Just what is Russia’s game in Ukraine?

Last week I speculated about the future of Boris Johnson. Today I try to penetrate the murk around a similarly bewildering, and much more momentous, issue. Is Russia about to start a war with Ukraine?

Russia has been building up forces on the Ukrainian border – numbering around 100,000, we are told. These includes a lot of modern equipment, such as tanks, missiles and anti-aircraft systems. The menace is palpable. But there are a couple of curiosities. Firstly, it is very public. Western media is full of clearly recent footage of Russian troops massing and exercising in the snow. This is in stark contrast to the Ukrainian side, which only seem to have issued some old footage in a very un-snowy environment. The media have had to content themselves with unspectacular footage they have shot themselves. And the second is that 100,000 troops does not sound such a huge number, especially given previous Russian military doctrine. They do seem very well-equipped – this is more like how America goes to war, but, as even American forces have found, not enough to accomplish a substantial occupation of hostile territory. Then the Russians insist they are not about to attack – they are merely conducting exercises. The Russian public are, apparently, not being prepared to expect a nasty war against fellow Slavs.

All that points to a propaganda exercise, and not the prelude to a full-scale invasion. The problem with that interpretation is that Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, has been pumping up the rhetoric for many months now, and his sidekicks are making blood-curdling threats. Mr Putin has talked about “red lines”, and made demands that seem to be designed not to be met, even through a process of artful compromise. They want NATO to back off, away from both the territory of the former Soviet empire and many of its former satellites eastern Europe, from Bulgaria up to Poland. There is no doubt that Mr Putin feels the loss of prestige to Russia from the Soviet collapse. The loss of Ukraine and Belarus is felt particularly acutely – and not without some reason. These countries, or large swathes of them, have been considered to be core Russian territory for two or three centuries (though, importantly, the western part of Ukraine has a very different history). Nothing would enhance Mr Putin’s prestige more than reversing this ignominy. Russia has a huge nuclear arsenal; it has invested heavily in its armed forces, who enjoy a high priority; meanwhile the West seems to have neglected its defences, especially European countries. Surely this disparity can be exploited?

Russian claims that they are not planning a war are worth nothing. Western intelligence clearly think they are planning exactly that. Because Russia’s intelligence services enjoy even more prestige than its armed forces, and are very capable, this must be because that is exactly what the Russians want them to think. The Russians are engaging in a diplomatic process, but making extreme demands. So just what is the “or else” they are threatening if it is not war against Ukraine? In any case, the Russians are quite capable of fabricating a provocation. Russian elites have a post-modern attitude to truth, and for some years they have operated a policy of implausible deniability.

What the Russian seem to want in Ukraine is a puppet government, formally aligned to Russia, and its economy dominated by the Russian oligarchy, funnelling the proceeds back into the Russian economy. The problem is that since their seizure of Crimea and much of the Donbas region in 2014, achieving this through some form coup or rigged election is implausible; they achieved this in 2004 and 2010, only in each case for this to undone by a popular uprising. The Soviet model of dictatorship requires powerful and loyal security forces; they never achieved this in Ukraine, and they are further away from achieving it now than ever. They may think they can achieve something by causing the West to abandon the Ukrainian regime, causing a loss of prestige that results in a corrupt oligarch taking power (not so hard to find in Ukraine). Or maybe they think they can achieve it directly through military intervention, as the US-led coalition did in Iraq in 2003. That ended badly, of course, but Iraq is a very different place.

The further problem for Mr Putin is that Ukraine matters both too much and too to the West. Too much as a token of Western prestige against the constant assault it receives from Russian disinformation and interference for it simply to be abandoned. But not enough that if it did fall to Russia, the West would think its vital security interests would be threatened. This makes bluffing them almost impossible – in the end they would simply call that bluff because not enough is at stake. What an invasion of Ukraine would do is to force NATO to upscale its deployments in Eastern Europe – now kept quite low in deference to previous agreements with Russia made when these countries joined the alliance. This is exactly what Russia wants to prevent, as they would feel the need to upscale their own armed forces in response.

What Russian leaders should appreciate, but don’t seem to, is that open warfare is a red line for European people and their leaders. This is borne of terrible experiences in the Twentieth Century – which Russia endured too, but seems to have taken a different message from. Use of warfare as an instrument of policy is regarded as a crime against humanity. This is one reason they neglect their armed forces given the opportunity, and why conservative commentators (especially in America whose experience of war has been much milder) think their leaders lack backbone. Russia could just about get away with its implausible deniability in 2014, but a major offensive against Ukraine would be a deeply shocking event, that would galvanise them into a very different outlook.

So Mr Putin might be contemplating something short of all-out war. This could be a bombing and missile campaign, like NATO used against Serbia over Kosovo. Or it could be something we haven’t thought of yet. But it all looks very risky. NATO succeeded in causing Serbia to retreat from Kosovo, but it hardly won over Serbian hearts and minds. There would be enormous pressure on Western governments to come to Ukraine’s aid. A full-scale war is even riskier. Ukraine is much better prepared than in 2014, and warfare in the age of cheap drone weapons is decidedly trickier than it was, as Russia has found to its (or its protégés) cost in Turkey, Armenia and Libya.

Russia does have another powerful card to play: Europe depends on its natural gas supplies. By withholding supplies form the spot market (or diverting them to China), Russia has already forced up gas prices to the level of acute pain, even amongst countries like Britain that don’t import anything from Russia. Most of this gas comes through Ukraine, and a war would create a crisis in supplies. And yet this is a hard card to play for the sorts of political gains it seeks. And the Russian regime believes in conservative finances: it would not want to lose the income for a prolonged period. Doubtless it could supply more gas to China – but the Chinese know a weak bargaining position when they see it.

What of the West’s response? Contrary to expectations, this looks to me have been measured and astute – playing an asymmetric situation as best it can. They have offered diplomatic channels. They have also been doing what they can to raise the costs to Russia of an invasion. This mainly comprises preparing economic sanctions. Sanctions don’t have a strong track record, especially since corrupt ruling elites usually find ways of profiting from them. The most interesting is the threat the throw Russia out of the SWIFT financial messaging system – as Iran has been. This could make life very hard for Russia in the short-term. In the longer term it would hasten the development of alternative systems available to countries outside the Western sphere – and doubtless they can rely on the substantial support of China for this. It is hard to know how heavily these threats weigh in Mr Putin’s mind. The West is also offering military support to Ukraine in the form of weapons, ammunition and advice – and doubtless intelligence too. The longer this goes on, the harder it will make any military campaign. But ultimately the West will not commit its armed forces to Ukraine’s defence.

I suspect that Mr Putin wants a lighting military campaign with a rapid victory, like America achieved twice in Iraq, from which Russia’s military prestige would be enormously enhanced (as America’s was, at first), and to impose humiliating terms on Ukraine. If so Kiev is the likely objective. But the risks are enormous, especially in the longer term.

Mr Putin’s best bet is to back off, accept the meagre pickings that NATO is offering, and use all his enormous disinformation capability to declare victory – how Russia could make the West stand to attention by merely flexing its muscles. But the reality would be a clear defeat that marks the limit of Russia’s power.