Russia Crisis: What's actually happening
By building up a very realistic looking invasion force on Ukraine’s borders, the Kremlin is looking to scare the West into forcing Kyiv to make concessions on the Minsk peace process – and ultimately on Ukraine's existence as a state.
The Kremlin's "security guarantee" wish-list, issued to the United States and NATO in December, is an absurdly high opening bargaining position, which the Kremlin knows will be rejected. The West has always made it clear that the Kremlin would not be allowed to veto who joins the West’s defense alliance. Rather, Moscow hopes to bargain the West down so it can achieve lesser, but still important for it, objectives.
That's why, despite all the bellicose language it has used of late, the Kremlin is still talking to the West. The bellicose language, and the realistic military threat, is designed to get the attention of the West, specifically that of the United States.
The Kremlin’s aim is to push forward the Minsk peace process, which the Kremlin forced Ukraine to sign in 2014 after sending in its regular troops to halt Ukraine’s advance in the Donbas.
But the so-called peace process has also ground to a halt, with neither side observing its provisions.
Moscow can't force Ukraine to cave in to its demands under the Minsk process itself, and Ukraine is stubbornly refusing to budge – so the Kremlin is stoking the fear of war to spook the West into putting pressure on Ukraine, effectively doing its dirty work for it.
It's in Moscow's interests, therefore, to keep the current negotiations process going: There was a meeting of the Normandy Four recently, and there might be another in two weeks, but – crucially – this depends on Kyiv accepting the "special status" condition for the "Donbas republics."
One of the Kremlin's longstanding aims has been to fuse the "republics" back onto Ukraine, so as to attempt to regain political influence on Kyiv, and stop its drift to the West.
The Kremlin hopes these two entities will effectively veto attempts to join NATO, the EU, or any attempt to move from Moscow's orbit. The process of fusing the republics back onto Ukraine will also demand changes to Ukraine’s constitution – such as the removal of the provision that it is an aim of Ukraine to join NATO.
The huge buildup of troops on Ukraine’s border is a way to force the West to the negotiating table (which Putin has already achieved, effectively demanding and getting audiences with U.S. President Joe Biden), and to threaten and undermine Ukraine.
But the Kremlin, and Putin, always operate by creating multiple opportunities for maneuver, and then adapting to the situation as it evolves. The military force built up on Ukraine's border, while serving primarily as a way to start dialogue, could also be used as advertised.
Despite the West's warnings of "imminent invasion," the force is not ready yet (logistics, and importantly, troops, appear not to be in place yet), and perhaps for political reasons (Putin not wanting to spoil China's Winter Olympic Games) it may not be used until after Feb. 20, when the Winter Olympics end. As Ukrainian and foreign military experts have pointed out, the force observed, at about 130,000, isn't nearly large enough to occupy all of Ukraine.
But if the Kremlin fails to gain satisfactory concessions from the talks with the West, it has still left itself the option of using this military force – it looks realistic because it is: It could be used.
What might it be used for? A lighting attack on Kyiv to topple the government would be dramatic and shocking, but is unlikely – Ukraine's government would simply move elsewhere. Kyiv would have to be occupied by Russia, and that would entail occupying part of northern-central Ukraine to be tenable.
More likely, in my opinion, is that a false flag incident in the "republics" will be used as justification for Moscow to move in to expand the “republics” to make them more viable (and Ukraine itself less viable).
Here, it should be noted that Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu on Dec. 21 said "U.S. mercenaries" were "moving chemicals" to the Donbas in preparation for such a "false flag" attack – thus creating a narrative for Moscow to carry out such an attack itself.
This attack would likely be close to the front line at Horlivka, in non-government-controlled Donetsk Oblast, where the Stirol chemicals plant, having lain idle for years, has been restarted, and to where, according to some reports, "leaky barrels" of ammonia have been shipped.
Another option could be to try to secure the canal that formerly supplied Crimea with much of its water. The canal starts at Nova Khakovka, on the banks of the Dnipro. Doing so would entail occupying the southern portion of Kherson region, and perhaps Zaporizhzhia region.
Militarily, that would be difficult but doable, especially if a simultaneous operation expanded the "republics" to the whole of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Other parts of the force could also threaten Kharkiv and Kyiv at the same time to stretch Ukraine's defenses.
Such a move could turn the Azov Sea into a Russian lake, depriving Ukraine of the export port of Mariupol once and for all, and hurting its economy even further. Ukraine would be destabilized (the Kremlin will all the time also be looking to use its propaganda to undermine Ukrainians' faith in their government).
Ukraine will be reduced in size and strength, its politics more divided, and its economy weakened. That is the ultimate goal, which the Kremlin is seeking to achieve either through forcing the West to pressure Kyiv to cave in to its demands in the Minsk peace process, or by military means.
The West should thus not put pressure on Kyiv to cave, but rather ramp up its political and military support to Ukraine, providing large amounts of defensive weapons, and at the same time threatening painful, realistic sanctions. That could block both of the Kremlin's routes to achieving its aims.
However, with the size of the current Russian military buildup on Ukraine's borders, and its ability to scale up this force rapidly, it might already be too late to stop the Kremlin launching some form of military action against Ukraine in the coming weeks.
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