Russia’s choices and the prospect of war in Ukraine

11 February, 12:33 PM

Where is the current crisis over Ukraine leading, what choices does Russia now face, and how likely is war? Nigel Gould-Davies explains why, despite intense diplomatic efforts, military conflict is looking more likely.

 For the past four months, Russia has been practicing compellence: the threat of force to demand change. The threat is a massive and ongoing military build-up near Ukraine’s border. The ostensible demand is that the West de facto dismantle long-standing continental security arrangements.

The implicit, real and urgent demand is that the West accept Russia’s right to decide Ukraine’s future – and, in doing so, reveal its willingness to yield to Russian pressure. Where is this crisis leading, what choices does Russia now face, and how likely is war?

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Unless it is pure bluff, compellence is not an alternative to aggression, but a potential prelude. Russia’s build-up does not look like bluff: it is part of a complex and comprehensive strategy that includes snap military exercises in Belarus; a series of naval exercises around the world; a cyberattack on Ukraine; and depletion of gas storage in Europe.

Intelligence suggests that Russia is planning a coup in Kyiv. None of this took place during Russia’s previous build-up in March–April 2021.

President Vladimir Putin has not practiced compellence before. His earlier uses of force – in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015 – were intended to change facts on the ground quickly and unexpectedly, not adversaries’ policies through slow and deliberate pressure. Why is he doing so now?

Compellence is a last resort after more familiar forms of influence have failed to stop Ukraine moving further towards the West, a trend Russia’s invasion in 2014 accelerated. In a striking reversal of Cold War diplomacy, Russia now insists on negotiating European security questions with the United States rather than trying to decouple the US from the continent. Russia has chosen to compel the most powerful country in the world.

America has delivered a commanding response. It has been unyielding on essential principles and long-standing policies; constructive in exploring a potential agreement; and creative in managing the transatlantic alliance by consulting closely with Europe and working to secure energy for the continent in case Russia interrupts gas supplies.

This disciplined professionalism not only strikes a contrast with the Trump presidency, but stands in comparison with the strongest US diplomacy of the past three decades.

Despite inevitable differences – notably with Germany, whose coalition government is itself divided – the West has so far shown remarkable unity.

As a consequence, the Biden administration – which took office looking for reasons to ignore Russia and to focus on China – has reinforced its commitment to the continent, and to Ukraine specifically.

Several countries are providing Ukraine with practical, not just symbolic, support. Sweden and Finland – particularly the latter – have begun to think more seriously about NATO membership. New and more severe economic sanctions are being readied for use.

Russia’s options

All this is the opposite of what Russia intended. Compellence has so far failed to fracture the West or force it to compromise, but on the contrary has strengthened its resolve. Russia must now respond to the politically more adverse international environment its threat has generated. It has four options.

Firstly, maintain the status quo. Last November, Putin told his foreign ministry that Russia should maintain tensions with the West ‘for as long as possible’. But compellence is a wasting asset. If adversaries do not comply, if the threat of violence is not then carried out, and if adverse trends accelerate in response, then credibility erodes and the reputational costs of empty threats grow.

Secondly, withdraw forces. Russia partially did so after its previous build-up in April 2021. But winding down a more complex strategy this time would be a major climb down. Russia might ease this by recognizing the independence of the separatist Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics. But this would end its ambitions to use a settlement over the Donbas region as leverage over Kyiv.

Thirdly, reach a more limited agreement on security issues. Russia has already signaled that this would not meet its core demands.

And since the US is only likely to sign an agreement that enhances European security, Russia – which seeks to sow insecurity – would see its ambitions set back. An agreement might include, inter alia, a new version of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that Russia violated (prompting US withdrawal in 2019), and confidence-building measures covered by the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe that Russia suspended in 2007.

Having failed to compel change on big issues, Russia would be forced to change its own position on smaller ones – and agree to the de-escalation on Ukraine’s border that the US would insist on.

Russia’s final option is to implement its compellent threat and to attack Ukraine. Scenarios range from a limited incursion that degrades Ukraine’s armed forces to a full-scale invasion.

Putin has not occupied significant hostile territory before, but the scale of the forces he has assembled, and mobilization of Rosgvardia units and military police – whose function is to control a population, not fight an army – increasingly point towards this.

Putin’s strategic calculus

At present, aggression is the only option that is not certain to leave Russia in a worse diplomatic position than before its build-up. Putin’s only hope of stopping Ukraine’s westward drift is through force on a scale he has not used before (apart from the subjugation of Chechnya, de jure part of Russia, in 1999–2001).

The key question is how he weighs the risks of doing so – significant casualties, severe sanctions and a deep diplomatic rupture with the West – against the probability of success and its value to him. There are three reasons why this calculus might lead Putin to war.

Firstly, Putin has repeatedly miscalculated in Ukraine.

In 2013, his pressure on President Viktor Yanukovych not to sign a free-trade agreement with the European Union led to the Maidan protests and Yanukovych’s overthrow.

In 2014–15, Putin’s ambition to carve an expansive ‘Novorossiya’ from Ukraine failed in the face of local resistance and Western threats of sanctions. He has alienated President Volodymyr Zelensky, who in 2019 took office seeking a more constructive relationship. In short, he keeps making mistakes. As Talleyrand said of the Bourbons, Putin has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

Secondly, pandemic isolation is deepening Putin’s misperceptions. Few now get face time with him, and most of those who do are from the security elite, such as Sergei Naryshkin, head of foreign intelligence, who recently opened an exhibition in Moscow comparing Ukraine today with ‘the terrible years of Hitlerite occupation’. The range of influences on Putin is narrowing and hardening. Thirdly, Putin’s obsession with Ukraine appears to be growing as he ages – he will be 70 this year – and thinks more urgently about his legacy.

Can conflict be averted?

Two developments could avert conflict. The first is that compellence begins to work: by inducing the US to widen its offer significantly while Russia narrows its demands sufficiently, creating the win-set for an agreement; by persuading major European states to break ranks and to accept a compromise closer to Russia’s terms; or by coercing Ukraine itself into changing course to avert devastation.

The second is that Putin accepts that the costs of war in blood (casualties) and treasure (sanctions) would threaten the viability of his regime – an even higher priority for him than Ukraine. This would lead him to choose a course that promises less in foreign policy, but risks less domestically, than war.

None of these appears likely. Diplomacy continues with Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Moscow this week, followed by Olaf Scholz’s next week. Unless they, or parallel US efforts, shift the parameters, military conflict increasingly looks the most likely outcome of this crisis.

This analysis was first published by the Institute for Strategic Studies. NV is republishing it with a permission from the author.

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