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‘The Kremlin’s calculations have changed’ Russia is building up troops near the border with Ukraine. We asked experts if full-scale war is inevitable.

Source: Meduza
Serhiy Takhmazov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about worsening relations between Russia and Ukraine. Late last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky confirmed a growing escalation of the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region, and Russia has continued to build up troops near its borders with Ukraine. Is a full-scale war between the two countries possible? Will the United States intervene? And what will happen if Washington does decide to get involved? Meduza asked these questions to military experts and political scientists — and the answers we received were far from reassuring.

This analysis has been abridged for length and clarity. You can read the full text in Russian here

Mikhail Kodarenko 

Military observer, retired colonel

From a military point of view, the situation in eastern Ukraine is characterized as another surge in tensions. If Ukraine’s armed forces launch another operation against the self-proclaimed DNR and LNR, Russia may enter the conflict and support these people’s republics. It’s very difficult to say what will happen next. Because the U.S. has already announced its military support for Ukraine. Hypothetically, a large-scale European War could emerge from this conflict.

There’s still a chance that this problem can be resolved through negotiation. But there’s little hope for this, unfortunately. Though the Minsk process has openly stalled, it’s rather difficult to say who’s to blame. Our [Russia’s] politicians place the blame entirely on Ukraine. The extent to which all parties are interested in a peaceful agreement remains uncertain. Today, the parties aren’t demonstrating exceptional peacefulness. 

Russia can’t abandon Donbas, because if it doesn’t intervene in this situation, Crimea could become the next question. And the loss of Donbas could bring about heavy political losses for Russia.

On the other hand, there’s the risk of getting involved in s war with nearly the entire West collectively. Considering that we have no allies or even sympathizers, it’s no exaggeration to say that the voting wouldn’t go Russia’s way at the UN. And the situation could rapidly become complicated for Russia. There will be a kind of geopolitical zugzwang, as they say in chess. Whatever move you make, the consequences are unpredictable, to put it mildly.

I think that the last thing Russia needs right now is a small, victorious war that could lead to an armed confrontation with the entire West — along with the subsequent political and economic sanctions, and the transfer of our country into the ranks of the ultimate outcasts. On the other hand, it seems as though the positions can’t be surrendered either. But how do you find a way out? It’s a lose-lose. To put it as mildly as possible, this is a very difficult military-political situation.

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Andreas Umland

Political scientist, senior expert at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future in Kyiv

Experts disagree as to whether or not the current relationship between Russia and Ukraine is preparation for war or just a rhetorical and symbolic escalation. Some are convinced that this is all theater from the Russia side — and that the situation is heating up, in order to bargain for the implementation of Moscow’s interpretation of the Minsk agreements at a later date.

Others believe that this is preparation for a regular [full-scale] war. The peculiarity [of the current situation] is that if open hostilities were to begin between Russia and Ukraine right now, this would be a traditional state war. Earlier, Moscow delegated the conduct of its war to the [Donetsk and Luhansk] people’s republics. Now, Russian troops would be introduced officially: it’s not in Russia’s interests for the LNR and DNR to lose, but Ukraine now has a strong army. This is already a new stage of the conflict.

Obviously, the Kremlin’s calculations have changed. They’ve decided that the ceasefire, which was in place until recently, was unprofitable and the situation needed to be aggravated. [Whether this aggravation is] in psychological or real terms, is the only thing that’s still unclear.

Yet another theory is that this is just preparation for the [September 2021] parliamentary elections. To distract the domestic consumer from Navalny, socio-economy problems, and the coronavirus. In Moscow, the agenda is being changed and the confrontation with Ukraine and the West is being made into the topic of the parliamentary elections.

On the West’s part, there’s a rhetorical escalation surrounding the Navalny issue. The West believes it has the right to demand that Russia follow international rules and the ECHR’s decision [demanding Navalny’s release]. 

On Russia’s part, there’s dissatisfaction with Zelensky shutting down [Viktor] Medvedchuk’s three television channels. The main levers of Russia’s influence over the domestic situation in Ukraine disappeared, and they existed more or less without restrictions during the presidency of [Petro] Poroshenko. Now, there’s no instrument of pressure, and this means that another tactic must be applied. In this sense, Ukraine contributed to the escalation by shutting down the channels. .

Recently, there was an escalation of [Russia’s conflict with the West], when [U.S. President Joe] Biden replied in the affirmative when asked if he considers Putin a killer. The new U.S. president has a different attitude toward Russia and Putin than [his predecessor Donald] Trump. Trump had clear sympathy for Putin — he wasn’t very interested in democracy or Ukraine, he wanted to negotiate with Putin. And the tough policy towards Russia that was pursued during his presidency came not from him but from Congress and American ministries, in particular, the State Department and the Pentagon. Now, the president himself and the White House are “hawks.” Everyone around Biden is also quite tough on Putin.

There’s no benefit for Zelensky in the war. In Ukraine, Zelensky is more of a “dove” than a “hawk.” The war would be to the benefit of [his political rivals]: Poroshenko, Yulia Tymoshenko, and the [far-right] “Svoboda” party. They would benefit from it because they’ve always taken a tougher stance. And [Zelensky’s party] “Servant of the People” will lose.

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[When the war began] in 2014, Ukraine was very weakened. But even then, it was able to reclaim part of its territory [from the Russian-backed separatists]. Now, people in Ukraine have experience, technology, and plans. Ukraine’s preparedness for war raises the stakes for the Kremlin. It won’t be as easy as it was in 2014. There will be losses, there will be domestic political consequences not in favor of the Kremlin. The calculation that it’s possible to conduct a small victorious war may not work out — as was the case with Crimea and Donbas in 2014.

Neither the Duma, nor the cabinet, nor the Federation Council, nor [Russian] society have been included in the decision to start a war or not. Literally five people have been included [in this decision]. What they will decide is difficult to say. Perhaps they will think that a war will be politically advantageous domestically, since it will change the agenda and all other issues will fade into the background. Therefore, it’s fifty-fifty that there will be a war between Russia and Ukraine. 

Andrey Kortunov 

Political scientist, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council

Any escalation is unique in its own way. Right now there’s a combination of unfavorable trends on both sides, which are leading to an escalation of the conflict. This combination creates additional risks and threats that weren’t there before.

On the Ukrainian side, the problem is that the president is losing his political position and becoming a hostage of right-wing and nationalist forces. Many of the reform initiatives that he came to power with have stalled. Political sentiments are changing within his faction. They’re saying that with his recent steps, in particular the language law and the closure of television stations that Kyiv dislikes, he’s starting to stray towards the agenda of his predecessor, Poroshenko. And this means a weakening of his position. Probably, he’s already thinking about re-election and how he will look during the campaign. Here, the trend is unfavorable.

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On the other hand, there’s the arrival of Biden, who will always be more attentive to Ukraine than Trump. There’s an expectation that the U.S. will be more consistent and decisive in its support for the Ukrainian side in the event of a conflict. This invigorates the forces that are looking for an escalation.

The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh also played a role. They said there was only a political path to resolving the conflict, but in Karabakh [the Azerbaijanis] used force and made real progress. This motivates the people who think that military force can resolve a conflict. Moreover, Ukraine is carrying out defense cooperation with Turkey, so there may be hopes that the balance of forces will shift in Kyiv’s favor.

There’s also a radicalization of the political leadership of the DNR and LNR. They say that [full-scale] war is, if not inevitable, than very likely — and Russia must intervene. The idea that the DNR and LNR should join Russia is gaining popularity once again. This is facilitated by Russia’s actions. In the last two years, the mechanisms for granting Russian citizenship to residents of the LNR and DNR have changed. Hundreds of thousands of LNR and DNR residents are already citizens of the Russian Federation, and Russia has — or at the very least should have — some obligations towards its citizens. This gives hope to [the residents] of the LNR and DNR that if an escalation begins, Russia won’t remain on the sidelines and we will see large-scale intervention. Without Russia, the conflict will not develop in the favor of the republics.

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As for Russia, our relations with the West continue to deteriorate. There’s Biden’s statement about Putin being a killer, and relations with the European Union. We are witnessing an accumulation of destabilizing trends.

I don’t think anyone wants a real, big war, since the costs of such a conflict will exceed the political dividends. It’s difficult to predict what such a conflict might lead to, given that the stakes are very high. But an unintended escalation could occur.

Hopefully, all of those involved have enough wisdom, determination, and tolerance to find a positive solution. So far, we are far from a serious conflict, but we’re closer than at the beginning of April 2020 or 2019. Unfortunately, we’re headed downhill, and it’s difficult to say how long it will go on.

To prevent a [full-scale] war from starting, the situation in Donbas needs to be stabilized. That’s the first task. In recent weeks, the number of ceasefire violations has been increasing, and the number of victims is growing. We need to return to the issues of the withdrawal of heavy weapons, the OSCE mission, and monitoring the ceasefire. 

The second task is to discuss issues of political regulation. The main uncertainty is how flexible all the parties can be. The Minsk agreements were signed a long time ago, [but] it’s difficult to implement them in full, there needs to be a demonstrated willingness not to revise them, but to somehow bring them up to date. How ready are the parties for this? So far, we aren’t seeing much of this, but without it we will not advance any further.

The third issue is that it’s impossible to resolve the Donbas problem separately from the problem of European security as a whole. If we limit ourselves to how we fought in Donbas, Kyiv will always be afraid that Russia will build up its strength and an intervention will begin. And in Russia there will always be the fear that NATO infrastructure will be developed near Voronezh and Belgorod. We have to deal not only with this issue, but also think about how to create the entire architecture of European security. And it isn’t a question of experts lacking imagination and qualifications, but of statesmen lacking the political will to seriously deal with these issues. Because if you reduce everything to the requirements of the formal implementation of the Minsk agreements, this is what we’ve been fighting about for seven years already.

I think that Ukraine will now try to increase the political pressure on Moscow and get away from the issue of the Minsk agreements. And going forward a lot depends on what the position of the West and U.S. will be. To what extent and in what format will they provide support in the event of an escalation? This is still an open question. And, I think, even Biden doesn’t know the answer to it. 

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We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Interviews by Alexandra Sivtsova

Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart

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