestic and international rhetoric suggesting Western Interference and expansionist aims we will begin to see increasing rhetoric around ethnic Russians being targeted inside Ukraine. He will suggest an increase of Ukrainian state and foreign sponsored actions supressing the Russian speaking populations. This could involve terror type attacks, a public atrocity like a school bus or aircraft being hit in the Donbas region, it will likely involve a massive increase in anti-Russian rhetoric on social media, the only difference being, it will be Russia behind it.

At the same time Russia will likely expand their threats, more support to Assad in Syria, courting of other countries sympathetic to Russia, increased refugee activity on the EUs borders via Belarus and elsewhere.  Russian conventional military activity, probing NATO airspace, threatening undersea cables, backing Iranian aggression in the Gulf, encouraging North Korea to ‘test’ more missiles with a sprinkling of cyber-attacks would all be used to distract western defence and split its focus.

The next step close to Putin deciding to attack Ukraine may possibly be terror type attacks by element of the state in Russia but blamed on Ukrainian separatists or sympathisers. This would be the trigger for action into Ukraine and in the run up to this we would likely see an increase in targeted messaging against Ukraine as well as more reports of ‘little green men’ popping up, Russia’s deniable contract mercenaries that played a leading part in the annexation of Crimea and of course blunt messaging accusing the west of interfering and aggression. At the same time, we could see the following:

  • Ukraine Cyber attack(s)
  • Global Cyber attack(s)
  • Russian Black Sea fleet deployed
  • Elements of the Russian Med Fleet deployed
  • Elements of the Russian Northern and Baltic Fleet Deployed

However, Putin is not daft and will calculate if he gets his messaging frenzy to a point where the world thinks that the whole of Ukraine will be invaded but he only carries out a limited land grab, then he could calculate that there would be an international sigh of relief and he could weather any additional sanctions or measures. His activities with NATO, the EU and the wider international community will be designed to gauge if he could get away with this.

If he does, his limited objectives could be annexing a large part of Eastern Ukraine where the majority Russian Speakers live. He is likely to calculate this as being just under the threshold of a very robust Western intervention as the last thing Putin could afford is a conflict with the West and he knows this, but emotionally he wants all of Ukraine.

Equally, he could easily de-escalate but indicators of that will be domestically focused rhetoric regarding meeting Russia’s objectives and capitulation by the West in some way. We live in interesting times and the robustness of our political leaders will likely be tested to their fullest extent in the coming weeks.

Philip Ingram MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence who has studied Russian tactics from the Geopolitical to Tactical as part of his career. He remains available for comment.