For over three months, Ukraine been balanced between peace and a potential Russian invasion. The first report on Russia’s increasing military build-up was published by The Washington Post on Oct. 30.
Ukrainian authorities did not publicly react to this information at the time. Six months prior, in spring 2021, Ukraine faced a similar threat, and Russia did eventually withdraw its troops. Ukrainian intelligence did not confirm any unusual activity on the country’s eastern border.
Nevertheless, with the onset of winter, the mood in Ukraine changed drastically, and went from skepticism to expecting disaster. The intelligence data, the statements of Ukraine’s western allies and numerous media publications all pointed to one obvious fact: a massive Russian military build-up, comprising 130,000 troops and a large quantity of military equipment on Ukraine’s border and in Russian-occupied Donbas and Crimea.
To add insult to injury, the Kremlin’s rhetoric became increasingly aggressive. Moscow now demanded from NATO and the United States a list of contentious “security guarantees”, including a permanent ban on Ukraine’s NATO membership.
Russia has also started using supplies of gas as a weapon to blackmail the European Union. At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vassal and self-proclaimed Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko offered to store Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus and pledged to side with Russia in the stand-off against Ukraine and the West.
A crisis that started as a local dispute has ended up shaking the entire world.
Moscow’s strategy is a complex puzzle, made up of various pieces: The Donbas, Crimea, Ukraine’s ties with NATO and the EU, Russia’s relationship with the west, energy and financial markets, as well as the Kremlin’s dissatisfaction with the political developments in Georgia and Moldova.
“Russia is afraid that Ukraine is unequivocally leaving its orbit,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pfeiffer.
“We know for a fact that Russians have a few tricks up their sleeve,” commented Ukraine’s former defense minister, Andriy Zahorodniuk.
“They never follow a linear strategy, but rather prefer to adapt. They weigh their options and change their stance depending on the situation.”
The current crisis had already dealt a devastating blow to Ukraine’s economy. The public mood is increasingly sour and the Ukrainian government is distracted from much-needed reforms. According to the National Bank of Ukraine, the forecast for the GDP growth in 2022 has been badly affected by the geopolitical tensions and decreased from 3.8% to 3.4%. Ukrainian eurobonds have dropped in their value and the Ukrainian hryvnia has also fallen to new lows.
“Russia wants to provoke a civil conflict and use it as a pretext to influence the situation in Ukraine,” said Ukraine’s former foreign minister Pavlo Klymkin.
“The ideal scenario for Russia is to ‘reset’ Ukraine, or even split it up.”
Relying on expert advice, NV has put together five most likely scenarios for the future of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict:
Scenario 1 — The Great War
The worst-case scenario is a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine that would start from several directions simultaneously. Russia would use a made-up pretext to invade, for example, they will be “defending Russian-speaking Ukrainians.”
However, a big war equals enormous losses and there will be casualties on the Russian side as well. Even for the Kremlin, such a scenario is too much of a challenge. Moreover, the Ukrainian army is well prepared for defense, in particular, thanks to unprecedented military aid from Ukraine’s western allies.
Even JP Morgan and Fitch analysts do not expect a full-blown invasion of Ukraine.
Ukraine’s army contains over 300,000 military personnel and the country can mobilize another 300,000 if needed. The Russian army is significantly larger, with an impressive 1,000,000 troops. However, only 130,000 Russian troops are deployed on Ukraine’s border at the moment, while the rest are in their garrisons in Russia.
Only when Russia announces conscription and starts amassing material supplies, such as food and fuel, as well as medical and logistical facilities, we can expect a large-scale invasion, says military analyst Oleh Zhdanov.
If that happens, Moscow will start the invasion with air strikes. Ukraine will be outnumbered as Russia has over 1,500 military aircraft and 500 helicopters. Only after leveraging its air advantage would Russia use infantry, tanks, and artillery. The border is quite long, so Moscow can attack from several points.
If Russia dares to attack Kyiv, for instance, from the side of the Belarusian border, it will not only be up against the Ukrainian army. Military expert Ihor Koziy insists that Kyiv’s territorial defense force is also ready to counter a potential Russian attack.
A Ukrainian law on the status of territorial defense came into power on Jan. 1, which outlined the creation of a territorial defense branch comprised of 10,000 military reservists.
Scenario 2 — Focused attack
Russians may carry out a local operation in the Donbas to widen the front line and move further into Ukraine’s territory. A number of experts believe such a scenario to be quite plausible.
The Russians may target the city of Mariupol, a key transport hub for the Donbas economy.
According to Ukrainian military intelligence, Russia has started to amass weaponry in Russian-occupied parts of the Donbas, including tanks, mobile artillery systems, and additional military supplies. Russia is also engaged in recruiting and training mercenaries, who will be sent to the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.
In addition, Russia may attempt to annex the Russian-occupied parts of the Donbas. The Russian communist party has already submitted a draft of a bill that will officially acknowledge the puppet states of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics.
“If Russia agrees to legalize the Russian-occupied parts of the Donbas, it will be a point of no return for the Minsk Agreement,” says political analyst Mariya Zolkina.
Scenario 3 — Stealthy attack
Cyber-attacks, paired with an information war are the most likely scenario, and is already being implemented by Moscow.
In the early hour of Jan. 14, Russian hacker groups carried out a massive attack targeting 22 Ukrainian government websites. The hackers managed to change the content on the websites, forcing them to go down.
Additionally, in January, Ukrainian schools were hit with a wave of fake bomb alerts. According to Ukraine’s SBU security service, they were orchestrated from neighboring post-communist countries and the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine. The SBU succeeded in detaining one “bomber”, a resident of Zaporizhzhya region (eastern Ukraine), convicted for murder in Russia.
“Russia’s top priority is to destabilize Ukraine from within,” said Head of Ukraine’s Security Council, Oleksandr Danylov.
Russia’s ultimate goal is to spread panic among Ukrainians. The panic would force them to panic buy essential items and foreign currency, as well as to attempt moving abroad or at least to western Ukraine.
Scenario 4 — Aggressive diplomacy
In the last months, Moscow has been waging a war against the West over Ukraine via diplomatic tracks. Russia intends to continue putting diplomatic pressure on the West, leveraging the military build-up on Ukraine’s border.
The Kremlin keeps pressuring the United States and NATO to give written guarantees that the alliance will not expand eastward.
As expected, the Department of State said Russia’s demands were non-starters. On the contrary, the Pentagon and NATO are putting 8,500 troops on alert in eastern Europe.
“Putin wants to capitalize on the Ukrainian conflict to split up the West,” says Russian liberal political analyst Konstantin Eggert.
“Russia intends to sow discord between the United States and their European allies, as well as between the west of Europe and eastern Europe and the Baltics.”
Putin’s endgame is to carve out Russian spheres of influence in Europe, turning the clock back to the times of the Cold War.
According to Eggert, one of Putin’s priorities is to impose a new Minsk settlement (Minsk-3) on Kyiv. The settlement would be drafted to suit Russia’s interest in the Donbas. It would include making amends to the Ukrainian constitution, turning Ukraine into a federal state, and organizing elections in the Russian-occupied parts of the Donbas. Ultimately, Russia would gain control over Ukraine’s state border and force Kyiv to engage in direct talks with Russian proxy forces in the Donbas.
“No progress has been made in the Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine, Russia and OSCE),” says a source in Ukraine’s Presidential Office.
“Russia would certainly want to impose talks with terrorists on Ukraine, but we will not agree to that under any circumstances.”
Scenario 5 - End to Russian aggression
The ideal outcome for Ukraine would be an end to Russian aggression, achieved thanks to the support from the West. This seems quite likely, judging by recent statements made by U.S. and EU officials. They all made it very clear that consequences for Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine would be severe.
Western officials have voiced four key deterrents - blocking the Russian Nord Stream-2 pipeline, banning foreign investment into the Russian economy, sanctions for the Russian Ministry of Finance to limit its activity on capital markets, and, finally, cutting off Russia from the SWIFT international payment system. The latter has already been imposed on Iran, which now lost the possibility to receive payments for oil supplies. Personal sanctions for Putin and his inner circle have also been put on the table.
“Disconnecting Russia from SWIFT and imposing sanctions on Russian banks, paired with taking the dollar out of the Russian economy will be enough to cripple Russia economically,” says Ukrainian Servant of the People MP and Head of Ukraine’s Delegation at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Yehor Chernev.
Moscow can already feel the ripples from its aggressive policy. While Ukraine’s economy is bolstered by financial support from the United States, Canada and the EU, the Russian ruble is dropping in value. The Moscow Stock Exchange index is also plummeting, having lost 30% since November 2021. The flow of foreign investment into Russia is now at the level it was during the Chechnya war in the 1990s. Russian billionaires have also suffered total losses of nearly 30 billion dollars because of the tensions on Ukraine’s borders.
Russians are growing increasingly tired of being at daggers with the outside world, reports the Moscow-based analytical center Levada. Putin’s approval rankings have also taken a beating. An unprecedented 35% of Russians are not happy with Putin’s aggressive foreign policy – the highest figure in the last eight years.